Loyal support keeps Columbia Entertainment Company going

Friday, September 28, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:39 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 28, 2012
Despite the struggle to survive inherent to community theaters, members of the Columbia Entertainment Company continue to perform.

COLUMBIA — Two days before opening night, director Angela Howard was adjusting dresses and tightening apron strings on the 14 girls playing orphans for the musical "Annie."

One by one, the younger girls sang a bar of "Tomorrow" for a microphone check, then ran backstage to prepare for dress rehearsal.

"Things are hectic at this time," Howard said, "but we always make it work."

"Annie" is the first production in the Columbia Entertainment Company's 34th season.

The rest of the company's season includes "The Rocky Horror Show," "The Women of Lockerbie," "The Foreigner," "9 to 5: The Musical" and "See How They Run" at the theater on Nelwood Drive in northeast Columbia.

"Annie" is a collaboration with Performing Arts in Children's Education (PACE), another Columbia theater company. The production opened Sept. 13 and is running Thursday through Sunday until Sept. 30. "The Rocky Horror Show" opens Oct. 25.

As one of Columbia's oldest and more established theater companies, CEC relies on loyal volunteers and involved families to continue bringing plays to Columbia. While some directors receive stipends, the majority of work is done by volunteers, finance coordinator Jennifer Bloss said.

Like other theaters, survival can be a struggle, said Howard, a director for PACE. Fellow directors, actors and longtime supporters echoed a concern that the longevity of community theater depends on a loyal audience and consistent funding.

Columbia's community theater presence includes Maplewood Barn Theatre and TRYPS Children's Theater, in addition to Columbia Entertainment Company and Performing Arts in Children's Education (PACE).

Maplewood Barn is in its 40th season; TRYPS performs children's plays in Columbia Mall and other locations around Columbia. PACE also offers opportunities for children to participate in theater.

Meg Phillips, 41, has been involved with the Columbia Entertainment Company for more than 30 years, and she worries about the future of community theater.

"I think it may be in danger because people go to the movies and not to the theater, but I hope the core people stick around and bring others in to experience all it has to offer," she said.

For Phillips, theater has always been central to her family.

"My grandpa used to direct plays, so my mom helped out backstage. I saw it and knew it was for me," she said. 

She has starred in plays as well as directed them at CEC. Her mother, Betsy, currently serves on the board of directors.

Her sister, Laura, was an actor with the company, and Phillips is currently assistant director of "The Rocky Horror Show," starring her brother, Tom.

"I think it's nice for a family that may not have all of the same interests otherwise to have that time to spend together," Meg Phillips said. "They can look back and say, 'Hey, this is a cool thing we did together.'''

"It's very cliché, but because you are working long, hard hours and doing a lot of emotional investing, you become so connected to the theater and the people," she said.

Financial support for local theater comes from ticket sales, donations, city allocations and grants. The city's portion of the funding is distributed by the Office of Cultural Affairs, and state grants are administered by the Missouri Arts Council. 

According to its financial reports, funds available to the Office of Cultural Affairs for allocation among about 20 local arts organizations jumped from $80,076 to $95,000 in 2008

In fiscal year 2012, the amount is $96,000, which helps support 19 arts and education agencies. Requests ranged from $1,500 to $10,000; the average award was $5,053.

"Our money has plateaued over the last five years," said Chris Stevens, manager of the Office of Cultural Affairs. 

In 2008, Cultural Affairs money moved from a special fund to the general fund in the city budget, Stevens said. This meant the office could not use surplus money from the previous years.

According to Stevens, the $15,000 spike in 2008 came from a division of surplus funds over a five-year period. It is set to run out in fiscal year 2013.

Stevens said he hopes to come up with creative ways to bridge the gap when reserve funds run out to avoid a decrease in funding to organizations that need it.  

A growing number of arts organizations in Columbia are applying for the pool of available grant money and city funds, which shrinks everyone's share.

"Columbia is an artistically thriving community, and that means more people competing for grant money," Bloss said.

Community theater has a long history in America.

According to the American Association of Community Theatre, grassroots companies began to appear near the turn of the 20th century. Between World War I and the Great Depression, more than 100 community theaters popped up nationwide.

They struggled during the Depression and World War II, but revived in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1962, community groups had established 18,000 theaters, the Stanford Research Institute has reported.

Then, after two decades of decline, the number of nonprofit theaters saw an upswing between 1990 (991 theaters) and 2005 (1,982),  according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Choreographer DeeDee Folkerts, 39, and daughter Ella, 17, are among a number of  families involved in theater in Columbia.

Folkerts is working with dance sequences in the "The Rocky Horror Show," and Ella is in the cast.

The show's director, Adam McCall, said he didn't grow up in a liberal artistic family, but gravitated to the theater nonetheless.

"My mother got mad because I was always singing and dancing around the house," he said.

Longtime volunteer Vivian Benedict remembers seeing the current theater being built in late 1990 into 1991 almost entirely by volunteer labor.

"People literally went in for six to nine months and built that theater," said Benedict, who served on the board of directors for 30 years and is now on the play selection committee.

Benedict said volunteers also worked around the clock during the days leading up to the first production, "My Fair Lady." 

"Annie" is the first-ever collaboration between the casts of the Columbia Entertainment Company and Performing Arts in Children's Education.

"This show could provide more publicity and entertainment to a wider audience of people," said 14-year-old Lauren Young, PACE member and prop mistress for "Annie."

Howard said she hopes innovations like this can encourage greater attendance, especially among those unfamiliar with community theater. 

"When you have kids involved, their parents, teachers, family members and friends all come," Howard said.

"Annie" also may resonate with an audience that has witnessed a severe economic downturn.

"I think there's a correlation between the recession and this musical," said Jay Oetman, starring as Rooster, the mischievous brother of orphanage supervisor Miss Hannigan.

Already, Howard said, ticket sales are strong, and many dates sold out quickly. The company was also able to pay off its mortgage this year and celebrated with a ribbon-cutting celebration Sept. 19.

Maplewood Barn Theatre has revived after a fire in 2010 destroyed the 133-year-old barn in Nifong Park where performances were staged.

For Maplewood Barn Theatre, which was founded in 1973 to provide an art-in-the-park experience to Columbia audiences, the fire was a setback, not a casualty.

"People lost us and the shows a bit during that time without the barn, but this year we had great audiences," said Molly Dodge, a member of the board of directors.

Dodge directed the first production of 2012 with "Fiddler on the Roof" in May and June. She said it went well as the first show in a new facility.

The new barn was completed in time for the theater's 40th season and offered more audience-friendly seating, Dodge said.

"Theater is coming back now a little because there's a lot of good quality theater going on," she said. "I hope people save money to see theater because it's a good evening out."

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