State of the art

Did director John Loesser's surprise departure set the Civic theatres adrift? A conversation about uncharted waters;;John Loesser still isn't talking.;;The abrupt decision by the former executive director of the Civic Theatres to quit over Christmas week surprised all who oversee the three-stage complex in Loch Haven Park that is one of the nation's biggest community theaters. That he left with no plans only fed the buzz.;;"They're a wonderful organization and I wish everybody a lot of luck, and me too," he said.;;They may prefer a compass. Loesser's nearly three year tenure was marked by artistic growth that saw the Civic stage its first full Actors Equity productions and a pioneering partnership that sent an Equity musical review on the road, if only to Tampa.;;But while the Civic's budget increased, it's Main Stage subscriptions faltered, its large and active volunteer corps began grumbling, and the wider theater community kept waiting for Civic to decide whether it would create a permanent home for professional theater, or more strongly embrace the volunteer, amateur effort that has been it's lifeblood for 70 years. The message was nothing if not muddled.;;Loesser will not be replaced. Day-to-day tasks shifted to General Manager Jeff Sellers and Producing Artistic Director Chris Jorie, who has taught and directed at Civic for three years but assumed his current title just four and a half months ago.;;What is Loesser's imprint? Where is the Civic heading? Jeff Truesdell puts the questions to Jorie, whose role makes him the dominant creative influence as Civic moves to its next stage.;;OW: The Civic stages performances for 200,000 people a year. It has a budget of $1.4 million. No one's ready to write its obituary. But in the last six months Civic has lost a producer, an artistic director and now the executive director. What does that say about creative stability, and where does that leave you?;;What it really says is that in key creative positions, chemistry is very, very important. And if you look at even the big companies, like Disney and the Ovitz thing…there are changes in personnel. The majority of houses go through changes in personnel on a fairly regular basis…You just go in and do your best to try and have a positive effect, and if you feel like for whatever reason the chemistry isn't right and there are other things that you want to go for, then you make a decision to go on…...;;Emphasis has been placed on the Second Stage as the place for the more contemporary, more challenging works. Yet the 1996-97 Second Stage season was announced, then canceled, then postponed, and finally opens Jan. 30. Why the turmoil?;;I don't think it was turmoil. It think it was just a decision that, let's try hosting the Shakespeare festival, they're looking for a place, and let's see what that's like….What would it be like to incorporate other performing groups into the house? Is that where we want to go?;;What's important right now is that we clarify for the community our identity here as an institution, and so if we decide next year that we're not going to lease out - and we're in the process of making those kinds of decision - let's give the public a really clear picture of who we are and what we're trying to do...;;If we do an audience survey and ask people what they want to see, we get suggestions for everything from "Cats" to "Oklahoma" to "Angels in America." So that gives you an idea of the diversity of the audience….The attempt in the past has been for Second Stage to have a more Off-Broadway, avant-gardish, non-traditional feel; that the Main Stage would have the traditional feel, or Broadway feel; and that the [Theatre for Young People] is traditional children's stories.;;But I think there's room for playing with those realms, too. If we get a chance to do [a] Dr. Seuss project and incorporate the Philarmonic, it's a way to stay with the same high quality that we've been doing over at TYP - and by adding the live music, we're expanding the artistic side of that entity.;;But I think the greatest challenge is, It's a vast audience…As a collective group of artists and working with our business people, what are the statements we want to make? How do we want to engage people? What are the things we want them to think about? What are the stories we want to tell them? How do we continue to raise the level, the quality, and keep them engaged?...;;For us right here in the city of Orlando in this day and age, I think it's truly about figuring out what are the things that are important for people - aside from the entertainment value, which I think is legitimate. Every once in a while people do want to see a show where they can just laugh and be entertained and not maybe think about something significant, and that's totally valid. It's important to me that we have work of substance, of resonance, that's integrated with the entertainment. ;;Let's talk about "Angels in America" which parallels the emergence of AIDS. Arguably it was the most praised, most celebrated piece of theater in America in the last decade. And yet its subject matter is such that, when the national tour passed through Florida, those who book professional theater in this town didn't bite. Why?;;They probably have their own way of calculating demographics and audience participation and for them evaluating that, oh, more of the J.Q. Public will come to see a "West Side Story" than a new piece that they don't know anything about, particularly a piece that has a controversial element… The thing that I get about the '90s is, everybody being so damn overwhelmed in their daily lives with everything that they have to take care of. So if you add on to that an international crisis that is about life and death, there are people who don't want any part of it in their daily life. No, if I'm going to spend $40 or $50 then I want to go and be entertained and see pretty costumes and hear some music...;;People are just sometimes afraid of controversy in the artistic arena. They might see it as a sheltered place where they can maybe get away from controversy. That's just a kind of feeling I have for Orlando...;;Heavy themes aside, "Angels" is full of comic appeal, as was evident in the reading of the play done at the Civic. Is such material just generally inappropriate for a full staging here? ;;No, I don't think so at all. A number of people have approached me with the desire to do it, and we are definitely exploring the possibilities of finding a way to do it, and on of the most exciting ideas…is that I've had a collective of theaters in the community approach us together and say, can we do this as a citywide production? It has economic challenges in terms of the technical aspects, and you know it's the kind of thing you want to do right, you don't want to cut corners on. ;;I always tell everybody: We can do anything we want as long as we pay for it. That's the bottom line. But in terms of the value of the piece, you wouldn't have to convince me…It's one of the funniest pieces I've ever seen. But I think you can't deny that there's a controversial aspect…that whole part of our governmental and political denial, if you will, in our country about truth and acceptance and all of the things that we supposedly stand for. ;;Well, anything subtitled, "A gay fantasia on national themes" is going to be controversial on its face, at least in Central Florida.;;I'm sure that's true.;;So consider "Falsettos," which the Civic staged and which also relies on gay themes, but which is a musical. "Falsettos" was one of the highest-grossing shows of theat Civic season. And yet subscribers jumped ship, saying that if this is the kind of theater the Civic was going to be doing, they weren't interested. ;;But you know, I'll hear that more than a couple of times during the cuorse of a month…If we truly are community driven and if we truly are an organization that's going to offer something to everyone, that incorportes a broad base of people. And what might be right for one group of audience members might not at all be appealing to another group. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. And I think the public needs to be aware of that fact.. You do try to be as inclusive as you can. And then you make your choices and you stand by them. And that's very important. And that , I think, is how people are going to know who we are and what our identity is . And if it hasn't been clear in the past, we can start doing that now….;;I don't think there's anything wrong with a little controversy. And if it makes people think twice, maybe if they go away and they really examine why they were put off by that, they'll learn something about themselves and about the world at large. ;;I had an elderly couple who stumbled into "Love! Valour! Compassion!" And from the description in the paper, it just seemed like a comedy to them on the Second Stage. They hadn't a clue as to what it was about. And they went, and they sat through 10 muinutes, and they got up and they left, and she called, and she was very candid with me. She said, "I'm not homophobic, and my husband donates time to an AIDS ministry," She said, "But I just didn't expect - the language was strong for me." For whatever easons she had objections to the play, it wasn't what she expected. But it wasn't because she had any judgement; it just wasn't her cup of tea. So I comped her tickets to "Forever Plaid," and hopefully that made her happy that happens all the time…["Love! Valour!..] was pretty groundbreaking. ;;But it was not a Civic show. It was just staged on your boards.;;Right. But it eventually happened in this space. Whether it was an independent production or not, people identify it with our space… Ultinately, even having that happen somehow, a production of the same kind of temper as Angels in America, maybe on a smaller scale but the same kind of issues, the same kind of thing just happening in this facility at all, I think, is definitely an expansion of the palette, if you will. And even though it was produced by another entity, we certainly participated in having that happen, no doubt about it...;;You've been an advocate of mixing professional theater with amateur theater. Civic in the last couple of years staged its first full productions under union contracts. Civic also entered into a first-ever agreement with a theater outside of the area, producing the musical review "A Grand Night For Singing" and sending it on to Tampa. Yet some in the theater community - particularly those who feel that if you're going to pay one person, you should pay everybody - still believe that Civic has failed to take a stand in the professional vs. amateur debate, that proposals for a standing professional company continue to be pushed aside, that the indecision speaks to a muddled artistic vision of what the Civic can and might be. [Former artistic director] Alan Bruun pushed for a professional repertory season before he left in July. You are even now talking about creating a resident company of actors who would work under contract for Civic. Why hasn't it been accomplished?;;The initial challenge is, with a full Equity house you add another 26 percent to your budget… Every year we hire more and more Equity members into this institution. It will be a mix for a long time, And that's what we call the developmental stage of the theater. We are developing professional theater. Sometimes people can successfully make a transition in four or five years...;;There is that question of people saying, well then, as a community member what's in it for me if you turn pro?…We are a right-to-work state, you can work under a contract it you're not a [union] member. There are contract situations where not everbody in the cast can be paid the same amount, and they don't all have to be Equity members….;;But there's a difference between Equity and professional. Can you be percieved as professional and not be Equity?;;We've talked about that. The cast of "A Christmas Carol" was paid $250 a week salary because we made a choice not to purchase the rights for $10,000 or so and invest it in the talent, so they could be available to rehearse days. So I'd consider that a professional cast. I think that when there are monies exchanged-and it's funny, you know, in speakng to the volunteers I said to them, would it make you more comfortable if when we were paying people for a show that you were compensated, too? And they said no, they don't want to be paid. The issue with them is, how inclusive are we? Are we trying to push them out of the way? No, we're nothing without their help and support..;;Professional to me means reaching for a high standard. And whether the money exchanged is $25 per show or $5 per show is not so much the essence of the issue. It is the idea of getting them to the standard of quality. And I think that when people are under a contract and they are being compensated whatever the amount is, they take the responsibility seriously. ;;Are you alienating the amateurs?;;That really is an issue…I have a student who I was trying to encourage to audition for "Company." And she was intimidated because she felt that there might be, quote-unquote, Disney performers who were really strong singers and dancers and that she'd have to compete with. And that just speaks to the influx of people who are coming in here. There's no way I can tell people who happen to do this for a living not to come over and audition along with the person from down the street who just has a strong desire to do it. And I don't know what the answer to that is. I hope it's convincing people that while they didn't get cast at this time in this particular piece, we [can still] find a way for them to participate...;;For that particular show we will probably attract some strong singers and dancers, 'cause it's a title that's been revived…and so for theater people in the know, it's something that they'd probably very much like to do. Whereas if we did for the summer musical decide to do a family musical like "The Sound of Music," it would attract, I think, a whole different group of performers. So, is it realistic fear? I would hope that people would accept the nature of auditioning, that they would come out anyway and just try and do their best….;; Will Civic continue, as it did under John Loesser, to ship shows out of town? Or was that a miscalculation?;;It depends on the situation. I wasn't there for "Grand Night," so I don't know basically how everybody felt in the end. I've had calls from other institutions who definitely want to come in and have some kind of co-production with us. That's thrilling….But I kind of feel like taking care of business at home right now. And if it's wildly successful, and when we talk about developing new theater, wouldn't it be great if 10 years down the line we had an original play that went on to other regional houses, and perhaps even to Off-Broadway? Why not? Let's think about it...;;You worked with John for three years. How has he positioned Civic for the future?;;The only thing I can really say is that I think that John did what he thought was best for this institution. It took us down one road, and you take a look and you re-evaluate and you say, are we still going in the direction that we want to go? How successful were we?….The growth has been tremendous. And the audiences have changed. Frankly, a lot of our older subscribers, I wonder how old they've gotten after all these years. Where are they, and has their interest dwindled completely in going out to live theater? I don't know. But what it means is , there's a whole new group of people that get to experience that, if we can find a way to reach them. And that is the challenge.