I was lucky enough to ask North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) Artistic director, Calder Johnson, some questions about some of the unique and exciting programs at NCRT, and how community theatre makes and creates 'family.'
The NCRT website shares information about fellow area theatres, and also offers Interact Comps for individuals involved in a production with one of Humboldt County's other theatres. This sounds like an excellent program for participants. If a community theatre is considering offering such a comp program, what are the keys to its success, and what are the benefits?
The Interact ticket-trading program has actually been around for years. And while it's gone through a fair number of changes over the years, I think it's still an excellent example of acknowledging that we have three successful community theatres operating in a single rural county - and we rely on a lot of the same talent, whether onstage or back stage. It give volunteers extra perks, and helps them feel like they are part of a larger community. And as far as sharing information about other theatres, I feel like a rising tide floats all boats. We basically lose nothing by 'boosting the signal' of other theaters, and the more people overall in our community who become regular theatre-goers, the more we all benefit.
NCRT has partnered with Arcata Parks & Recreation in producing theatre in an outdoor stage space, as part of Plays in the Park. Was this program established by the CIty or by your theatre? How does participating in an annual event (outside your normal season) benefit your theatre, or fulfill your mission statement?
Plays in Redwood Park were actually something that had been happening for nearly thirty years, off and on. It had been dormant for about six years or so before I approached the City to restart it. I wasn't the Managing Artistic Director of NCRT at the time, but when I stepped into that role, Plays in the Park became umbrella-ed under NCRT. The annual free matinees in particular draw in large crowds of people who aren't typical theatre-goers, and I think that is both a very worth-while service to the community and a great way to raise our own profile.
Your 6-show seasons are an incredible mix of contemporary and classic, plays and musicals, recognizable and more obscure works. How are seasons selected, and does your audience appreciate the variety of productions you offer?
Selecting the season is one of my tasks as the Artistic Director, and I attempt, to the best of my abilities, to curate seasons whose strength lies in the diversity. That's always been part of NCRT, and in the past, it's possible that for many that resulted in a kind of thought: "Well, what exactly does NCRT do? We're not sure." I've tried, myself personally, to explicitly lean into this diversity and claim it as our identity - particularly since I also firmly believe in it in principle. Certainly, we'll always have some audience members who will lobby for more shows of a certain type, whether it's classics, musicals, or newer works, but we also have a good core of loyal members who deeply appreciate the diversity. And I always tell people that even if there may be a show or two that's not 'up their alley', they will still likely be pleasantly surprised if they take a chance. And if not, there will certainly be another show more to their liking. Embracing diversity is a very important part of our mission, particularly in light of the shifting demographics of California. Being in a rural county in Northern California, those demographics can often seem 'invisible' in a very marginalizing kind of way, but those communities are still present, and they should be represented in a 'community' theatre.
"Embracing diversity is a very important part of our mission, particularly in light of the shifting demographics of California. Being in a rural county in Northern California, those demographics can often seem 'invisible' in a very marginalizing kind of way, but those communities are still present, and they should be represented in a 'community' theatre."
NCRT accepts in-kind donations in lieu of cash donations, and also for an annual rummage sale. What are some of the unique (or ongoing) items donated to your theatre that have helped offset operational or overhead costs?
Yeah, our annual rummage sale is a lot of fun! Chaotic, but a lot of fun. We ask for donations year-round, and we have volunteers scour yardsales and estate sales. It can be a great way for people to contributed to the theatre even when they may be cash-strapped. We've had plenty of curious items come in: Old movie lobby displays, what was basically not a wicker chair but a wicker throne - something you'd expect to see on HBO - and less crazy, but still my personal favorite, two large and stately ceramic statues of a rooster and hen. I was sad to see those go.
What do you consider one of NCRT's greatest successes - either a specific production or season, or a turning point or milestone reached, for example?
Looking back, it's hard for me to pick out an exact moment or event where I would 'Yes. This stands out above all others.' For me, it's been a series of moments over the last year and half I've been with this organization, all of them building on the 35 years of history NCRT already has. I'm proud and happy that we've seen our audience size and enthusiasm grow, that we've reached out to the community more, that we've been able to (at least incrementally) increase what we're paying professional artists who live and work here, that we continue to take steps to be more diverse and inclusive. Most of all though, I think our greatest success is and always has been in just how many people think of NCRT not as an organization, but as a family.
Describe your audience - visitors, locals, etc?
Almost entirely local. We are very blessed with a community that is very involved in the arts. That having been said, one of biggest continuing challenges is raising awareness of our organization and what we do. I still hear from too many people who have lived here for years and are unfamiliar with the theatre. Those are the people we want to convert into fans! We've seen a lot of positive changes there recently, and I'm optimistic for the future. And we do get a smattering of tourists as well, a number that is small, but also growing as this area becomes more of a destination. The farthest we've had visitors from (that I'm aware of) is the UK. Almost all come here for other reasons - the big trees, usually. Once they're here, some discover that we actually also have a very vibrant arts scene. Although there was one case where a couple drove here 350 miles from Reno, Nevada just to see our production of 'Arcadia'. Turns out they are total Tom Stoppard fans and they've traveled all over the USA seeing his productions where they can. They spoke very highly of ours, and that was nice to hear.
How do you get to know your audience on a personal level?
I have a lot of interactions through e-mail, good old snail mail, and of course phone calls. We also have a very vibrant and active FaceBook community, and that can be a great way to get feedback, particularly on short notice. And I also still spend a fair share of time pulling shifts at the box office or concessions, and that can be an excellent way to get much needed face time with our audiences.
What kind of support do you have from your community for your community theatre?
First off, we have an amazing group of volunteer actors, backstage crew, and house staff that, again, are really more family than anything else. And I'm very excited to see that group continue to grow and evolve as time goes by. We also have 300+ dedicated and loyal season ticket holders that are wonderful audience members and whose support is incredibly vital to us. We also benefit from a lot of sponsorships from our business community. The one area where we still need to definitely improve ourselves is with our sustained individual giving program, which has languished over the years. We still depend too much on ticket sales, and diversifying our earned/unearned income ratio is one of my major priorities for this year.
Have you worked with or been involved with any other California community theatre?
Yes, I have been lucky enough to be able work in the theatre in this area for over a decade now - including the time I was in grad school, (doing various jobs, I'm a jack-of-all-trades by training and nature). And with all the theatre in the area, there have been a lot of opportunities - Ferndale Repertory Theatre, Redwood Curtain Theatre, etc. I've also in the past worked at universities, rented sound and lighting equipment, and supplemented with other part-time employment.
What do you think 'makes' community theatre community theatre?
I know I keep coming back to this, but I believe it's family - Family is what makes it. And I admit, I have conflicted feelings about the term 'community theatre'. Too often I hear it as a dismissive pejorative. Cardboard sets and wooden actors. But it can be so much more than that. I tell every cast that comes through these doors, 'We may all come from different backgrounds, we may all have different levels of experience and training, none of us may be getting paid 'professional' salaries - but in here, we still get to carry ourselves as professionally as we decide to.' So much is possible if we continue to push ourselves to grow and develop. And that process takes a family. Theatre is hard. I think it can be desperately hard, no matter what level you're pursuing it at. Whether you're an Equity actor or a wildlife biologist trying your luck on stage for the first time, usually you're clocking out from your day job and rushing to spend the whole evening at your 'second job', rehearsal. But we keep doing it, because there seems to be this deep human need to express ourselves, and to witness other humans expressing themselves. It takes so much effort, and a family - that support structure - is what I believe makes that effort truly pay off.
'We may all come from different backgrounds, we may all have different levels of experience and training, none of us may be getting paid 'professional' salaries - but in here, we still get to carry ourselves as professionally as we decide to.'
Are you a California native?
Born in New Orleans, actually. But we only stayed there six months before moving to California, so I don't know if that counts!
Many thanks to Calder Johnson for participating in this article.