TheatreSquared gains momentum entering seventh season

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 157 views 

FAYETTEVILLE — TheatreSquared has come a long way in six short years.

The initial idea was to establish a professional theater company in Northwest Arkansas — one that would produce challenging works, employ professional artists from the region and beyond, and include an educational component. That was the plan set out among its co-founders — Bob Ford, Amy Herzberg, Morgan Hicks, Daniel Hintz, Kassie Misiewicz and David Pickens. That group of friends launched this project in 2006 with energy, optimism and significant collective artistic experience.

“They had a very sound vision from the first day of what they wanted this theater company to be,” said Martin Miller, managing director of TheatreSquared, also known as T2. “That vision is what has been adhered to and what has begun to come to pass.”

But, when Miller arrived in the summer of 2009, the theater was struggling. A Fayetteville native, he’d gotten his graduate degree in arts leadership at DePaul University while working at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. He returned to work in his hometown, to help steer this fledgling company after the devastating economic downturn of 2008.

The last show of the 2008-09 season had seen 350 audience members over its three-week run, an abysmal number. Blame lay in a combination of factors, including limited resources for promoting productions. They weren’t letting enough people know about shows to fill up the seats, and low ticket sales created a financial problem. In addition, fundraising wasn’t being done in a strategic and effective way.

Still, the artistic leaders were convinced an audience existed for what they were doing, if they could just find them.

From the first production in 2006, Bad Dates, TheatreSquared has paid every actor and crew member a competitive wage, “which we’re really proud of,” Miller said. When he arrived, the quality of both the works being presented and the productions were high. In working with the rest of the staff, Miller realized their biggest challenge was public perception.

He started by completely revamping the website — a big way people find information and determine perceptions these days. And, he started designing all the season brochures and related publicity materials, using compelling production photographs.

They expanded their mailing list, spending several long days and late nights with a phone book and lists of area arts patrons, manually building a new database. Before, they’d only had a record of who had attended their shows. This new list contained the names of people who might be interested in attending theatrical productions. With this effort, they started sending out 6,000 more postcards for every show. “So, all of a sudden, we’re telling a lot more people about what we’re doing,” Miller said.

They changed from general admission to assigned seating, working with TicketSage, a local company. Miller said that many people enjoy the theater because they can arrive at the last minute to a reserved seat.

They put a lot of publicity behind the first production of the 2009-10 season, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), an appealing comedy. They attracted more than 1,600 audience members, and tried to maintain that momentum the rest of that season.

At that time, productions ran two to three weeks, basically Thursdays through Sundays, and there had been discussion about reducing those runs. Instead, they decided to keep them at three weeks, and, sometimes, they extended them. Complete Works was the first show that ran a fourth week because shows started selling out. “Word of mouth builds over a period of time, and the longer a show runs the more likely people who love it will tell their friends about it,” Miller said.

They developed their sponsorship information, more clearly defining and describing the levels of giving, as well as the related benefits. They also better defined two annual fundraising events. A garden party that raised money for the company also began to serve as the kickoff event for the new season. A gala was focused on raising money for the education program, which let people know they were serious about that component.

The benefits of being a season subscriber have also expanded in recent years. Those perks include discounts from local restaurants, such as BHK Kafe, Bordinos, Fresco Cafe & Pub, Greenhouse Grille, and The Wine Cellar, as well as Green Cab Co. New this season, reserved parking is available at The Deck at The Dickson, for $15 per season pass.

They’ve varied prices for individual tickets and season packages, making them cheapest for the preview dress rehearsal and most expensive on opening night. A special Sunday Dinner Series, available three Sundays this season, features three-course dinners prepared by chef David Lewis of BHK Kafe for each of the four shows.

They also initiated the “30 Under 30” program — $10 tickets aimed at attracting a younger crowd. It’s worked, with one-third of the audiences now younger than 30.

TheatreSquared really has come a long way since 2006 and is now one of the entities that defines the culture of this area, as the region’s professional theater company. Just last year, the American Theatre Wing (ATW), founder of the Tony Awards, honored TheatreSquared with its 2011 National Theatre Company Grant, as one of the nation’s 10 most promising emerging professional theaters.

They are also reaching many more people. Attendance numbers have gone from 3,000 in the 2008-09 season to 18,000 last season — a 500 percent increase in three years. And the economic impact to the area is pretty impressive: an estimated $1.27 million. Americans for the Arts, a national arts advocacy group, offers tools to determine that impact, based on factors such as the theater’s annual budget, expenses and audience size, the audience’s estimated spending, and the region’s population.

They also received a big financial boost in 2011 — a three-year, $275,000 grant from The Walton Family Foundation that is helping the theater expand its artistic and institutional capacity. In part, this funded the hiring of T2’s full-time development officer, Elizabeth France. It also fuels an awareness and marketing campaign and a new fellowship program for distinguished visiting artists.

Their arts in education programs has also become significant in the state, last year reaching 7,500 students and their teachers. They hire professionals in the region to be teaching artists in the education program and to lead adult acting classes. They also offer a week-long summer immersion institute for teachers, showing them how to bring theater-based teaching techniques into the classroom.

They’ve also made changes along the way to make productions better. An on-staff production manager oversees set construction and coordinates the design process. A scene shop is located in a nearby building. They’ve improved the audio equipment, such as placing 12 independently controlled speakers around the theater space in Nadine Baum Studios. They’re also working with the Walton Arts Center to update the lighting.

A revised seating configuration holds 175 people instead of 150. The stage is a “partial thrust,” meaning it extends a bit into the audience, which folds around on the sides. This intimate setup is also unique to this theater for the region.
“Those are all things — although many patrons may not realize it — that are raising it to the next level of professionalism, in terms of the looks and feel and the creative world of the productions,” Miller said.

With 25 productions and four new play festivals under their belts, they’re launching into a four-show season for their seventh season. The season starts Thursday (Aug. 30) with the preview of Noises Off, directed by Morgan Hicks, director of education and program development.

Bob Ford, artistic director, spearheads the planning of the season, with input from everyone on staff, including Amy Herzberg, assistant artistic director. They seek feedback from friends and professionals they’ve worked with from Los Angeles to New York. They talk about scripts they’ve read and plays they’ve seen, ordering some scripts and reading them aloud. They look for material that is unique and meaningful.

“We’ve been able to combine people’s desire for entertainment — people want to be transported — with their desire to be challenged or have something new presented to them,” Miller said. “I think part of the success is the alchemy of lining up a season that hits all those notes.

They bring in more than 50 artists to work on productions each year. Their largest cast for a show was with Sundown Town, which had nine actors and a four-piece band on stage. That show also received a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

This season’s first production, Noises Off, also has nine cast members, plus a director, stage manager and five designers. Miller notes that a production is the equivalent of ramping up a small business for the month of rehearsals and month of performances.

Noises Off, Michael Frayn’s farce about people trying to put on a play, features the “most ambitious” set they’ve ever attempted, one that a team of three spent the summer building, Miller said. Filling up the stage, it is two levels with staircases, seven doors and a picture window that is busted and passed through several times during the show. And, the entire thing revolves. In the first half of the show, the audience will see the interior of a lovely British estate. In the second half, they’ll see the “backstage” view of this set. The story is filled with various relationships between casts members and crew, with lots of romance, drinking, revenge and antics.

Other upcoming shows by T2 include:
• Period of Adjustment, the only comedy written by Tennessee Williams, is set on Christmas Eve 1958. It explores the difficulties of two relationships: newlyweds and a couple married five years. This funny, poignant play has been rarely performed since its 1960 debut.

• Sons of the Prophet, by Stephen Karam, is a dark comedy about a 20-something man, a former track star, who encounters mysterious ailments. Featuring a cast of eight, this show was one of three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It won several awards, including an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway play; a New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Play; a Drama Desk award (the Sam Norkin Off-Broadway Award); and the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. TheatreSquared is one of the first theaters to produce it after its New York run.

• Next to Normal, with lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, features four cast members and four musicians. It won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama and three Tony Awards. Though it’s a musical, it deals with mental health issues, the suburban family, loss and tragedy, with an uplifting touch. “It’s just a big, splashy Broadway show that we’re doing in a tiny theater here in northwest Arkansas with really good performers,” Miller said.

For more information about this season, visit the TheatreSquared website.