Giving the audience what it wants
When Livia Genise took the reins of a small Southern Oregon theater company in 2002, she figured she could stick it out until her daughter went off to college. Her daughter is gone now, but her outlook has changed.
"I'm not going anywhere," she says.
With small theaters everywhere struggling, Genise, the artistic director of Camelot Theatre in Talent, has presided over a period of growth. Attendance and revenues are at all-time highs, subscriptions are up, debt is down, and even a new theater building might be in the cards.
Attendance will finish the year at around 16,300, up from less than 13,000 just three years ago. At a recent fundraising event, patrons pledged $60,000 to Camelot for 2007 and $120,000 over three years.
Camelot presents seven plays a year and sells about 85 percent of its seats, compared with 65 percent three years ago. Musicals have been selling out.
Money remains a challenge. Camelot operated at a deficit of about $9,600 on revenues of about $324,000 in 2006 after ending the previous year with a small surplus.
"We're always in the red," Genise says.
Camelot programming ranges from musicals such as the current "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Do I Hear a Waltz" (coming in March) to contemporary dramas such as "The Grapes of Wrath" (last October) and comedies such as "Lend Me a Tenor" (coming in August).
Defying a trend, many Camelot productions are big plays. "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Meet Me in St. Louis" each had more than two dozen roles.
"You have to give them what they're interested in seeing," Genise says of her audience.
Jerry Kenefick of Ashland says Genise usually succeeds in that.
"She has turned that place around," says the retired tax accountant, admitted theater junkie and Camelot patron. "Sometimes it doesn't work. But that's true anywhere. Over all, the mix is really good."
Genise came to the former Actors' Theatre in 2002 after former Artistic Director Peter Alzado had creative and administrative differences with the board, and it did not renew his contract. Genise graduated from then-Southern Oregon State College in Ashland in 1969 and worked as an actor, director and education director at the Willows Theatre Co. in San Jose, Calif., the Marin Theatre Conservatory and elsewhere.
She saw her role in Talent as a healing one, but new disagreements with some board members quickly led to another crisis. September of 2003 saw Genise's abrupt resignation, the cancellation of December's production of "Oliver" and of the entire 2004 season. That was followed, rapid-fire, by a mass resignation of disgruntled board members, the reinstatement of Genise, the return of "Oliver" and the reinstatement of the 2004 lineup.
Genise blamed micromanaging board members for the turmoil. The 2004 season was generally well-received, attendance and revenues went up, and she hasn't looked back since.
One of the biggest changes she made was to produce musicals. They've proven extremely popular, drawing bigger crowds than straight plays. But they are several times as costly to produce. The rights alone cost $5,000 to $7,000 per production. Then there are costumes, sets and musicians.
The choice to add musicals, which are often seen as frothy, was not greeted with universal warmth.
"It dismissed the quality of what we did in many people's eyes," Genise says. "It took us two or three years to get those people back."
Genise is a tireless saleswoman for Camelot. She makes a "curtain speech" before plays, which includes an appeal for donations. She belongs to four chambers of commerce. She's been a co-host of Ashland Greeters and served as master of ceremonies at Christmas and Fourth of July events.
"She loves outreach" is how Creighton Barnes, a member of the board that hired Genise, explains it.
"She volunteers her time to a lot of things," Kenefick says. "Everybody loves her."
After each show, cast members greet departing audience members in the theater's tiny lobby.
"People think of it as their theater," Genise says.
Managing Director Doug Warner, formerly the producing director at Mendocino Theatre Company, came aboard about two years ago. He took some of the administrative load off Genise, wrote a business plan and built the company's budget. He brought expertise in sponsorships and advertising.
"He takes care of all that, and he's a heck of an actor," Genise says.
He is also a professional director and scenic designer.
Resident scenic designer Don Zastoupil came at the start of 2006, and the theater has added residencies in sound, costumes, lights and graphics.
Another addition was the "Spotlight On" music series, each a two-week salute by live performers, including Genise, to the music of such legends as Billie Holiday, Doris Day and Bonnie Raitt. Yet another is a pay-what-you-can performance of each production that enables people to see a live play for just what the name implies.
With the city of Talent envisioning punching a road through the theater property, Camelot is talking with city officials about buying the adjacent property to the north and building a new facility. Genise says it would be built in three phases over several years. She hopes the first would be a 225- or 250-seat, $3 million theater. A smaller stage and a rehearsal space would come later.
Camelot is beginning a feasibility study. If it finds a lack of support, Genise says it might be possible to move the old theater to the new lot. Either way, thoughts of moving on for Genise are long gone.
"This," Genise says, "is what I do."
Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail email@example.com.