On the occasion of celebrating BTE's 40th season, ensemble members Laurie McCants, James Goode and Elizabeth Dowd came together for a conversation about the early years of BTE. Jerry Stropnicky, ensemble member emeritus, was also asked to contribute his thoughts.
What created the energy or synergy that enabled BTE to succeed?
Laurie: In the beginning, I think it was a youthful optimism and stubbornness combined with an octogenarian's demand. She, Miss Krause, placed a great deal of hope in us that we would fulfil her dream in seeing a theatre in every corner of the country. We happened to be in this corner. I have often said that her dream was matched up well by a group that came already charged up to creating theatre together and making work together and dedicating our lives to something like this. There were others that came before and it didn't happen but it happened with our group.
James: It was an era where "grass roots" was catching on. Earth Day stuff. Trees in Bloom, beautifying the downtown, a civic energy that we tapped into.
Laurie: People like Florence Thompson starting up the first mandatory recycling program.
Elizabeth: The Women's Center...
Laurie: There were people willing to put their money where their mouth was. Industrialists in our area – the Mitranis and the Magees. People who said we believe in this and we will help you with with financial contributions. Hope, belief and support.
Elizabeth: Bloomsburg had a sense of itself as a community in a way that was harder to sense in surrounding communities. Bloomsburg could imagine itself as "a community that has live theatre." That imagination was something we could tap into.
James: We had women in leadership roles...that was unusual in the old boy network of regional theatre.
Laurie: We are artists empowered really - fact that we make our own decisions and determine our own artistic destiny is rare. We have never had a single artistic director. Even Miss Krause, when given the title, accepted the title for publicity purposes only. We still made all the decisions especially business decisions connected with our theatre company and made them collectively. We did that at the beginning and we keep doing that now and that is what is rare and I think that is one of of the reasons we have lasted as long as we have. Our artists are empowered.
Jerry: Tough question. A key was Alvina Krause, to be sure. She threw down a gauntlet, and challenged us to pick it up.
Another factor was that we were kids of the 60s, and this was a weird version of the "Back to the Roots" or "Back to the Garden" movement. A rejection of the mess we'd inherited, and a utopian idea that we could break off and do better ourselves. That was important.
A third factor was the journey that Whit, Jim and I took through Europe in 1975. We'd seen a few hundred plays, talked to several of our heroes, watched companies at work, and came to the (still correct!) conclusion that ongoing Ensembles, over time, made better work than the freelance world. It was worth dedicating to the hard work to make ensemble.
And fourth, some of us had tried in 1977 to make an Ensemble Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Me, Laurie, Martha Kemper, John Chism, David Downs. But that had been set up as a for-profit limited partnership, and despite its artistic and audience success, it could never hope to pay its artists wages.
What were some of the greatest challenges that had to be overcome?
Laurie: Challenges are continual. We are not for profit and that's putting a negative on what is really a positive thing. We live with lean budgets and we have made great art with very little money over the years. Sustainability is month by month and always has been.
James: We were started with entrepreneurial spirit. We wanted to invent who we were. An artist inventing themself is much more rewarding than maintaining something that someone else has invented for them. We like to go new ways - reinvent ourselves. That's at odds with the business side of the corporation which wants you to repeat success. Success is great in the short term; but in the long term you've got to watch out, so that your successes don't define you. You have to stay in control of your successes.
Elizabeth: In a company where you have empowered artists you also have staff members who work just as hard -and in some ways harder- but without the same degree of choice. That makes the "us versus them" dynamic something we have always had to work to overcome.
A big part of our longevity is having the power to select our season, but in doing so, we largely determine the content that the technical and administrative have to work with as well. That is understandably not always a comfortable thing.
Jerry: Colleges and universities do not prepare theatre artists to run a business. Laurie learned much and learned fast. Michael Welcome was a huge help in that first year. Some of us dug into those aspects, others couldn't be bothered. We found our way.
Realizing that this location was not geographically eligible for big foundation funding, we had to depend on a few major donors (God Bless Marco and Louise Mitrani!), and to build a broad and dependable grass-roots small donor base. That saved us many a time, especially in 2006.
How was theatre, or play selection, different then than now - or is it?
James: Theatre-going, in the general population, is different now than then. When we started there were no VCR's, and cable was dinky. Theater had an upward mobility appeal to the middle class, in the sense that "the arts make me more interesting and make my kids more well-rounded". Now, theatre-going is in competition with more populist, and cheaper, ways to see art.
Elizabeth: You can see it on your phone. You can stream Broadway HD through your phone!
James: I think now we are much less classically oriented than we were then. But even at the beginning we weren't only doing classics - we did new stuff.
Laurie: Yes, we always did new plays.
James: But I think now the ratio is tilted much more to doing new plays, contemporary plays than in the early days.
Laurie: We have more opportunities to perform now. Our first season was only two plays. In the beginning, we were a bigger company and we had more actors to put in play. Another change in play selection is we don't have the ability to do the large cast shows that we used when we didn't pay ourselves.
Elizabeth: An ongoing challenge is helping audiences to view each play as just one part of what theatre is - if you don't like a particular play that doesn't mean you don't like theatre. Societally, we are used to thinking that way about movies, but not so much about theatre. At BTE, we are always hoping audiences will want to explore the diverse theatrical experiences that we make it our charge to present.
Jerry: AK had veto power. And there were 17 Ensemble members. In the end, AK would suggest a slate, and we'd try to figure out how to make it work. Very competitive among directors. Very.
How is the community different now than then?
Elizabeth: The University has grown and expanded and BTE has benefited tremendously from the diversity that has resulted. The University and the community are more representative of what the rest of the world looks like. A really great thing.
Laurie: The fact that the university professors, not just the theatre professors but professors across the board assign their students to come see our shows gives us a younger and more diverse audience than we would have had.
Elizabeth: With the increasing need for two income families it gets harder to get volunteers because people are so very busy and scrambling to make ends meet – taking on a board responsibility or committee responsibility takes time. It's harder to find people with that time – and yet, we depend on it so greatly.
Jerry: Bloomsburg in the late 70s was a hugely different place. This was only a few years after Agnes, a few years after the passing of Harry L. Magee, a few years after the closing of so much of the carpet mill. These events left a space, several spaces in the makeup of Bloomsburg. A new generation stepped into responsibility - spaces that Harry Magee had long dictated. Stuff happened - like Renaissance, and Trees in Bloom, and a whole new Town Council. Town Secretary Gerry Depo gave us the third floor of Town Hall, because the idea of a theatre company seemed like it was worth a try. And Gerry Depo could try things in that newly open environment.
Bloomsburg felt like a small rural place. This will be unpopular, but in my view, Bloomsburg has become crasser over the decades. In 1976, there was only one fast food place on Rt 11 - Carroll's I think it was called. No McD's, BK, DD, none of that. The University (still then Bloomsburg State College) had about 4 or 5 thousand students, not the 11,000 or whatever now. It was a much, much quieter and nicer place.
Anything you would do differently knowing what you know now?
James: This is tied up with money...there are a lot of thing we would do differently with more money or different kinds of money.
Elizabeth: If we were designing the theatre today, I would hope for a more flexible space inside this wonderful building. The proscenium creates a very formal actor/audience relationship. We hunger to create a variety of experiences, formal and intimate, that our space doesn't easily allow.
Laurie: I agree, Elizabeth.
Jerry: The fact that this is a college town, and has the Fair, made it a crossroads. Can you imagine this having worked in Catawissa or Millville? Nope. So there were decent factors that helped. But I wish we were an hour closer to NYC of PHL, I wish we could have been funded by the Pew, or the Heinz. I wish.
What do you think is BTE's most important contribution to the community?
Jerry: Hard to say - we can get so full of ourselves. Perspective is hard. I think the contribution is large, though. BTE helped this community define itself, and has helped this community - or part of it - begin to see itself as deserving of a theatre of quality. When BTE delivers, which is not every time up to bat, it provides a forum for new understanding, larger conversation. It's slow-motion, to be sure, but it happens. It is not an accident. Some productions advance the conversation by light-years, others just bubble along. As an experiment in community in front of a community (to paraphrase Whit) it seems to work. BTE's been a dozen companies. Some of them have been extraordinary. It was a ride, to be sure.
Elizabeth: We have made a creative home for students who may not find their tribe within the school context. People still write to us individually and say BTE got me through the tough high school years because they had a place where they belonged. Performing in schools with Theatre in the Classroom - and creating a place for young people on our stage and in our theatre school – those are two of the things of which I am the proudest.
Laurie: Theatre in the Classroom, which most people never see, to me is one of my proudest achievements. We create great work in TIC that is entertaining, educational, and really clever and it gives students in rural schools all around us a wonderful first experience of performing arts. Bloomsburg itself – the downtown really benefits from having a professional theatre in their midst. The restaurants do really well because of us!
Elizabeth: Our relationship as artists to our community is unique and such a gift. Bloomsburg is not a big enough place that we are unknown. The kinds of conversations you have in the grocery store aisle or at trivia night – people tell us what they thought of the last show. It's a great privilege to have those conversations. The community can talk to the artists and the artists get to see the impact - good or bad– conversations over time about the world of the imagination.
James: I would hope that we embolden people and groups to do the right thing when you are called upon to do the right thing.
Laurie: The core reason why we do theatre is the hope of making a better world and a better town. Most playwrights write their plays as a way of taking a look at human life and possibly presenting a better way to do this thing that we are doing together.
Elizabeth: I feel like we do that for ourselves as much as we do that for the town. I hope that I embolden myself in this very privileged life that I lead, that when push comes to shove, all the perspectives that I've given voice to over 40 years will be with me with me - urging me to stand up.
Alvina Krause: A Brief Biography
Laurie McCants and the Ensemble Ethic in American Theatre Magazine
How Bloomsburg's 'Gunpowder Joe' Took Aim at 2017 in American Theatre Magazine
Reflections on 40 Years of BTE