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Peoria Players set to open 93rd season; musicals dominate 2011-12 schedule 

While the mission of community theatre is to entertain audiences while providing an outlet for local talent, the tacit guideline within the theatre is actually pretty simple: Put butts in the seats or that outlet may not survive.

But that means giving people shows they want to see and that is usually a crapshoot for theatre groups as they decide their seasons. Unless, of course, the theatre does what Peoria Players is doing in its 93rd season, which opens next week on Sept. 9: five of its six shows will be big-name musicals, an unprecedented move by the Peoria area’s oldest continuing theatre.

“It was a very conscious decision to do this,” said Lisa Jeans, president of the Peoria Players board. “We need to have a huge financial season, which means we need to bring people in the doors and put them in the seats.”

Said Nicki Haschke, Peoria Players’ business administrator since 1996, “Musicals make the most profits and in this day and age, we have got to sell tickets. That’s why we chose well-known musicals.”

In community theatre the older, established and popular musicals are referred to as “war horses” because they will sell well, even if they’ve been done numerous times. Community theatres often put such musicals at the front end of their seasons “to get the season off to a good start because even in theatre momentum is important,” she said.

The 2011-2012 season starts with “Oklahoma!” directed by Bryan Blanks. It was the first musical written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and remains one of the most popular musicals ever made. However, it is the first time in Peoria Players’ history that “Oklahoma!” has been on its stage. “That was surprising to a lot of people and nobody really knows why,” Haschke said.

That show will be followed by the only non-musical this season, the comedy “Over the River and Through the Woods,” which will open Oct. 7. It will be directed by Liz Landes Reed.

“Annie” will follow, opening Nov. 11 under the direction of Mary Ellen Ulrich, then “Titanic the Musical” will make its first appearance in Peoria on Feb. 3, directed by Steve Bortolotti.

“Big River,” the musical based on the Mark Twain novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” will open March 16, directed by Chip Joyce. The season closes with “Chicago,” opening May 4 under the direction of Charles Killen.

The decision so far appears to be paying off, Jeans said. Season ticket sales are ahead of last year’s pace. Season tickets cost $80 for those who held them last year or $90 for others. Tickets for individual shows are $18 for adults and $12 for patrons 18 and younger for musicals and $12 and $9 for non-musicals. Tickets can be ordered by calling the Peoria Players box office at 688-4473 or go to www.peoriaplayers.org

Jeans said that the decision to do almost all musicals was not made without research to support it. She said she did an analysis of the last 20 years of Peoria Players productions and “it clearly showed that musicals were what brought in people to the theatre. People say that non-musicals are less expensive to produce, which is very true, but they are not as profitable because they don’t get the same turnout.”

Non-musicals can still draw solid audience numbers, Haschke said, citing recent dramas “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” as examples. “But it has to be a non-musical with a well-known name and even then they still do not do as well as musicals,” she said.

“It’s unfortunate but with a down economy and people being careful where they spend their money we have to find a balance. There are a lot of really good shows out there that just aren’t well enough known yet to sell well. Of course it still comes down to what you put on stage. It may be a big-name show, but it still has to be done well if we want people to some see it and keep coming back,” she added.

Jeans, who chaired the play selection committee for the 2011-2012 season before being elected president of the board, said community theatres face many challenges, including finding ways to engage younger people who seem more content to be entertained by electronics and getting people with increasingly busy lives to commit the eight to 10 weeks necessary to be part of a production.

But the biggest challenges as far as selecting a season, she said, “is finding some kind of balance between doing what the talent wants to do and what the people want to see. When you have to rely strongly on ticket sales, it really comes down to what people want to see if we want to keep the doors open. We just have to hope the talent follows.”

A play selection committee also must solve the puzzle of who is available to direct and when they are available. But Jeans said 17 directors submitted to direct this season and that all of the shows chosen had been submitted.

“There are still a lot of directors out there who like the old war horses, including younger directors. Bryan Blanks loves the big old musicals, which may surprise some because of his age.” Blanks, a native of Kewanee and a veteran of many local shows, mostly at Peoria Players and Corn Stock Theatre, is 26.

Another challenge for every community theatre is finding volunteers, said Haschke. Peoria Players increased its ticket price for musicals by $1 for individual shows, but said the proceeds pay for producing the shows as well as overhead. Royalty costs for shows have remained pretty steady the last few years, she said, but the cost of other materials -- for building sets and costumes, for example – have increased steadily.

“More than ever we have to rely on volunteers for help. Without that we couldn’t get a lot of things done, such as building sets or even performing. We love our volunteers. They help make every show spectacular and every evening in the theatre special,” she said.

“We really are excited about this season.”

Paul Gordon is editor of The Peorian. He can be reached at 692-7880 or at editor@thepeorian.com

 

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).