COVER STORY – Acting on Experience

Posted on Jul 1, 2012 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Peninsula Players

The eight-tenths of a mile that Peninsula Players Road takes west from Highway 42 goes past an open field and a couple of houses before darkening with tall trees shading the asphalt. A tight right turn as it winds down the bluff transports visitors to the Players’ world. The sun is still strong on Green Bay, illuminating the benches and chairs next to the outdoor bar in the garden. Early arrivals may be finishing off picnic lunches or just buying drinks and enjoying the setting. The unnatural tranquility owes something to the difficulty in getting a cell phone signal below the high bluff.

Now in its 77th year, the Peninsula Players is an odd duck in the drama world – a successful self-sustaining nonprofit that mixes light fare with plays that challenge both audiences and actors. Although it operates its stage only during the summer (June 12 to October 14) the director’s selection of scripts is more like a regional than a summer stock theater.

Peninsula Players doesn’t sell tickets to just a play, said Brian Kelsey, the Players’ managing director, it sells tickets to an experience. By the time ticket-holders have made their way to the lawn, enjoyed a cocktail and the view, they have left the concerns of the world behind and are ready for theater. When they come out after the play ends a bonfire is roaring in the fire pit – weather permitting. It is an invitation to linger at the bar and talk, not to mention an effective way to dispose of old sets and trees felled by winter storms.

Kelsey said the Players does not advertise itself as family entertainment, presenting some disturbing plays, like Ivan Turgenev’s The Cherry Orchard, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage or A Few Good Men in 2011. Tickets are $33 to $42.

“(A Few Good Men) was hard to sell, but it had the audience on their feet screaming at the close,” Kelsey recalled. “As a theater company, we have to stay sustainable but also produce work that challenges the audience, makes them think and also challenges the actors and the designers.”

Greg Vinkler, the artistic director, said the Players has a long history of doing artistic shows. He picks the plays and mixes five shows in a season to produce work that will both entertain tourists and satisfy discerning season ticket holders.

“I spend a lot of time picking the season because I want variety. I also like all the shows to be different from each other, so if someone comes to every show, each time the curtain goes up it is a whole different world for them.”

The actors are under an Equity resident summer theater contract, which means that most of the cast are in Fish Creek for the entire summer, so Vinkler looks for shows where he can carry actors from one play to another.

“It doesn’t always work out. We did a comedy, Breaking Legs, that was mostly old male gangster types who were a little difficult to carry into the next show. Most of the time it works out, but it does mean that I need actors who are not only very good but also able to do a number of different types of roles, and not every actor can do that.”

The company lives in cottages and apartments scattered around the property. Vinkler said the theater tries to make the summer wonderful for everyone so they will want to come back. Saturday night the bar stays open late for the cast, the company does Christmas in July and interns hold a boathouse party every year around a theme of their choosing.

“Lots of company members have children running around, and we always have a bunch of dogs and cats, sometimes birds, plus an iguana one summer and a hedgehog another.” With all 40 or so members of the company – actors, designers, directors, stage managers, interns and administrators – living and working together, everyone gets to know everyone else involved in the creative and production process. Interns are eager to work at the Players because they know they will get to work alongside experienced theater professionals.

Audiences

The theater has done audience surveys for the last three years with results that would make any retailer envious. One hundred percent would recommend the theater to a friend, and the same percentage thought the ticket purchasing experience was good. The Players has no intention of relinquishing this important customer contact to ticker brokers; it handles all ticket sales directly through the box office, on the phone or over the Internet, which accounted for 11 percent of sales last year, double from 2010.

The playgoers come mostly from Wisconsin, followed by suburban Chicago and then from all over – Georgia, Oregon, Ohio, St. Louis, Kansas City. Some are vacationing, some have second homes here.

Business manager Audra Baakari Boyle said she took her first order in October from a couple who said when they were traveling to Door County and they didn’t care what was on, they wanted to see a Players production.

“We had a number who said that Peninsula Players is the primary factor in their coming to Door County,” added Boyle. “They have a favorite place to stay, a couple of favorite places to eat and they intend to come and see a production and build a vacation around it. Some come at our changeover so they can see two productions in one week.”

The surveys also showed that the most frequent source of new business was word of mouth.

“That’s frustrating when you come to ROI on marketing spend,” Kelsey, a marketing professional before joining the Players, half-complained. “But we figure someone originally had to see some marketing materials somewhere.”

Surprisingly for a nonprofit, the Players largely covers its costs through ticket sales, which Kelsey attributes to a loyal audience and a highly supportive local community. It runs an economical operation, he added, gesturing around the office which, other than computers and a copier-fax machine, looks as if it might have been furnished in the first year of operations. The office and several other buildings were on the site when the Players first opened in 1937, while the boathouse dates at least to the ’20s.

Staying solvent for 77 years in a business of discretionary purchases means paying close attention to the larger economy. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, after the close of the Players season, the theater prepared for a financially challenging 2009. They decided to scale back with smaller shows, including only the second one-person show they have ever done: The Lady with all the Answers – the Ann Landers show. But they also produced the Midwest premier of Mark Twain’s Is He Dead?

Ticket sales were down about 8 percent, but the Players had prepared by reducing their attendance projections, doing less expensive shows and putting more energy into fundraising.

2010, however was the company’s historic 75th and the Players decided on a strategy of optimism to do the anniversary justice.

“The board was strong and supportive of Greg’s artistic decisions,” said Kelsey. “He paid attention to cast size and we opened with Heroes, a three-person show that was the Midwest premier and very well received. Then we said we had to do something big, and we chose Sondheim’s A Little Night Music which is lush and glorious.” Over the Tavern, was a real crowd pleaser and set a box office record, said Boyle.

This year’s plays include Opus (June 12 to 24), The Nerd (June 27 to July 22), the musical Chicago, (July 25 to Aug. 12) Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Nile (Aug. 15 to Sept. 2) and Lombardi (Sept. 5 to Oct. 14).

Alan Kopischke, the company’s development director, finds this year’s playbill exciting. The Nerd is one of the funniest plays ever written, he said, Chicago is a superb musical and Lombardi – well, the area is known to have a few Packers fans and the company is working to get team members involved at multiple levels.

Perhaps the biggest change in the Players’ history, besides the changes in ownership and the move to a nonprofit organization, was the 2005 decision to replace the original pavilion.

Boyle recalls tearing tickets in the last months of the old pavilion. Many patrons wanted to tell her of their first experience at the theaters, and explain to the children or grandchildren what that had been like. Roughly equal numbers of patrons hated to see the old one go as said its demise was overdue.

There was no divide when the new facility opened in 2006 – acclaim was universal. Designed by Scott Georgeson, a Milwaukee architect who specializes in theater design, it has extended the experience of the Peninsula Players and added comfort for both the audience and the cast (see sidebar).

With its handsome, and heated, new theater building, the Peninsula Players will offer its closing production, Lombardi, during fall tailgate season, plenty of time for readers to see for themselves what the Players experience is all about.

The New Building

Building a new theater between seasons – over a Wisconsin winter – and in a tight space where trees and the original atmosphere had to be preserved was a logistical challenge. Scott Georgeson, the Milwaukee architect who designed the theater, said the design process took several years of working with the board; Todd Schmidt, the former executive producer; Greg Vinkler, the artistic director and several actors to define what the building should provide. The biggest concern was about not losing the experience of going to a play at Peninsula Players.

“There was a lot of resistance to changing things; everyone liked it the way it was.” The challenge was to change the theater while maintaining the quality of the experience.

So the proscenium line in the new theater is exactly where it was in the old. Because the footprint had to stay the same on the east side of the property, the theater added a balcony to provide fixed capacity for 621 on upholstered seats or up to 700 with loose seats.

“We wanted a full 65-foot fly tower (the space above the stage to hoist scenery and sometimes people). That gets tall quick.”

The walls developed by Boldt Company in Appleton are 4-foot wide 65-foot long pre-fit concrete panels like those used on highway bridges, stood on end and lifted into place with a huge crane sitting on a temporary ramp that was constructed for the project.

“The crane was halfway down the hill. It had to pick the panel completely off the truck bed and swing it through the trees. It was done in a week,” said Kelsey. “Boldt was great at prepositioning and understanding how it all had to go together. They had the Spancrete pre-ordered by summer even though we didn’t start until September.” The theater closed three weeks early but opened on schedule the following June.

Board member Bill Parsons, former president of Palmer Johnson Yachts, said that Oscar Boldt, founder of the construction firm, had a long connection with the Players and took a personal interest in the project. “He weighed in on almost every aspect and looked after us. The replacement happened over the winter and almost everyone said we wouldn’t make it in time for the next season, but we did and we never lost a seat. We had a builder who was nothing short of outstanding.”

Finances

The new theater, scene shop and concession stand cost $7 million.

Sturgeon Bay philanthropists Carla and Ellsworth Peterson led the fundraising with a $1 million challenge grant.

“We don’t have the large companies based here to provide the kind of support you find in some areas, but we do have an extremely generous community,” said Kopischke. “The Petersons’ challenge grant was in addition to their being regular generous givers over the years.”

Parsons aid the company was lucky to launch its fundraising when it did, ahead of the 2008 economic crash.

“We were very fortunate or we would have had real difficulty. But we had a reasonably vibrant economy and the stock market was, happily, at a good value at that point.”

He sees some new level of confidence about the overall economy, which is good because the company has $750,000 left to go in the capital campaign. The theater offers naming opportunities at various price points, from seats at $2,500 up to the stage-house for $750,000.

“In a capital campaign every dollar you raise is harder than the last,” said Kopischke, “because you have been to all the best prospects, your biggest donors. I think we had a plan we felt good about, and then the economy tanked. We have been working diligently and made steady progress, but we would have liked to be done by now.”

For the first time this year the Players is offering sponsorship of individual plays for $3,000 to $10,000. Sponsoring plays isn’t a new idea, but the Players were reluctant to do it until they found a price range they felt comfortable with. They have talked with an architectural firm about sponsoring The Nerd because one character is an architect, and architects love the play.

Kopischke is also responsible for the company’s annual $170,000 fundraising campaign.

The Peninsula Players hasn’t always been self-sustaining. Ron Berg, the retired president of Baylake Bank, who was president of the Players for about 15 years, said the company achieved stability in the late 1960s when Tom Birmingham became the general manager. For many years after he got involved, the Players struggled with financial problems, said Berg who saw similar problems with other nonprofits he served.

“The nonprofits do a lot of good things, but it is hard for many of them to realize that you have to run as a business if you are going to survive.” At the Players, and on other arts boards, many of the artists referred to the businessmen on the boards as “suits.” A good arts board needs a mixture of business and artistic board members, he said.

Parsons said the managers, especially since Brian’s predecessor Todd Schmidt, have kept a constant eye on the company’s financial performance, he added.

“As a result, the theater as a financial model has been little short of amazing. Over the years the theater actually finishes in the black before any contributions. It earns, or at least does not lose, based solely on its ability to sell tickets. That does make it somewhat easier being a board member because the wolf isn’t always at the door.”

Board members think their efforts have been worth it.

“How many places can you go where you get professional actors like the Peninsula Players and a wide selection of plays from musicals and comedies to some of the most intense dramas?” asked Berg.

On the web: www.peninsulaplayers.com