Stockton Civic Theatre has a wonderful and exciting history. I enjoyed learning about it on your website. What are some of the keys to the current success of the theatre?
SCT has survived because of an amazing group of people- the vast majority volunteers- who have kept it alive, in good times and in bad, notably Clyde Nielsen, who in 1996 donated 2000 shares of Bank of America stock to SCT. The stocks were sold and the proceeds used to pay off the mortgage. If he hadn’t done so, who knows if SCT would have survived financially these past 20 years. In the past ten years we have worked on improving the artistically quality of our productions, and that is paying off at the box office.
How do you, as the Artistic Director, strategize for seasons that are financially successful and which also align with your mission/vision?
We have an outstanding Artistic Committee, which meets monthly and plans future seasons and the show selections. We have just started discussions for our 2017-2018 season! We always strive for a balance of plays and musicals with varied styles and appeals. Some which we are confident that will draw big audiences, maybe one risk here and there. Something traditional, something family. We choose plays and musicals that we feel the majority of our audience demographic will attend and respond to, not necessarily plays or musicals that we personally like.
I read that SCT has a staff of seven. It seems like there are many community theatres succeeding in advancing in their organizational structure in hiring staff (and many others that are extremely successful operating under an all-volunteer structure). How did you transition into an organization with a paid staff? I'm sure many organizations have this very goal!
Well, I’ve only been here three years, and I’m not sure when we transitioned, but I’m pretty sure it has been gradual over the years, based on the need and the financial ability. But this is why the selection of plays and the quality of the productions is so important. If people like what we present they will not only come, but they will donate. The donations are critical to our financial success, and enables us to hire the staff we currently maintain.
Describe the community of Stockton's participation/ interest in community theatre, and your efforts in keeping them excited and loyal to SCT.
Our community is very interested and participatory, although we continue to work on outreach in this department. In a city of 300,000 people, there are still people who don’t know our 65 year old institution even exists! Our newspaper, The Record is very loyal and supportive. Always publishes both preview articles and reviews, which help enormously. We have a new Marketing Committee as well which has worked very hard at the younger demographic, particularly in using social media to increase awareness of our theatre and its offerings.
What is your proudest achievement as Artistic Director of SCT? What are some goals you still look forward to tackling?
I am proud that our last 5 musicals have finished in the top ten for attendance in the past 15 years! We have also made strides in increasing communication, with the instigation of rehearsal reports, master calendars and callboards backstage, and post-show production evaluations. And our new Marketing Committee’s efforts have been outstanding. In the future I hope we can work on renewing our lobby, which needs updating, to make it a more welcoming space for our audiences.
Describe your audience - visitors, locals, etc?
I would say mostly locals, although we have broadened the net a bit to include attendees from counties outside of our own. Sometimes we get out-of-town visitors, who always comment on how they had no idea such good quality theatre existed in Stockton! We have approximately 1,200 season ticket holders.
How do you get to know your audience on a personal level?
I come around as often as I can and chat with audience members before and after performances. Although I’m not a big fan of live curtain speeches, I will do those occasionally to keep my face public!
What kind of support do you have from your community for your community theatre?
We have a tremendous pool of 100’s of people who audition, work backstage, work front of house to name a few areas). All are volunteers, with very few exceptions. They love what they do, are dedicated to this theatre, and truly feel like it’s family. Without all of them we wouldn’t exist.
Have you personally worked with or been involved with any other California community theatres?
My wife and I began That’s Showbiz Theatre Company here in Stockton in 2012, a year before I became Artistic Director at SCT. It’s a very different theatre, smaller, more intimate. People sit at cabaret-style tables and can enjoy refreshments while they watch the shows. It has been very successful in its infancy. Many years ago I was in a musical at the Norris Theatre in Rancho Palos Verdes (Southern California).
What do you think 'makes' community theatre community theatre?
I think a true appreciation, understanding and respect of what THIS community wants and needs (as opposed to my own or any other individual in power here). Empowering community members so they feel ownership and stewardship for the theatre is key too. If they feel welcomed and a part of the team, then they are more likely to continue to contribute their time, talent and treasure to the organization.
Are you a California native?
I am 53 years old and have live in California my entire life. I was born in San Jose, my family moved to Southern California when I was 7, where I lived for 24 years (aside from summer stints in Wyoming and Michigan and a semester abroad in London). We have lived in Stockton for the past 22 years.
Check out our interview with SCT's Artistic Director, Kevin Costello!
Originally published in January 2016