"The bar was raised last year and we met it, but this coming year will tell the tale." So says Lynn Smith, vice president of the board of directors for the Chamberlayne Actors Theatre. After 35 years as a community theater, CAT decided to "go pro" last year, paying its actors and directors for the first time. This switch meant major media outlets (including Style Weekly) began publishing reviews of its shows, exposing the cozy neighborhood theater group to a higher degree of public scrutiny. "[Going professional] hasn't changed our attitude," says Smith, who has also acted and directed for the company, "but it has changed public expectations."
Judging by numbers alone, public expectations were certainly met by CAT's first pro season. Last year, total attendance rose 5 percent for the company and, most significantly, walk-up ticket sales increased by more than 50 percent from the previous year. In fact, as the company prepares its second pro season (opening with "Mousetrap" on Oct. 26), it faces some challenges due to its success.
"We've sold more than 500 season tickets for the upcoming season," explains board president John Ambrose. "We also have a host system where outside groups buy most of the tickets for a performance to use as a fund-raiser." Ambrose says the math gets tricky: "With only 200 seats in the theater and 10 performances per production, it may start to get difficult for us to get everybody in."
This level of success is not unexpected given CAT's long history. "It's not like we just started up," Ambrose says. "We've been swimming a long time, so we were ready to move into deeper water." Ambrose says CAT's longtime supporters had been pushing for the move to professional status for years. "People would say, 'your work is as good as the big boys; it doesn't make sense that you aren't given the coverage that the other theaters get.'"
The change hasn't been totally friction-free, of course. Last year, the company employed many actors and directors who had never worked for CAT before. "Some new people came in with new ways to do things," Ambrose says. "People have to remember that we are all people who have other jobs [though actors are paid, CAT's staff is volunteer]. So we need to do everything as efficiently as possible. They can't make a lot of changes at the last minute."
According to Granville Scott, who is directing "Mousetrap," CAT's foundation in community theater makes the company stronger than many pro groups. "Some people put 70 to 100 hours into these productions," he says. "Only the love of doing it makes that level of commitment worthwhile." Other bigger companies spend more money, bringing actors in from New York, but the director points out, "for them it's just a job; next week, they'll be in Des Moines." The difference at CAT? "You can't match their level of motivation and dedication."
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