News Column

Ticket sales music to MMT's ears [Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA)]

November 29, 2013


Mill Mountain Theatre hasn't put on a big scale musical in four years.

If ticket sales for "The Sound of Music" are any indication, theatergoers are eager to see the professional theater's return to the form after a string of small casts and children's shows.

MMT board President Jack Avis said the theater had sold 45 percent of the available tickets for the show's entire run as of Nov. 20, two weeks before its opening.

Mill Mountain Theatre officials shared the good news about "The Sound of Music" last week at a news conference announcing the nonprofit's 50th anniversary season, which includes four plays on the Trinkle Main Stage in 2014.

"There's been a long journey to get to this point," said board Vice President Cynthia Lawrence.

The Roanoke Valley's only Equity theater, Mill Mountain Theatre remains scaled down from the days before debt forced it to shut down and dismiss its staff in early 2009. Before the closure, MMT typically offered up to 12 plays in a season, but the plays were losing money and the theater's debt, accumulated over 10 years, had ballooned to more than $750,000.

Since it went dark, the theater has mounted a slow and steady comeback, first producing children's plays through its education program while the MMT board worked to get debts paid off and forgiven. The board also raised more than $370,000 through a silent fundraising campaign to get the theater back on its feet. In 2012, the theater reported $199,973 in expenses and $376,122 in revenue, according to tax forms.

"We've put money in the bank every year since it closed," Avis said.

In March 2012, the theater put on its first Equity production since the shutdown. "Greater Tuna," a quick-change comedy with only two actors, was used to settle debts with season ticket holders whose purchases weren't honored in 2009.

This year, a debt-free MMT held a full season, albeit much smaller than years past. The musical "The Marvelous Wonderettes" and offbeat comedy "The 39 Steps" were plays with Broadway credentials that didn't require large casts. "Marvelous Wonderettes" played to sold-out houses, while "The 39 Steps," based on Alfred Hitchcock's films, sold slower but ultimately broke even, Avis said. "The Sound of Music" features a cast of 37.

"We're giving Roanoke back its theater," said MMT producing managing director Ginger Poole, Avis' wife.

Going forward, MMT will only put on shows proven to be profitable, and so far "The Sound of Music" is on track. "We've exceeded our corporate sponsorship goal," Avis said.

Next year, the 50th anniversary year, will begin with two winter plays presented in partnership with Hollins University. They are:

- "Decision Height, " Jan. 24-26, Trinkle Main Stage: An award- winning play about women pilots in World War II. Written by Hollins graduate student Meredith Dayna Levy. The performance kicks off the 2014 Region IV division of the Kennedy Center's American College Theater Festival, which takes place at Hollins this year.

- "Ben and Rita ," Feb. 18-23, Waldron Stage. This relationship comedy written by Hollins grad student Wendy-Marie Martin debuted this past summer during the Hollins Festival of New Works.

Then, there will be a regular season of four shows on the Trinkle Main Stage:

- "Swing," May 7-18, brings back the music and dance of the 1940s, celebrating the sounds of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and more.

- "The Wizard of Oz," Aug. 1-3. Young students from the Mill Mountain Theatre Conservatory program will put on and perform this classic children's fable.

- "To Kill a Mockingbird," Oct. 1-12. The stage adaptation of Harper Lee's classic American novel.

- "Children of Eden, " Dec. 3-21. A musical by Stephen Schwartz ("Godspell," "Wicked") based on the Book of Genesis. This musical had its American premiere at Mill Mountain in 1991.

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