Civic Theatre might be thriving, but ‘Friends’ still not streaming back

July 15, 2018

Jerry Casper

As Rochester Civic Theatre opens the musical “Ring of Fire” this weekend, tickets for the show are a hot commodity.

“Looks like we’re going to sell out the entire run,” said Kevin Miller, the Civic’s new executive director.

That’s a bright contrast to the summer of 2017, when the Civic canceled its summer show in the midst of a financial crisis and a major dispute with a large group of volunteers known as Friends of the Rochester Civic Theatre. A popular longtime artistic director had been let go, and the theater’s executive director had resigned following allegations of sexual harassment. The education director also resigned. Ticket sales and donations plummeted, and the theater had to ask the city for an advance on its annual contribution.

“By all rights, what went down probably should have killed them,” said Miller, who was hired four months ago to right the ship.

Somehow, though, the Civic survived, and appears to be making a comeback. Audiences are returning, ticket sales are up, and fundraising has improved, Miller said.

“I think we’re doing very, very well,” said Kay Hocker, president of the Civic’s board of directors. “I feel very positive.”

However, most of the hundreds of actors, musicians, designers, technicians and patrons who last summer signed a petition protesting the board’s operation of the theater have not returned. And some of them vow it will be a long time before they again set foot in the Civic.

“I would never say never,” said Warren Bandel, who was a part of pit orchestras at the Civic for 37 years until last summer. “I just know most of the people I’m used to playing with or being in shows with haven’t gone back — and that tells me something right there.”

On the other hand, the petition included names of a few volunteers who have found their way back to the Civic in recent months.

But, said Jerry Casper, who acted in several shows at the Civic, “I think it will be harder to get me back than some of them.”

Casper was on the board at the Civic when the controversy erupted in the first half of 2017. In an unpopular move, voting rights were taken away from volunteers. The allegations against Executive Director Gregory Stavrou were mishandled, critics alleged. Letting Artistic Director Greg Miller go was a real head-scratcher to outsiders, and was the final straw for many of the volunteers.

“A lot of what happened didn’t have to happen,” Casper said. “For me, it became very personal because I was on the inside, have a theater background, and I was ignored.”

The Friends of Rochester Civic Theatre, formed in the midst of the controversy, wanted voting rights for volunteers restored and demanded that Hocker resign.

Since then, discussions have been held on the voting rights issue. The theater’s sexual harassment policy has been updated. Hocker never resigned, though, and said last week she could theoretically serve a second one-year term as board president.

Meanwhile, said Kevin Miller, the Civic will welcome back any returning volunteers. “I can’t address everything that angered them,” he said. “One thing we can all agree on is that the arts and theater are important. I’ve told them the door is always open.”

Based on recent productions, the Civic has found a new cadre of on-stage and directing talent. June’s production of “August: Osage County” was a significant artistic success. “The Addams Family,” staged last March, was a feel-good musical that made going to the Civic fun again — and sold 97 percent of available tickets.

The director of that show, Misha Johnson, acted in one play at the Civic just before the controversy erupted, and is now a guest director. She has seen the before and the after, and has an idea of why the Civic survived the fallout.

“Just from my perspective,” she said, “art lives on. People want art, people need art, people crave art. To me, that’s the major reason for what has happened at the theater in the past year. There are a lot of warriors for art fighting for that institution. It’s really amazing to watch that excitement build back up.”

“In my four months here,” said Kevin Miller, “I’ve seen that the community really cares about the arts and the theater.”

For his part, Casper said, “I hold no hard feelings.” But, he still intends to stay away from the Civic. “I feel bad that I can’t go see my friends in shows there,” he said. “I just can’t go there.”

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