By Anthony Chase
A March 13, 2019 article in the Lancaster/Depew Bee reports that after back and forth deliberations, "The Lancaster Regional Players, which is in its 37th season with the [Lancaster] Opera House, was told ... that it will have to find a new venue for its 2019-20 season."
What has ensued is a public relations crisis for the Opera House and a sustainability crisis for the Lancaster Regional Players.
The report, written by the Bee's editor, Holly N. Lipka, states that the community theater received a letter from the opera house artistic and executive director, David Bondrow, stating that, “Since LRP has chosen to move away from the Opera House to competing venues, and in light of the complaints you have raised about our marketing of your shows, we feel that the producing partnership has veered into a balance where LOH continues to invest advertising dollars and significant support staff, but the organizational, financial, and artistic results of the product do not allow us to include these shows on our schedule.”
By "competing venues," Bondrow was apparently referring to an agreement between Lancaster Regional Players and the Village of Williamsville, signed three years ago, allowing the community theater to produce shows at the Williamsville Meeting House.
In the Bee report, Bondrow and Lancaster Regional Players president Russ Wendel both defended their positions vigorously.
Wendel defended the quality of his group's productions and its community focus; asserting that the Opera House has invested little to promote the community theater shows; describing any proposals from the opera house as being vague and inconclusive; and stating his belief that Lancaster New York Opera House, Inc. simply wanted them out and was determined to find a pretext.
Bondrow countered that "several attempts were made over a significant period of time to create a more feasible partnership with LRP."
This development came to my attention when a supporter of the Lancaster Regional Players appealed for my thoughts on the matter through Facebook.
Okay. Here are my thoughts:
It sounds as if this disagreement has been a longtime brewing. For several years it has been apparent that Lancaster New York Opera House, Inc. under artistic and executive director David Bondrow has aspired to move the venue in a more professional direction. This was balanced with providing "a venue for shared community involvement and to produce and present quality entertainment opportunities for artists and patrons," as is stated in the Lancaster New York Opera House, Inc. mission.
I do not have any firsthand knowledge of the specifics. For all I know, Lancaster Regional Players have been a chronic pain in the ass, dragging down the programming of the Opera House, damaging its reputation, draining its finances, and spoiling the fun for everybody. It is also possible that Lancaster New York Opera House Inc has allowed its mission to tilt in an inappropriately professional direction that abandons its "community" element. On its IRS 990 forms, the group responds to the request, "Briefly describe the organization's mission or most significant activities," with "provide live theater to the community," which would seem to place the community in a passive position as a recipient of programming, rather than in a participatory role.
I would have a few questions.
The stated mission of the opera house is "To provide a venue for shared community involvement and to produce and present quality entertainment opportunities for artists and patrons." Part of the mission is, clearly, "quality," but before quality, the statement emphasizes "shared community involvement" and "opportunities for artists and patrons."
On its surface, I would assume "community involvement" to mean, the ability of members of the community to be involved in the production of entertainment not just as patrons, but as artists too. The opposite interpretation is also available. The current direction seems to emphasize opportunities for local professionals.
Similarly, I would ask how the "quality" of a community theater was being judged? This would seem to require a different set of criteria from the evaluation of a professional theater, as the goals of a community theater are different and include fair access, opportunity, and education.
The Opera House vision statement also suggests a balance between professional and community offerings.
To support the artistic community by providing a fully-equipped and professionally operated venue for regionally based performing artists. We encourage the work of theater companies and performing artists both professional and amateur.
To contribute to the development of talent in the region though educational opportunities and real-work experience. We encourage an exchange of ideas and practices by paring professional and semi-professional artists from Western New York and other cultural centers with local students and amateur performing artists.
To make the Opera House facility available to other organizations of a cultural, civic or educational nature.
Actress Jamie Nablo clearly states some of these values in a Facebook post about this development: "The community theater companies that used to operate through the opera house (many already gone) fostered the love and the beginnings of the career I now am lucky enough to have. It kills me to know that young and old performers alike will not the have same opportunity to dip their toes in the water of the arts though passionate community theater companies producing shows at the Opera House."
While the situation is being assessed, I would ask, does the building belong to "Lancaster New York Opera House, Inc." or to the town, and therefore to the people of Lancaster? If it is the latter, how fully has oversight of the building and its use been outsourced to the not-for-profit entity? How is the leadership of Lancaster New York Opera House evaluated and by whom? If the trustees are answerable only to themselves, then the Lancaster Regional Players have no recourse. If those trustees are answerable to the town, that is an entirely different story.
In any event, the community theater may be entitled to a conversation, if not with the Opera House trustees, then with the town officials who seem to have handed stewardship of Opera House programming over to those trustees. It is also possible that everything has been discussed with the Lancaster Regional Players in a fair an open manner already and they are just whining.
In short, the Lancaster Regional Players can appeal to the trustees of the Opera House. They can also appeal to town officials, if the building is actually under the auspices of the town. And finally, they can appeal to the court of public opinion.
From what has been described here, however, it may be that the die has already been cast.