F: Some theatres would think you were doing pretty good to only be $100 in the red.
D: Well, that meant zero operating funds. I wrote a letter to the community “we need to raise 17K to fund the next season to continue on.” We operate on an annual budget of about 25 thousand dollars. It may be small compared to some of the other theatres, but if you don’t have it . . . Fortunately we own our own building--
F: That’s huge.
D: Everything we have to work with we own.
F: So you wrote the letter. What happened?
D: Once the letter hit, the Sapulpa Herald published it. Then the Tulsa World reporter who covers Sapulpa, calls us and says she wants an interview with me. We were rehearsing Quilters at the time. She came out, they did a story just before we had our sale. (The board decided we’d have like a garage sale, sell everything we didn’t absolutely have to have). The story ran in the Tulsa World. That Saturday at the sale, channel 8 news showed up and interviewed me about the whole situation.
F: Very cool.
D: Yes. Donations started coming in, it was clear the community didn’t want the theatre shut down. I had a friend call me and said they had a check for us. I said that’s awesome. She said she needed to hand deliver it, we decided to meet for coffee. But then she said, I need to tell you how much this check is for. It’s for $10,000. I just cried. “The theatre’s going to be okay.” It came from the Lloyd K & Peggy L Stephens Foundation. It’s a foundation out of Tulsa. They saw the article in the paper and they believed in small towns, they decided this was something they wanted to donate to.
F: That must have gone a long way.
D: Yes. American Heritage Bank in Sapulpa has been a strong supporter all these years. I went there and talked to the president there, and I laid out the situation. We discussed it a little, eventually they gave us 5,000.
F: Great to see a local business stepping up in that kind of way.
D: It really is. And we got other donations from other local businesses as well. We opened our season with “You Can’t Take it With You.” Which was fitting. It was our 25th season in that theatre, and the very first show we’d ever done there, in 1989, was “You Can‘t Take it With You.” And we had sold out houses all six performances, and then sold out the next show as well. We sold 130 season tickets that season.
F: What’s your capacity?
D: 88. We started off with 76, then added a row.
F: That’s a great percentage of season tickets
D: The community support has really come around. And I think our choice of shows has improved.
F: What’s your philosophy there?
D: Play to the community. We have a very small local community. And we’ve got an audience that knows they can go to Tulsa for avant-garde or edgy shows. We need to be family friendly here. So that’s what we’re focused on. We may end up with a season of all comedies one season. If that’s what sells the tickets and keeps the doors open then that’s what we’re going to do. I feel like we have to answer to our supporters. They came out and supported us, we need to give them the entertainment they would like.
F: What’s your board like? How many people on the board?
D: Right now we have a board of 10. We can have a maximum of 15. They serve 3 year terms.
F: What are you looking for in a board member?
D: Diversity. When we reorganized a few years ago, we set some criteria for board members. We want people who fit different roles. We don’t expect everyone to do everything. Some are better at finances, and fit in at treasurer. Some are better at marketing, Hunter Cates is like that. We want people who are “Sapulpa oriented.” That was something I heard over and over again when raising funds to stay open, that all our board members have a Sapulpa connection. They’ve lived here or work here, something.
F: Are they all what you might call “theatre people?”
D: No. One’s a retired businessman, we have a teacher. We have a woman involved with a retired senior volunteer program, she doesn’t act, she just enjoys being involved. Some are more interested in backstage.
F: Do you draw your stage managers and tech people from the board?
D: We try to not. We want to get as many people involved in productions as possible. We have a board member who is over the tech aspect of the productions, but we get people in and train to do the shows. We look at ourselves as a ground floor theatre. If you haven’t done it before, let’s teach you how.
F: Any improvements to the theatre building coming up?
D: Well, I consider each show we do as a fundraiser. We continue to contact local companies on a regular basis. And that helps. When we made the call to the community, I was adamant that we weren’t going to do that every single year. We do let people know what we need and what our future visions are. I think a 5 year vision plan, to expand our theatre a little more and to build onto our restrooms and reception area . . . right now you have to go through the house to get to the restrooms, we’d like to make that accessible from the lobby.
F: A long term goal.
D: Yes, that and an expansion of the theatre is a long term goal. We have some repairs to get through first.
F: Do you have a season yet?
D: Not yet. Actually, we have a big announcement I’m not ready to release yet, something a little different that we think will work out to our advantage and the advantage of our patrons, which we’ll be announcing shortly. And it might help to set us apart from some of the other theatres in the area. There are so many.
[And Debbie shares that idea with me, and yes, it is a very interesting idea. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out and if other theatres pick up on it. But it’s not yet ready for public release yet J]
F: So the season, you mentioned before you might do a season of all comedies?
D: I could see us doing that. We were looking at some shows at a meeting, and someone says, “We’ve got all comedies here.” And I said, “I’m okay with that.” We had one individual say, “Well, people need to eat their spinach.” And I said , “But we need to pay the bills.”
F: People need to eat their spinach? Yeah, that sounds like fun.
D: My argument is that if you want to do something heavy, be prepared that not that many people will come see it and there’s a good chance it’s going to lose money. We did a Doll’s House last season, and if it hadn’t been for the season ticket holders it would have lost money.
Our season tickets are unusual. You buy a flex pass and you go see the shows you want, and bring as many people as you want until you’ve exhausted the pass.
F: We did that at Heller too. Okay, what’s coming up in your season?
D: I think it’s critical. I really do. To give the community a place to experience the arts. To give students, who have lost arts programs in the schools, a chance to come in and experience and participate in the arts. We draw kids from smaller, surrounding areas coming in to work with us. It gives older folks like me a chance to get involved.
F And going a little deeper, what is it about the arts that makes that involvement worthwhile?
D: Quality of life. Arts give something to your life that nothing else does. It gives you a chance to experience life, emotions, that you wouldn’t otherwise. They give us an outlet, to express ourselves. It enriches us.
A good talk, and good to see a smaller community theatre rallying local support so they can keep doing what they love, and giving their community what it wants to see. Kind of that whole "one hand washes the other" kind of thing.
Arts Alliance Tulsa
Green Room OK
Tulsa Little Theatre
Tulsa Weekly Roundup
Am. Theatre Co.
BA Community Playhouse
Clark Youth Theatre
G Rated Theatre
Midwestern Theater Co.
Muskogee Little Theatre
Owasso Comm. Theatre
Sand Springs Comm. Th.
Sapulpa Comm. Theatre
Tulsa Latino Theatre
Tulsa Project Theatre
Tulsa Rep. Musicals
Tulsa Spotlight Theatre