News Column

Cardinal Theater Company growing in stages

May 25, 2014

By Marcela Creps, Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind.

May 25--It was late 2005 when word started to spread that a new theater company was being formed in Bloomington.

Cardinal Theater Company was founded by an enthusiastic 39-year-old theater director, Randy White, who moved to Bloomington with his wife when she landed a job at Indiana University.

For current Cardinal board member Sandy Sabbagh, the idea of a new theater company in Bloomington was, in a word, "trite."

Still, Sabbagh, a former speech and theater teacher in Indiana and Ohio, got tickets for this new company's first production, a take on the American classic, "Our Town," staged in January 2006.

The Realtor bought tickets for herself, her husband and two clients, although she knew it was a big risk to take clients to a production of an unknown or untested theater group.

Sabbagh and company were knocked out by the production.

"I never thought local live theater could be that good," she said.

Grow for me

Eight years later, Cardinal Stage Company is preparing for its ninth season with an annual budget of more than $1 million, plans to add staff and a new designation as a small professional equity theater.

"We're still having pretty substantial growth year after year," White said. "I think that, from a personal point of view, what matters is you've got staff that is committed and you've got a board of directors that's committed."

White's goal is to have a professional regional theater company in line with the Indianapolis Repertory Theater. He also has his sights set on Cardinal having its own theater space -- both lofty goals that White believes are attainable given the company's continued success.

"It had always been my idea that you're looking at a 10- to 12-year timeline to being pretty close to being a professional regional theater company," White said.

Considering the rough financial waters of recent years, the theater company has continued to garner support not only from local businesses but from community members who believe in the importance of having a thriving and diverse arts scene.

"We have not had a sort of sugar daddy or sugar momma as part of the growth of the company," White said.

Cardinal instead has relied on a couple of what White calls significant donors, but also has won lots of support from the community.

"The support that we have on the contributed side has been very broad based, and we've worked very hard to build those individual donors. Where we have been enormously successful is on the corporate sponsorship side," White said.

And that corporate support has local ties, rather than national chains. The support comes from such institutions as the local credit union, car dealerships and downtown businesses.

"That's been a big part of our success," White said.

With a little bit of luck

Local support in a small community can be spread only so thin. But the arrival of Cardinal on the theater scene hasn't been anything but positive in the eyes of Jonathan Michaelsen, chairman of Indiana University's department of theater, drama and contemporary dance.

"We always feel like good theater breeds good theater. You get a culture of it then, and that can be very exciting. There isn't a sense that you can only have a certain amount of theater," Michaelsen said.

With Cardinal, IU's theater department, the IU Auditorium series and a host of local theater groups, including Bloomington Playwrights Project, the Jewish Theatre of Bloomington, Ivy Tech and the Monroe County Civic Theater, the town is usually brimming with options.

"That gives our audiences really great experiences and things to discuss," Michaelsen said.

But Michaelsen also points out that what Bloomington doesn't have is a large population base.

"We are in a smaller market, and Bloomington is a fantastic place to live, but we don't have a population base that's humongous," he said.

But the options are also good for students studying theater at IU. Despite the productions at IU, there aren't always enough parts to go around. So having access to local theater gives students who want to be involved a chance to perform.

The university also provides a good talent pool for the local theater groups.

"I think that's a mutually beneficial relationship. If the university wasn't here, there wouldn't be that pool here of students that I think helps raise up both in a way," Michaelsen said.

Theaters such as Cardinal also give students a different experience of working with organizations that need to fundraise and may not have all the amenities the university can offer when it comes to putting on a production.

Merry almost Christmas

But success isn't always easy for White and Cardinal. While the company has continued to churn out audience hits year after year, other shows haven't been quite so successful.

When Cardinal chose to do a dark "Christmas Carol" as the holiday show in 2010, it dug a financial hole for the company that took some time to recover from.

Even when shows succeed, ticket sales are never enough to cover the cost of the production. For example, the annual holiday show can cost between $80,000 and $100,000 to stage.

"There's not one show that we do that pays for itself," White said.

Finding the right shows is a risky business, and White has to balance the familiar with interesting options.

"It's a very tricky balance. I would say the hardest thing about running a theater company is programming the season," White said.

But he admits that is also what excites him. White has had a chance to revisit plays he's directed elsewhere and also direct plays he's always wanted to stage.

Some gambles have paid off. In 2013, Cardinal staged "Next to Normal," a dark musical about a woman struggling with life and how her family reacts. Buzz around the production spread quickly through Bloomington and by the end of the run, the shows were sold out.

"What we know is we've got to get those first shows filled and get word of mouth going," White said. "That was a risk that paid off in a big way."

White could have extended the run for "Next to Normal," but without its own performance space, that option is often impossible.

We're off to see the wizard

This upcoming season will provide Cardinal with a chance to do more outreach. The company recently received a $34,000 grant from Duke Energy Foundation to stage "A Short History of Nearly Everything." The 45-minute play will be performed at more than 30 schools and seen by as many as 12,000 students.

Cardinal also has the IU Credit Union Education Initiative. One of its many focuses is the Cardinal for Schools program that allows thousands of students to see Cardinal productions. There are also Community Access Tickets that allow at-risk children to see shows for free.

For board member Sabbagh, the education component has been a welcome addition to the theater company. "As a former teacher, I knew after the second or third season, I knew Randy was dedicated to bringing kids to shows," Sabbagh said.

Sabbagh said she's seen first-hand how students react to live theater and how that exposure can be life changing. During Cardinal productions, Sabbagh said she likes to sit where she can see the faces of children light up during a show.

"We could do a local theater and not do any of that outreach," Sabbagh said. But she knows it is worth the effort to take on that community role to bring arts to the young.

Cardinal has even added an education director to help with its outreach efforts.

It's a hard knock life

As fun as the plays can be for audience members and staff alike, it still is a lot of work. White tips his hat to the hard-working actors as well as the behind-the-scenes staff of set designers, production managers and support staff who give everything they have to help Cardinal put on a good show.

"Without the quality of shows, nothing would exist," White said.

Having a vibrant art scene has long been a big sell for Bloomington. As a Realtor, Sabbagh will include information about the arts in packets for new residents, including information on Cardinal. The idea that from anywhere in Monroe County you are only 20 minutes from a seat to see really good theater is a selling point, she said.

"It's a selling point for Bloomington that you can be in your seat at that quality level," she said. "People are still surprised by the arts of Bloomington."

The great White way

As Cardinal continues to soar, Sabbagh believes White has been the key to the theater company's success. Despite his lofty goals that include the upcoming production of "Les Miserables," White continues to receive support from the community and the board.

Sabbagh believes White's ability to not only direct but to manage the business side of Cardinal has been an important cog in the wheel. She said White can also design sets and costumes while still being able to have the artistic vision for the group.

"Most have several people to fill those shoes," she said. "I can't really think of anything he can't do."

Michaelsen knows having that kind of skill set is important.

"Theaters start up all the time and that's a good thing because people like Randy have a real passion for what they do. Where we struggle sometimes is we have this passion and then we have to have people who understand how to do the taxes," Michaelsen said.

White is committed to Cardinal and its goals for growth.

"Creating theater is so vital to some of us in terms of just the way we're made that starting it is terribly difficult. But it's kind of a calling. You're compelled to do that," Michaelsen said.

___

(c)2014 the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.)

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Source: Herald-Times (Bloomington, IN)


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