A staple of Syracuse’s theater community, Gifford Family Theater, could be gone by next summer. Its initial grant from the Gifford Foundation in 2000 has run out. It was supposed to last three years, but Steve Braddock, artistic director of the GFT, stretched it for seven by scaling back the size of his shows and ringing in a strong box office.
The organization is a professional children’s theater based at the W. Carroll Coyne Performing Arts Center at Le Moyne College. It has seen more than 40,000 attendees since opening in 2001. Audience members have come from the local community and public schools within 60 miles of Syracuse. The casts are multigenerational: adults, Le Moyne students, middle and high school kids, children as young as 8 years old, and Equity and non-Equity actors.
GFT has produced adaptations of popular children’s books, such as the musical Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar in 2005 and 2007’s Miss Nelson is Missing, by Harry Aliard and adapted by Joan Cushing.
The main GFT season runs from mid-May to mid-June each year, with 28 performances over the course of the four weeks. Occasional performances run outside this timeframe, but the decision to have such a short main season was so performances would coincide with the public school schedule.
But now, GFT only has enough money for its still-unnamed production in May 2011. If it doesn’t raise enough cash to cover its general operating and production costs by next summer, many children will lose their first experience with live theater.
Class production: Steve Braddock (below) goes over a script in his Le Moyne College office, and he’s not watching a baseball game—that’s one of his sons on the field; a scene from Miss Nelson Has a Field Day, last season’s Gifford Family Theater production; Braddock and his crew—Colin Keating, music director, Stephfond Brunson, choreographer, and Terry LaCasse, assistant director—preside over auditions for 13.
In 2004, the Gifford Foundation granted GFT funds for its production of Fever 1793, a world premiere Braddock adapted from the Laurie Halse Anderson novel. The money, from a separate discretionary fund, covered the cost of tickets, transportation, a family guide and copies of the book for each audience member. After the premiere, Braddock decided to stop applying for Gifford Foundation grants.
He found the focus at the Gifford Foundation had changed through his conversations with the division of institutional advancement at Le Moyne. The foundation was no longer giving grants as large as GFT’s initial award, which totaled $396,653, to other organizations. The only way GFT could apply again was with a request for specific programming funds.
“It just seemed that the things that we were doing at the time didn’t fit the criteria,” Braddock says.
When Gifford’s initial grant ran out in 2007, Braddock and his good friend Mike Barbour started thinking of fund-raising ideas. The year before, they had been in a play called Rounding Third at the Redhouse Arts Center. They decided to produce that same play with GFT to raise money, with moderate success, Braddock reports.
In 2008 and 2009, Braddock held two more benefits. One of these was From Page to Stage: Illuminating Young Minds in January 2009. It featured semi-staged readings of works by authors such as Anderson, Tamora Pierce and Bruce Coville. GFT received corporate sponsorship from Key Bank, Syracuse Preventive Cardiology and Pyramid Brokerage.
Braddock continued fund-raising to make sure money existed for the one show at the end of every academic year. But this year, no benefits have been planned. He has not yet come up with a solid plan to raise money. And although Braddock is seeking more corporate sponsors, he has not yet asked for funding. He said he will be spending this year researching these options and matching potential sponsors with upcoming projects. Applying for more funds from the Gifford Foundation is not out of the question, he says.
While he is no stranger to children’s theater, Braddock, 51, has not had to deal with such grave financial issues before. Before running GFT, Braddock directed the Worcester Children’s Theater. He taught theater at middle and high schools in Worcester, Mass., and then at Anna Maria College and Worcester State College. He then worked at the Huntington Theater Company in Boston as the assistant director of education. After moving to Syracuse in 1997, Braddock served as the director of education at Syracuse Stage from 1998 to 2000.
Creating a theater from scratch was a first for Braddock, but he felt it was needed in Syracuse where he says there weren’t a lot of offerings for young people or families. And when he created Gifford Family Theater, he was thinking of his own family. Braddock wanted there to be an outlet for his two sons.
For the past two years, Braddock was a visiting professor of acting and directing at Le Moyne College. His contract expired June 30. Now, his only job is running GFT, which is still affiliated with Le Moyne. This means his salary will come solely from GFT’s budget. He’s in a tough spot.
When a number of concerned parents of GFT participants asked how they could help ensure the organization’s continuation, the Friends of the Gifford Family Theater formed in spring of 2007. They will most likely meet with Braddock this month to discuss fund-raising for the year. He has a lot of ideas, and Braddock says he hopes they will be good enough to cover the costs.
But he also said he is unsure of how much money he needs to raise for 2011. That all depends on how active he and the Friends group decide the GFT can be. Braddock will be exploring the option of integrating GFT into the community in new ways to supplement their main stage production in the spring.
Adjusting GFT’s production focus and schedule is not new to Braddock. In 2004, he realized that serving middle and high school students wasn’t cutting it. The students had final exams and couldn’t always come to Le Moyne. So, he decided to focus on elementary schools, where teachers were looking for end-of-year activities.
GFT also stopped doing school tours in 2004. Interestingly, the theater’s highest and lowest audience attendance over the last 10 years came from its school tours. In 2002, Salt & Pepper had more than 6,000 attendees at 18 different schools, while 2004’s 12th Night to Go had only 691 audience members from just three school and three public performances.
Braddock said the 60-mile radius of public schools coming to see GFT shows at Le Moyne has constricted due to the increase of fuel costs and school budget cuts. He said the most difficult time for schools was during the 2008-2009 academic year because of the spike in gas costs. “Many school districts put moratoria on field trips,” Braddock says. “Many schools that had reservations to attend pulled out.”
Last May, all of the GFT student matinee performances sold out. And in the year to come, Braddock says if the schools can’t come to him, he wants to go to them. Then again, GFT—and Braddock’s position as artistic director—could all be gone by next summer. And the potential loss of something so vital to theater in Syracuse worries some who have worked with GFT over the years.
Sisters Erin and Casey Whyland were in elementary and middle school, respectively, when they first performed in the GFT shows Go, Dog Go! and Miss Nelson is Missing. Now they have returned to Central New York after performing in Broadway’s production of Billy Elliot: The Musical.
“Steve is a wonderful director because he lets you develop the character by yourself,” Casey notes. “What he taught me definitely helped me through all of the Billy Elliot auditions.”
Their mother, Melissa Whyland, believes GFT is one-of-a-kind. “I can’t think of another venue in Syracuse that offers shows like GFT offers to younger school-aged kids,” she says.
Terry McCass, a student at Le Moyne and former GFT cast member, says he is concerned about the wider impact of GFT’s financial struggles. “If Steve’s audiences go away, then other audiences would go away, like a domino effect,” he notes. “Theatrical audiences grow at childhood. If they’re not exposed to it young, the art form will dwindle.”
But Braddock is hopeful. Gifford Family Theater has been on a 10-year journey. If it has lasted this long, he feels it is worth continuing. “I’m an optimist,” he says. “If I didn’t think we had a shot at becoming more self-sustaining, I wouldn’t do it.”
Kathleen Hessman is a master’s degree student in the Goldring Arts Journalism program at the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Quinnipiac University with a major in broadcast journalism and a minor in theater. She is currently an intern at WSYR-Channel 9’s Bridge Street. She wants to become a digital arts reporter.