Next June, the Little Theatre of Savannah will celebrate 60 years with a big birthday bash.
If they can find a place to hold it, that is. And no one’s sure how many candles belong on the cake.
The Little Theatre, like most of the city’s amateur thespian groups, is feeling the pinch of these tough economic times. The Diary of Anne Frank, which closes this weekend, will be the organization’s last major production in the Freight Station, where they’ve been staging shows for two or three years. After December’s Holiday Cabaret, the lease runs out.
And it’s not being renewed.
“At least for the time being, we’re going to focus on one production per year, and renting a space out for it,” says Monica McDermott, president of the theatre’s board of governors. “We are a small company, and it’s a matter of financial as well as human resources.”
“Human resources,” of course, refers to volunteer talent onstage and behind the scenes. Fewer people are coming to auditions, which results in casts consisting of, more or less, the same actors every time. “We really want to get back to the feeling that the community is putting on these productions,” McDermott says. “And not just a handful of people.”
JinHi Soucy Rand has been involved with virtually every community theatre group in Savannah, both onstage and off. She remembers the day, 10 years ago, when she and others celebrated the 20th anniversary of the City Lights Theatre Company, which put on shows in a Broughton Street storefront
City Lights never made it to 30.
“They outgrew the venue they had, and weren’t big enough for the venues that were available to them,” she recalls.
People left, interest waned, and the facility was sold.
Rand, who’s married to Little Theatre board member Mark Rand, laughs that she’s “surfed the ebb and flow of the changing theatre companies in Savannah” for 18 years.
“The Little Theatre started in a building that burned down, then they moved to what is now the Savannah Theatre,” she says. “Ultimately, the cost of the building outweighed the cost of running a production company. So they sold it.”
(The Savannah Theatre, operated by the Missouri–based Meece family, isn’t a community theatre. The Meeces’ professional cast puts on a repeating series of musical revues, and plays largely to tour–bus patrons from out of town.)
In 2007, the Little Theatre entered into a shared agreement with Cardinal Rep, a fledgling local group, to lease the Freight Station, located on hard–to–find Louisville Road. When Cardinal Rep folded, about a year ago, the Little Theatre became the sole leaseholder.
And now they’re giving it up for good.
A typical Little Theatre season, since the 1950s, has consisted of five fully–staged plays per year, plus a summer musical.
Now, McDermott explains, with three local colleges putting on live theatre, and competition from the Savannah Community Theatre, the city’s Dept. of Cultural Affairs and others, there’s just too many choices in town, for performers and attendees both.
Not long ago, the Little Theatre put its old scrapbooks of press clippings and playbills on display. McDermott says she could see the changes over time right there before her eyes.
“There were literally hundreds of people involved in putting on these shows in the past, and that was when the Little Theatre was the only group in town,” she says. “The whole community was able to get behind it, and everything the theater did was newsworthy.
“Savannah has grown so that it’s not just theatre being offered to the community – there’s the Savannah Music Festival, the Savannah Film Festival and all of these different things that take people’s attention away from live theatre.”
McDermott admits it was a “tough decision” to abandon the Freight Station and gut the season. “We can definitely produce theatre where the productions themselves are not losing money,” she says. “But when you’re adding to that the cost of rent, and utilities, and maintaining the facility, that kind of thing, it gets to be pretty prohibitive.”
It hasn’t exactly been a banner year for the Savannah Community Theatre, either. The relatively new (3 years) organization has moved out of its home on Victory Drive and entered into an agreement with the owners of The Landings, the largely affluent Skidaway Island community.
Community Theatre founder and director Tom Coleman III, a Savannah native who worked with the Little Theatre before teaching drama in Athens for 22 years, realized last spring that costs were mounting, attendance was down, and things weren’t going to get better any time soon.
Looking over the lists of his subscription customers, and regular ticket–buying patrons, he realized that the majority were coming from The Landings.
So he brought the mountain to Mohammed.
“The decision was more economic than anything else,” Coleman explains, “to say ‘let’s go where the clientele is right now.’ And then see if we can make it through to survive.”
The SCT season opener, the musical comedy Nunsense, runs Nov. 28–30 at the Landings' Plantation Club. It’s a collaboration with the Tybee Arts Association and its theatre wing. “That also helped us, because we’re not out there in the boat alone,” Coleman says. “We’re sharing costs and the talent pool, so that’s working out for us.”
(Indeed, the director had an embarrassment of riches at the auditions, as 26 women tried out for the five Nunsense roles.)
Coleman stresses that the SCT shows remain open and available to the public — they’re not exclusively for residents of The Landings.
“We’re in a slump, economically,” he says. “And the people that can go to theatre when things are fine are trying to hold back right now. That’s not going to last forever.”
Nevertheless, Coleman’s hedging his bets by only adding “low maintenance” productions to his season.
“I’ve been doing this a thousand years,” he explains, “so I picked shows I figured I wouldn’t have a lot of problems with.
“For instance, we have open auditions coming up for Luv – that’s a one–female, two–male show. I’m not trying to do South Pacific or something. And I know not to try to do South Pacific in this year.”
And th–th–th–that’s not all, folks.
July’s The Wiz was the last big summer production for the City of Savannah’s Dept. of Cultural Affairs.
“We are going to be pushing forward, very specifically, in an education direction,” says performing arts coordinator Ellie Pyle, “and trying to form partnerships with other organizations that aren’t necessarily arts groups – so that they can have theatrical opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have, in other venues.”
The city will continue to produce one or two small–scale “Black Box” shows every year in its Henry Street space, like the recent To Kill a Mockingbird. However, Pyle says, “they will be very community focused. Specifically, our mission statement talks about serving under–served populations, and we want to remain focused on that.”
According to Pyle, the department’s budget for next year hasn’t been approved yet – although she’s certain it will be. So the changes in city theater aren’t necessarily financially motivated.
“As far as the specifics of the numbers, I do not know,” she says. “I know that we are focusing primarily on outreach projects — I’m teaching an after–school program class at the moment — and the education possibilities.”
The immediate bright, shining light would seem to be the Bay Street Theatre, formed by young, hungry expatriates from Cardinal Rep, and others who’ve trod the Savannah boards for a few years.
Bay Street is utilizing the cabaret stage at Club One — where drag queens hold court several nights of the week — to stage off–the–wall musicals like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Rocky Horror Show. Attendance, they say, has been good.
This week, Bay Street is putting on the "adult comedy" Mr. Marmalade.
Live theatre, says JinHi Soucy Rand, is continually evolving. She thinks things will pick up again. In the meantime, there’s new blood to be considered.
She’s working with AWOL (All Walks of Life), the arts program for troubled young people.
“Right now, I’m very excited about AWOL’s new theatre program,” Rand says. “These kids are doing Shakespeare — it’s a hip hop adaptation that they’ve come up with themselves — and they are learning the art of theatre. They are being taught the poetics.
“And in the spring, they’re going to do it in Spanish.”