Central New York boasts a thriving community theater market, so it was a no-brainer that a trio of companies have decided to join forces in the spirit of cooperation. “The District” is the umbrella banner for this venture, which features artistic directors representing Appleseed Productions, Armory Square’s Redhouse and Rarely Done Productions in an effort to work together on certain levels while also retaining the companies’ own unique perspectives. Kind of like The Avengers movie, only without the superpowered egos that distract from taking care of business.
Actually, the seeds for this type of community-theater support group had already been planted in recent years. “For us it was a natural fit,” said Appleseed artistic director C.J. Young, “a connection we already had with other companies. We did joint auditions with Rarely Done for our whole season last year, and we started sharing staff and resources. Same thing with the Redhouse: They reached out last year for us to be a venue for their Shakespeare-in-the-Park that they do during the summer.”
Young also qualifies as a veteran of local theater: He founded Appleseed in 1993 with Atonement Ministries, where the company performs its shows, and served as artistic director from 1993 to 1998. “I’m just stepping back this year as artistic director,” he said, “so that’s kind of neat. Who gets to come back 20 years later to the same job?”
Rarely Done artistic honcho Dan Tursi has been around this town even longer, yet he still maintains a youthful excitement for the District’s prospects, especially its method for attracting theatergoers. “When you go see a Broadway show,” noted Tursi, “you don’t say, ‘I’m going to see a Cameron Mackintosh piece at the Lunt Fontanne Theater.’ You say, ‘I’m going to see Evita.’ So on the District’s website you’ll click on what show you want to see and that will go to the theater company’s link.
“We’ll also be sharing resources together,” Tursi continued, “such as musical directors, tech directors, props, sets, costumes among the three companies.” All three companies now share a storage space at Cab Fab, the cabinet manufacturer on Burnet Avenue, “so that’s another thing under one roof, so we’re trying to use each other’s resources as much as we can.”
Redhouse executive director Stephen Svoboda still qualifies as a newbie since his appointment in early 2011, but he certainly makes fast friends. “Dan and C.J. already worked together through Rarely Done and Appleseed and we all were wondering how the Redhouse could be involved,” Svoboda recalled. “So we sat down for coffee and I suggested the Fourth Arts Block, an organization down on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I actually served on a committee where they applied to the state for a grant. The Block does this arts district, where they define themselves geographically. We were thinking that we could take those principles and work together as three theater groups to do the same thing: resource sharing, marketing, you know, growing together vs. fighting each other.”
Even with the District tie-in, Tursi stressed that the shows will go on at all three companies. “We’ll still have our own schedules and work independently,” he affirms. “But we’ll also have District Nights, where people from the companies will attend each other’s opening nights so we’ll have a full crowd there. People wouldn’t go normally to each other’s companies to see a full season, but now we’re going to see every single show on opening night.”
Meanwhile, Svoboda and Appleseed’s Young will explore new methods of collaboration. “We started talking about other ways that we might be able to connect,” said Young. “A lot of the Redhouse programming is outreach-oriented, and with the ministries—we have a childcare center right on campus, we have apartment complexes right off campus—we have the constituency for a lot of their programming.
“This isn’t a wedding in Vegas,” Young declared. “This is something that took some time to evolve and we can really see the underpinnings there: sharing staff, resources, education, and challenging each other to be better artists and better neighbors. And I’ve seen that already; that’s not just as a sound bite, but sure enough. This is a great business model that has not been attempted very often at our level.”
Indeed, a kumbaya coalition such as the District was attempted nearly 30 years ago, when Onondaga County’s Cultural Resources Council (now CNY Arts) attempted to streamline the theater schedules of local companies, some of which didn’t cotton to the idea. Yet the premise was still sound enough to warrant another shot.
Tursi also remembered the days of SummerFest, the annual CRC event when area companies would mount weekly shows at the Mulroy Civic Center. “It was a lot of fun,” he said wistfully. Hmmm, could a similar theater festival be part of the District’s future plans? Stay tuned.