Arts and Entertainment

BPA sets stage for revitalized theater scene

Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts.

Bainbridge Performing Arts is meeting change head-on.

There has been “no time for philosophizing” since director Joanne Ellis resigned last month, James Quitslund, BPA production advisory committee chair says.

“It was clear when Joanne resigned that the time was now, if greater diversity and an even better spirit of partnership were to be brought to BPA next season,” Quitslund said. “We can’t wait for a new executive who may take a while to find.”

The BPA board was to meet yesterday to review hiring and staff restructuring options.

Facing the BPA board are three challenges: Reconnecting with the other island performing groups, becoming more relevant to the community at large, and running a more cost- effective theater.

As a start, Quitslund has expanded his committee’s role in programming and begun outreach to the community. Other players in local theater have been invited in.

The group will look at programming to lower production costs, a large contributor to the theater’s expenses of $460,000 last year.

“We’re going to be thinking about ways to bring shorter works that tie up the facility for less time so that we can do more of them,” Quitslund said. “With theater as it’s done at BPA, you can only do four or five plays in a year.”

Examples might be adding a concert version made up of excerpts played by an orchestra to the production of a musical, or a short program of scenes from comedy and tragedy.

“So if you say ‘we’re not really up to staging Hamlet but we could do monologues,’ you can still bring world literature of theater to the stage,” Quitslund said.

Production costs have also risen as the company has set higher professional standards – stipends paid to contributors have added up.

“There’s the director, the music director, the set designer,” Quitslund said. “And they cost real money and they tell you you have to sell tickets.”

Expanding programming to include the larger spectrum of performing arts may also be on the horizon.

But there has also been controversy, as the company has grappled with whether to look outside for the best talent available – or whether “community theater” mandates home-grown actors, directors and stage crew.

To bring more locals into the fold, the troupe has approached other island theater groups.

High school director Bob McAllister may produce a show at BPA this summer, while Island Theater is considering a show in cooperation with BPA next fall.

Board members broached the idea with Island Theater last month, leaving the latter group impressed by BPA’s open-mindedness.

“We had a wonderful conversation,” Island Theatre’s Kate Carruthers said. “They said: ‘There are no rules. Let’s create something that has the real heart and spirit of community.’

“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen BPA open to anything.”

It would be a reconciliation of sorts, the first joint effort since Carruthers and other players left BPA to form their own troupe in 1994.

A rekindling

Theater members hope to rekindle some of the creative spirit that animated the company’s early days.

When Bainbridge Light Opera was founded by Louise Mills and the late Corinne Berg in 1956, the group was a band of roving players.

“There was nothing,” Mills said, “no sets, no costumes, no building. We just put on plays.”

Light opera and musicals were the focus. The group opened with Kurt Weill’s “Down in the Valley,” “Son of Norway,” based on Edvard Greig’s music and Johann Strauss’ “Merry Widow.”

From the start, the question of how close to home to find the talent was on the table. Mills envisioned BPA as a venue for accomplished, if not professional, performers.

“Corinne and I weren’t willing to do all the dirty work without getting the best leads,” Mills said. “But If two equally good people were competing for a part, I would take the islander.”

Without a theater, the company played in such venues as an empty building at Fort Ward, a circus tent, and the Commodore gym. “We played in awful places,” Mills said.

Then the troupe secured the use of the former Village Grocery store, located where Rite-Aid Pharmacies is today. The company moved into the refitted grocery store – dubbed the Storefront – in 1981, with offices in the former check-out stand and dressing rooms where the meat lockers once stood.

Renamed Bainbridge Performing Arts in the early 1980s, the company expanded to include children’s theater and musicals.

Under Karen Rice, BPA became an umbrella for performing arts that included Bainbridge Orchestra and, briefly, Bainbridge Chorale. From 1987 to 1990, the focus was on Greasepaint, a BPA feature that offered teens professional theater training.

But the troupe was evicted when the Village was developed in 1990.

“We knew we needed a theater,” Carruthers said. “BPA did seven productions a year.”`

In 1991, the city approved a plan to build a 260-seat, 8,800-square-foot multiple-use facility on city property. In exchange, BPA gave the city 1.4 acres of land on High School Road.

The city leased the property to BPA for $1 a year, and BPA agreed to build and maintain the facility. Carruthers and Allan Ferrin co-chaired a capital campaign that raised $750,000 in one year.

Prominent in the fund-raising appeal was the facility’s design for community use, with a kitchen and a “multi-purpose room.”

Island architect Peter O’Connor and Drury Construction designed and built the $1.2 million dollar facility, which opened in March 1993.

“What felt great about it was that we were home,” former director Suzie Glass Burdick said. “Artistically it was a dream because you could design around the play, not around the space.

“The rub came when everyone wanted to use the building.”

Community events conflicted with BPA rehearsals and the multi-purpose design of the space proved unworkable.

The main hall was dark, and the kitchen too small to prepare meals for large groups. Some community organizations objected to what they viewed as high rental fees.

“They made two mistakes with the building,” BPA Board president Dick Daniel said. “They made a theater not good for any one thing, and they neglected to take into account increased costs of operation and maintenance.”

Over the past decade, modifications have transformed the space into a dedicated theater.

“In hindsight, I wish we didn’t own it,” Carruthers said. “We made a lot of compromises, and you have to be careful of the compromises you make. Because it needs to be an exciting place, a happy place.”

Daniel envisions a Playhouse sustained by a combination of private and public support.

This year’s annual campaign raised more than $100,000. With expanded programming of smaller works and a re-energized board, the vision of a vital community theater may be realized.

The long-range fate of BPA, sited on property owned by the city, may also be affected by plans for a parking garage next door. Too, a cultural facility “needs assessment” may be undertaken this fall.

For now, it’s the level of excitement that is most important, the sense that BPA has evolved to the point where it can interface with like-minded and even different-minded performing-arts organizations in new ways.

“We don’t know exactly how this will work,” Quitslund said, “but we’re certainly going to find out.”

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 21
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates