Golden Chain Theatre rare asset

Peter Clarke, former president of Golden Chain Theatre, says it’s a rare and irreplaceable asset to the Mountain Area.
Peter Clarke, former president of Golden Chain Theatre, says it’s a rare and irreplaceable asset to the Mountain Area. Special to Sierra Star

In 2013 the Golden Chain Theatre was struggling. Once a vital destination theater, it was now rudderless and lost. Attendance was low. After years of deferred maintenance, the facility was dilapidated. Board meetings were rancorous with shouting, near physical confrontations and often tears. Talent wasn’t lacking, but a unified vision was. The year closed with two good productions. Still, gross income barely covered expenses.

In January 2014 a hands on, working board was assembled that was determined to stop the decline and find a path to renewal. What was needed were leverage points, new organizational and operational principles and a new vision. If a business with declining sales fails to change, it dies. Surprisingly, there were pockets of resistance to change.

Even with determined volunteers sharing common purpose, it was a tough year. The slate of shows kept changing. Directors dropped out. Tech crews left. Uncertainty made marketing productions a challenge. Nevertheless, conflicts were eliminated and facility problems were tackled.

A grant provided funds for new flooring for the bar and the entrance hall. The building was painted. A new sign graced the side wall. The parking lots were striped, and loads of junk were removed. The back landing was provided with work lights and security lights. The dressing rooms were repaired and painted, and with the hallway and the greenroom re-carpeted.

The wardrobe was organized. Two sheds were built and a second water tank installed. The old office, a back wardrobe and the separation wall between them were torn down to create a new multi-purpose room. The shop was organized and re-painted. Half of the granny room space was reshaped into a new office with storage space.

The board appointed an artistic director and added a modest stipend to the position. On the business end, finances were ironed out and budgets set, and the board sought advice on running nonprofits efficiently.

The 2015 schedule was double that of 2014 and included children’s theater and acting classes while building improvements continued. Two roll-off garbage bins hauled away junk, and a Center for the Performing Arts was unveiled.

The opening show of the season was a sellout dinner theater. An innovative production of Godspell followed with high attendance. All of the year’s shows maintained a baseline of production value excellence. Questionnaires sought audience feedback and attendance accelerated.

Anticipating a banner year, the board made the artistic director the first full-time employee in the theater’s history. A music director was appointed with the same beginning stipend as had been offered to the artistic director. The musical Fiddler on the Roof in November was a complete sellout and the season ended on a high note with a special Christmas evening of music. 2015 saw income boosted by 300%. The music director was hired full time.

But growth had a cost. With so many shows and programs, space was at a premium. Some productions had casts of more than 50 actors. Staging areas sprawled and dressing rooms maxed out. Scheduling became difficult as shows and programs overlapped. Outside shows conflicted with GCT productions. One such event was canceled due to pressure for space and time. Huge blowback resulted. In 2015 extra weekends were non-existent.

In 2016 the GCT Junior Player program was created. More classes were added, as were music lessons. A second office was built in the last of the granny space to accommodate the artistic side of the theater operation. The green room was expanded into the former makeup room. The old tech booth was torn down and replaced, and the auditorium was renovated.

It took three years, but the theater has not simply stabilized, it has been reborn with attendance and participation is soaring.

I am not privy to recent events, but I can verify:

Space is at a premium at GCT. Build or buy, space is expensive.

With expanded programs, the GCT is out of extra scheduling time. Time cannot be bought.

The board of directors is a committed, working board. All the members have invested time, belief and heart. If a board is a reflection of the president, then the integrity of this board cannot be doubted. The seated president has worked in nearly every aspect of theater operations for nearly a decade and has done so with integrity.

The Golden Chain Theatre is a rare and irreplaceable asset to this community. Open to all, it provides terrific entertainment and programs. Kids can find community, friendship, growth, confidence, learning and in some cases, maybe even a career.

NOTE: Peter Clarke is the former president of the Golden Chain Theatre (January 2014 - March 2016).