Gretna Theatre series part one: The road to New York
Editor's note: This is part one of a three-part series
For the thousands that come out to the Mt. Gretna Playhouse each year, there are only a few months that they care about — June, July and August.
It's the time that they can come out and bring their family, friends and others to the Gretna Theatre to catch the array of shows for the respective summer season.
For the staff members of Gretna Theatre – Larry Frenock, Christian Saint-Girard, Renee Krizan and Denise Brossman – there are two times that they get most excited about.
1. Going to New York to hold auditions.
2. The opening of the summer season.
But what people don't know is that the staff isn't just working three months out of the year putting on the shows, along with an additional month holding auditions for the cast and the directors.
No, it's more involved than that. In fact, when the shows are going on, it could be argued that that is actually the slow time of the year for the staff.
"I really thought that after the gala that I would put my feet up on my desk and relax. No that's not how it works. It is year-round," said Frenock, producing artistic director. "It's crazy, the amount of work that goes into prepping for the season. Monetarily aside, all of those components are there, but the hiring of the director, the staff, the promos, the scenic director, light, costume and prop designers for every show. You have wardrobe people, a stage manager, assistant stage manager, costume people, lighting electricians and people in the shop; there's a whole lot of things that go into it. All of those people need to be in place before you go into the season."
And that's just over a couple of months.
Let's rewind to the end of the summer season. The stage is no longer filled with props and backdrops. The seats are no longer filled with parents, children and grandparents. The performers have packed up and left town.
It's time for the staff to start thinking about the next year already, and one of the biggest parts of that is raising the funds to secure the licenses for the plays.
"Ticket sales make up about 60 percent of our budget. The other 40 percent is fundraising. As far as paying for the shows as they go, it's the ticket sales that pay for them, which scares the heck out of you. You just don't know what is going to resonate and what isn't going to resonate," Frenock said. "We do year-round fundraising. The biggest event that we have for fundraising is our annual gala that's in October. It's a $100,000-event in one night."
So the tickets sales for the shows from the previous year pay for securing the shows going forward. How much can one of those cost?
"If you think about it, there are royalties that need to be paid before we get the scripts and the scores. One of the shows is $7,000 that we need to send them in a check right away for. Another one is $9,700 that we need to spend before we start the season," Frenock explained. "The first show of the season, there is a $30,000-fee that needs to be paid before we even get it going. We're talking big bucks.
"People forget that little Gretna Theatre, being a professional Theater, that a show like 'The Little Mermaid' will cost well over $100,000 to produce," Frenock continued. "Those funds come primarily from ticket sales, but 40 percent of that needs to come from ad sales, sponsorships and donations. There's a lot of components that go into it."
This year, Frenock and company are lowering ticket prices for their shows, which they hope will increase the draw, after an admitted down year in 2014 as far as ticket sales go.
"We've looked at the demographics, we've looked at the way people spend money in the area, we've looked at the trends in the area and, pretty much, every theater is going up (increasing ticket prices). We're going down a little bit," Frenock said to Bill Warner in a recent interview for the Lebanon Daily News. "We're going to give it a try. Our top price is $39 for any of our main-stage shows. Children's and students used to be half-price; now they're down to $10. We really want to encourage families to bring their kids."
The shows this year are "Piano Men: A Tribute to Elton John and Billy Joel," "Flipside: The Patti Page Story," "The Little Mermaid," "Girls Night: The Musical," "Murder on the Nile" and "Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash."
Even after dropping the ticket prices, what if, a year after seeing ticket sales go down, this year is another year that trends in the wrong direction?
"It won't be. It's not permitted to be. We would have to have an earthquake for that to happen," Frenock said.
OK, got it. But what if, hypothetically speaking, of course, the sales don't trend up with the shows this year? What happens then?
"We roll with the punches. We take what sells and what doesn't sell and try to figure out why that happens. It's not always possible. One of the hardest things in the world to do, and I'd like to go out and do a focus group on it, is to find people that didn't come and ask them why?" Frenock asked. "If you know about us and you like going to the theater, but you didn't come to see us for whatever reason, why not? Was it the show? Was it the heat? Was it the mosquitos? That's the hardest thing to find out."
Selecting the shows
When selecting the shows, what all goes into it? Is it the cost? The availability? What the perceived audience reach will be?
All of the above, actually, but there's one hurdle that not only Gretna Theatre faces, but many performing Theaters all of the world face – the crowd going to see the shows just isn't the same as it was years ago.
"It's a strange thing. It has gone through peaks and valleys throughout the time of the Theater. It goes through ups and downs with the audience," Frenock said. "We've been a little bit slow in the past year or so. That's one of the reasons that we have brought on a director of sales and marketing, which will really help bolster that back up. We need to go out and do the heavy duty advertising and networking. We're hoping that the show lineup, along with an increased push for audience awareness, will help."
That's one of the factors that goes into selecting the shows. Frenock wanted to have a wide range of options with this year's shows, which he feels he successfully did.
"We all talk through everything. Everyone has their own opinion on everything. Sometimes they are wildly differing opinions, which is great. We start off with a hit list of about 400 plays and musicals that we would like to do one day," Frenock explained about the play selection process. "It depends on what rights are available, too. 'Chicago' is one of the oldest shows that is running on Broadway. It's been there forever and it has no sign of closing, ever.
"Community Theaters in the area have gotten the rights to do it, but as a professional Theater, we haven't because we are competing with Broadway. We applied for the rights of 'Beauty and the Beast.' Because the show is on a national tour, the rights company had to go to the people doing the National tour. They had to ask if they would be cool with Gretna Theatre doing the show. They said no, so we got denied the rights to it. That's happened with a number of shows recently."
In case that happens – although the latest it's ever happened was six months out, according to Frenock – the staff keeps a list of reserve titles they could go with, if needed.
One of the focuses when selecting the shows for each year is to find a play that they love, but also one that the audience will connect with, too.
"Basically, when I'm putting together a season, they have to be shows that we really feel good about. Not that we are looking to only do shows that we like wonderfully well. If we are going to put this much time and effort into it as a staff here, it's a monomaniacal focus that we go into for a year leading up to the season, then they have to be things that we are proud to present," Frenock explained. "Certainly, we want an audience for them. That's an important consideration for them, as well. As we're going through the list of 400 shows that we are looking at, which ones will have the better chance of having a better audience that will have people coming out to enjoy them?"
But regardless of the show, you can't please everyone, right?
"They say art is in the eye of the beholder, and it really is true," Frenock said.
No matter what the show is, they all have one thing in common that will continue to draw an audience.
"It's the live experience. If you think about it, you go to see a live show. You're going to see a live show that night or afternoon, and it's never going to be the same," said Frenock.
Well, OK, but aren't the lines, people and parts the same?
"Even the next night, it won't be the same. Even with the staging being the exact same, parts and dancing, it's not the exact same performance. Anything can happen, because it's live," Frenock said. "The lead character could be going out on a big note, and a moth could fly right in. It's happened on stage before. It depends on the weather, everyone's mood and what not. It's a professional show, so you're basically going to get the same thing, but within that parameter, it's that one show and that's it.
"It's like a comic going out on stage and having a joke go over great one night and poorly the next night. Why does that happen? It's a live performance and you have a different audience. You could do an afternoon show of 'The Little Mermaid' with kids screaming from excitement. Then an evening show, you have a more adult crowd. They won't react the same way."
If I can make it here
After the New Year, the focus shifts from play selection – as they're already locked them in place soon after the ball drops in New York City – to casting the plays.
Before heading to New York to hold their annual auditions on Broadway, Gretna Theatre holds local auditions in Lebanon, for folks who are unable to the trip to New York or those who just find it more convenient.
"At our local audition, it's a lot of people from out of town. It's not just from the area. We've had people from Ohio, Pittsburgh, Maryland, Philadelphia and D.C. Even though it's a local audition, there are a lot of people that will go here instead of New York," Frenock said. "They feel that their chances of being seen here are more likely than that in New York, because we are slammed there."
This year, hundreds of people showed up for the local auditions, but do they really give the performer an opportunity to shine more, or is it just a preconceived notion?
"It's true. You figure in New York, with the open call at 8:30 a.m., there are 500 people around the block. The chances of being seen, unless you got in line at 4 a.m., are remote," Frenock said. "Whereas with the local audition, if you come in and wait a few hours, you're going to get seen."
This year, the local auditions were held on Saturday, March 7, with callbacks taking place two weeks later on Saturday, March 21.
Just one day later, Frenock, Saint-Girard and Krizan would drive their cars to Kutztown, catch a bus to New York City and prepare for the big auditions, which began on Monday, March 23.
"Honestly, it's one of my favorite times of the year. I love doing the auditions. You get to see so many different takes on what you see on paper," Frenock said.
Going to New York for auditions is something that the Theater did years ago, but it depended on who the artistic director was at the time.
When Frenock took over in 2006, he knew that it's something that he wanted to make a permanent fixture.
"When I came in the door in 2006, there was another artistic director who didn't go to New York at all, which I don't think was a good idea. Then when they threw the whole shebang at me the next year, going to New York was one of the things that I wanted to do," said Frenock. "I wanted to bring up the quality of what we were doing, and that's not by hiring my friends. I have many, many friends in the business who are upset with me for not hiring them, but I have to find the best possible person for the role."
In New York, over a three-day period, the trio met with more than 1,500 people, estimated by Frenock, during three different auditions – the actors equity auditions (Monday), open call auditions (Tuesday) and by appointment (Wednesday).
Unlike most of the people auditioning in the local auditions, the ones in New York City were a mix of college students, recently-graduated college students, performers from New York and professional actors with major Broadway, movie and television credits.
Having connections especially helped for the Wednesday auditions, as the actors who were coming in were scheduled by Frenock and Saint-Girard by talking to the respective actor or their agent.
"I have lived in New York for a number of years and worked there and right outside of the city. I had been the managing director of two Theaters in Connecticut, and those were all New York actors coming up for that," Frenock said. "I've been in the business a long time, so I have a lot of people I know. It's osmosis almost, more than anything else. It's that I know of people in the business, and I know their resume."
And although there's a better shot of being noticed at the local auditions, that doesn't necessarily translate into a better chance of landing a role.
"It's probably 70 New York, 30 local. There aren't that many people locally that can rehearse eight hours a day for six days. Then you're in rehearsal and performing the next week for a week. Someone has to take off from their full-time job, if they have one, to perform for us," Frenock said. "That's a nature-of-the-beast thing. That's nothing we can do about. It becomes difficult for someone in their 40s that has a full-time job. They might be a wonderful performer, but can they take off from their job?
"We have a week of rehearsal and then boom. It's a little bit tougher to hire locally, as well. Out of the local auditions, we are probably bringing back 20-25 percent to come and see us again so that we can be sure we see what we need to see."
Read part two of the three-part Gretna Theatre series next Sunday in the Daily News.