NEWMAN - After more than a decade of performing annual productions at the West Side Theatre, the Newman-Crows Landing Unified School District Musical Theatre Department is bringing it shows in-house.
“The Wedding Singer,” this year’s musical production, will open Friday, Feb. 7 at Yolo Middle School.
The move will allow the theatrical program to invest in its own facilities and equipment rather than continuing to pay rental fees for the theatre and enable the school-based performing arts program to expand, said Hardy Reeves, director of the musical theatre program, and Superintendent Randy Fillpot.
While the decision was difficult, said Reeves, shifting to the Yolo stage will bring a number of benefits.
“I looked at this as making a decision to stop paying rent and buying a house,” Reeves said of the venue change. “When you are renting a house you are paying the owner’s mortgage. Now we are in a home that we are going to fix up. Rather than putting money into rent, we will use those funds to create a home for the students and be able to not only continue the productions that our community has come to expect from us but to expand our program.”
The theatre rent for the show was $4,000 last year, and the initial proposal from the West Side Theatre Foundation was for $4,300 this year, according to information provided by the district office. The rental period covered three weeks.
At those rental rates, Reeves said, the musical could not be produced without additional funding (which the district has been providing in the form of $3,000 annually to help offset rental expenses) to augment ticket and snack bar sales. The musical productions typically generate $6,000 to $8,000 in revenue, he said, and production rights alone are usually around $3,000. Other expenses for set materials, costumes and props also come into play, he noted.
Fillpot said, though, that he did not consider rental costs the overriding factor in the decision. He said a primary consideration was making the Yolo stage suitable for productions, which will allow the middle school to increase electives and helps lay the groundwork for an expanded performing arts program.
“In my mind, the money wasn’t the biggest issue,” said Fillpot. “We probably could have found it this year, but every penny helps (as the district is looking into ways to trim its spending).”
Dave Larsen, who handles bookings for the theatre, said that the group offered to roll back the $300 increase this year if cost was a sticking point.
He said that the theatre foundation has been giving the school group a significant break on rental rates but had “slowly been trying to get it up to where it was fair to both parties.” Even at $4,300, he said, the rental rate still reflected favorable consideration to the group.
Larsen said he has enjoyed having the annual production at the theatre, but that he understood the decision to change venues.
“I think they are going in the right direction,” Larsen commented, noting a number of advantages to keeping the production in-house. “It makes sense for them to do it there.”
While the district has been helping with the theatre rent, Reeves said, he had initially offered to pick up those expenses this year after receiving a $6,000 contribution from the West Side Takes Stage program. The West Side Takes Stage scholarship competition was not held in 2019, said organizer Samia Merza-Fillpot, and the donation from main sponsor Thompson Chevrolet was, with the blessing of the benefactor, given instead to the musical theatre department.
Those funds will be spent on items to facilitate the venue switch and enhance the program, Reeves said, including the purchase of two new, LED spotlights and improvements to the Yolo stage and multi-use room.
For the past few months, students and volunteers have been working in the multi-use room in preparation to transform the auditorium into a theatre venue.
The stage walls have been painted black, windows are being tinted and theatre curtains will line the interior when productions are held.
Cabaret-style seating further enhances the setting, Reeves added.
“When you come in, you won’t see the Yolo cafeteria. We will have it looking differently,” Reeves stated.
There are a number of advantages to the new location, he noted, including a full kitchen on-site and the availability of a “green room” just off stage.
When the show was staged downtown, Reeves said, the green room was in a separate building off the alley next to the theatre. Parents were enlisted to look after the cast members as they went between stage and green room. When rains fell during performances last year, he said, cast members made their way back and forth beneath pop-up shelters that lined the way.
“We don’t have to worry about having parents outside (for supervision), and we don’t have to worry about bad weather,” Reeves noted.
Presenting the show at Yolo also allows the cast to perform on the same stage where the majority of rehearsals have been held, and to get an earlier start on set building, he said.
Still, he acknowledged, the unique setting of the downtown venue cannot be replicated.
“We are going to miss the ambiance that comes with it. We are not going to be able to recreate the art deco piece,” Reeves said. “We are going to (create) a new home for us, and start some new traditions here for our kids. It becomes a little bit of a home for them.”
Reeves said some cast members were initially upset by the news that they would not be performing in the theatre, but that they have handled the transition well.
“There were tears,” he remarked, “but nobody left.”
Reeves said transforming the Yolo stage/multi-use room into a working theatrical venue opens possibilities for doing more than a single production each year.
“We can start looking at putting together a season,” he remarked. “We are looking at doing a non-musical play for some of our high school students at the end of April. We’ve always wanted to expand, and have a junior program and a high school program. We will offer more experiences for the students.”