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New sign, same great theater experience at the Lyceum

Posted Thursday, June 4, 2009, at 12:05 PM

Lyceum Theatre Managing Director Steve Bertani, left, and Artistic Director Quin Gresham pose beneath the new sign that welcomes patrons to the theater. After a year with a blank white wall, the staff was ready for a new look.
The Arrow Rock Lyceum's season begins Wednesday, June 3, and perhaps the most visible change at the theater is the building's face. It no longer wears the blank expression it had all last year.

There's a new sign. Looks pretty nice, too, and no wonder. Making any kind of change to the exterior of a building in historic Arrow Rock is done with care and final designs must be approved by three different governing bodies.

But it was worth the effort, according to Lyceum officials.

"We got tired of seeing the big blank wall," said Managing Director Steve Bertani. "It's a new look. It's getting us ready for the 50th year."

The big anniversary comes next year, and the staff is already pondering ideas for making the most of the milestone.

For this year, though, the sign may be the most evident change to be seen. Audiences can look forward to another slate of shows performed by top-caliber actors, singers and dancers that mix musicals, comedies and dramas in a recipe that Bertani and Artistic Director Quin Gresham have been refining for the past several years.

The approach recently, which emphasizes familiar shows with broad appeal and a good deal of longevity in the culture, has been very successful if box office numbers are any indication.

Bertani said the theater took about 24,000 paid admissions for 80 showings last season, which is 70 percent of capacity.

That's another leap forward in a series of leaps forward. In 2007, the theater reached 54 percent capacity for 89 showings. In 2006, it reached 46 percent capacity on 97 performances. In 2005, it was about 40 percent.

Bertani and Gresham are pretty happy with the direction attendance is going.

"Our goal was to increase about 5 percent each year," Bertani said.

The strategy for selecting shows to do has something to do with the trend. Each year still includes one or two shows that are challenging for both actors and audiences ("Children of a Lesser God" in 2007 and "Proof" last year, "The Diary of Anne Frank" this year, for example).

But the emphasis is more on shows that are familar, even beloved, with audiences everywhere. This year, the schedule is full of them. "Annie," "Hello, Dolly," "You Can't Take It With You," and "Nunsense" can be counted on to bring fans, young and old, into the theater.

Gresham cites another factor in the theater's turnaround: The shift from "rotating repertory" to "summer stock" structure to the season.

Before Gresham took over as artistic director, the Lyceum would rotate four shows within a given week, providing more variety within a smaller space of time, but at a cost to production quality.

The focus now on one show at a time has enabled the theater to greatly improve the craftsmanship of the whole production.

But there's a more important factor, according to Gresham and Bertani: Trust.

The two have been working hard in recent years to regain patron's trust. And to do that, they have spent time listening and responding.

"I was out in the lobby a lot, listening," Bertani said.

The staff has done patron surveys, too.

"We asked people what they want to see," Gresham said. "Hello Dolly" in this year's schedule is one result. "Cats" last year was another. "There are a lot of likes and dislikes. It's trying to reach as many as possible."

"A well-balanced season includes familiar and comfortable (shows), but also a few things that are challenging artistically," Bertani said.

I know it's tempting, when money for tickets is hard to come by, to stick with the tried and true, something guaranteed to entertain, but I hope people will consider taking in one of the less familiar shows this year, too. "Children of a Lesser God" was the worst box office performer of 2007.

It was also by far the most riveting and impressive theater experience of the season. Who knows which show will fill that role this year?

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Eric Crump is a former editor of The Marshall Democrat-News. He lives elsewhere now but still loves Marshall and Saline County. He's trying to catch up on all the stories he should have written while he was on staff.
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