I’ll admit it — as a student I haven’t really taken too many opportunities to get to know the people who live here full-time (which is one of the reasons I started writing this column), but I’ve always gotten the sense that people get along and really enjoy living here.
One thing that proves this point is the fact that we have a community theater: the SLO Little Theatre. People feel comfortable enough to come together in this non-profit theater and put on plays for the rest of us.
I wanted to go check it out, so managing artistic director Kevin Harris gave me the rundown. The theatre started in 1947 when a group of locals wanted to perform the show “Blithe Spirit.” Since then, the theatre has moved around the Central Coast 27 times, but performed a full season every year, Harris said. It’s one of the longest continuously running community theatres in the country, so they must be doing something right.
The SLO Little Theatre is lucky. Not all community theaters survive, Harris said. Getting people to spend money on plays is difficult, especially in the current economy. The most difficult audience to get is young people, he said, because they don’t have a lot of money but do have other options.
Musicals and comedies are what people like. Harris said the theater could perform only “The Sound of Music” and “Oklahoma!” and it would “be in the black every year,” but its responsibility is to play to all parts of the community.
“The biggest challenge is choosing a season that simultaneously will make money and give people what they expect and will also introduce them to something that they might not have known they wanted to see,” Harris said.
Getting the actors can influence season selection because while the staff are professionals, the performers are all volunteers, Harris said. There’s a core group of volunteers who “rotate in and out” of the performances, but it’s more of a challenge to get actors from outside that group.
The theatrer puts on approximately 14 productions a year, including five main season plays, two plays performed by students in their Academy of Creative Theatre classes and Reader’s Theatre performances in between those plays. The theatre’s Artistic Advisory Committee (which Harris leads) reviews between 50 and 100 titles and narrows it down to the five main shows — a process which takes six months, Harris said.
The SLO Little Theatre also offers another way for people to get involved — they have “No Shame Theatre” every fourth Friday night, which is a chance for anyone to submit an original script and see it performed by other volunteers. Harris said the energy is wonderful on those nights. Those people have seriously got guts.
The theater is in a good place right now, according to Harris, which is “extremely difficult” to find for every nonprofit but especially for theaters. In December of 2008 when he arrived, the theater was shifting from being owned by a board of directors to being staff owned — one of the “most dangerous and difficult evolutions” for this kind of theater. Many don’t make it through that transition, he said. And while it was difficult, the SLO Little Theatre did make it, and now Harris said it has developed a great energy and found a balance between the board, staff and volunteers.
That balance draws people into the theater, he said, along with the improved quality of the shows. The theater has “been in the black for years now, but just barely,” and all profits go back into the theater.
And yes, the theater space itself is kind of small. But while Harris said that can be a challenge for directors, audiences seem to appreciate it. I think it’s a great space.
“We recently did a survey of all of our patrons and overwhelmingly what they like about the space is its intimacy,” Harris said.
While SLO Little Theatre is “extremely lucky” to have its current space, the members hope to move the theater again in five years, Harris said. They want to have more seats in the new space, but they’re also hoping to keep that intimacy people appreciate.
A year ago they were given a grant for a new sound system that’s the most sophisticated of any theater in the county, Harris said. It’s too big for the space they have now, but they bought it with the new space in mind. They want the theatre to be a destination for all community members.
“It’s all leading to this new space and in the end to really making the Little Theatre a cultural cornerstone of the community,” Harris said.
The SLO Little Theatre is special because of its history — it’s survived for so long and has seen so many changes in the community.
“It is such an entrenched part of this community that a lot of people don’t know about,” Harris said.
The theater recently finished its run of the student show “The Little Prince,” and next season’s show is the spring fundraiser production. Harris said artistically that’s the best experience for him every year and is close to his heart — it’s an original musical and he gets to collaborate with other artists in the industry. The show is called “My Generation,” and Harris said it’s about the changes America went through in the 1960s using music as a backdrop. I don’t know about you, but this place is going on my college bucket list.