DENNIS, Mass. — In what its board president called “going in a new direction,” the Cape Playhouse has launched an unprecedented fundraising drive and begun organizing various groups of supporters to help make the theater thrive.
A “restructuring” also has resulted in the departure of longtime, sometimes controversial, leaders as officials move toward repairing both the historic building and the theater’s place in the local arts community.
“The number of people stepping up to be involved to ensure the future of the playhouse has been absolutely, overwhelmingly exciting,” Managing Director Brett Bernardini said. “Because of them, there are great successes already happening,” resulting in what he described in a recent email to patrons as “a true renaissance.”
Officials recently launched a push to raise $500,000 before the theater reopens for its 92nd season in June. It’s a rare public fundraising campaign in the 11 years since the Cape Cod Center for the Arts, which oversees the theater and adjacent Cape Cinema, became a nonprofit organization, and its goal is nearly twice what was raised in donations in the most successful year during that period.
In the past few months, donations, season subscriptions and volunteer numbers have increased, officials say, and about half of the center’s seven-member board of trustees has been replaced. President Leslie A. Gardner expects more new trustees to be named soon.
Officials are also organizing support groups they hope will be fully in place for the 2018 season: one of area business leaders; one of alumni actors, backstage help and others associated with the theater in the past; and one of volunteers. Bernardini recently asked for help via email to organize next summer’s gala, and got 22 volunteers in a few days.
“People care deeply and passionately about the Cape Playhouse and want it to thrive and survive,” Gardner said about the country’s oldest professional summer theater, which launched the careers of Hollywood and Broadway stars. Officials want to put that passion to good use.
“We all want to create a better sense of community, and part of the way of doing that is asking people to be involved,” said Bernardini, who has sent emails to supporters with the phrase “YOU are the future of the Cape Playhouse.” While noting he wasn’t criticizing anyone, he wrote “the organization over the years hasn’t spent a lot of time and resources on building that community.”
New trustees William W. Templeton, Dennis Corcoran and Jason Hogan replace three men who officially retired at the Oct. 20 annual meeting after being on the board since or just after the arts center became a nonprofit organization in 2006. Gardner praised the time, care and stewardship the retiring trustees — Richard B. Hawes, former Judge Joseph P. Reardon and Russell V. Corsini — had given to the theater and arts campus through the years.
They and longtime treasurer Robert Uek, who remains on the board, were also the target, though, of numerous complaints from past staff about not doing enough to raise needed money and to keep the historic theater in good repair during a challenging time for the arts.
After a bumpy few years of changing leadership, Gardner and Bernardini were both new in their positions for 2017, as was artistic director Michael Rader. Gardner credited Rader with creating renewed excitement about the playhouse with a season of six shows that were hits with critics and audiences. Earlier this month, Cape Playhouse was named one of 50 “best small-stage theaters in America” (four of which were in Massachusetts) by the clickitticket.com ticket-resale service.
“The staff at the playhouse has worked tirelessly over the past year to improve the playhouse and our programming and the results are beginning to show,” Rader said via email. He expressed pride in that designation and patron response to his staff’s accomplishments, crediting the “exceptional actors, directors and designers” for the high quality.
Rader, Bernardini and Gardner faced various problems when they took over an aging arts center in enough of a financially precarious position with buildings in disrepair over the years that many past employees and community members wondered, as outlined in a Times series in July, whether it could survive. Fundraising quickly became a high priority for the new administration.
About $60,000 was raised at the theater’s second summer gala, and, as part of his development plan approved by trustees last month, Bernardini has upped a push to win grants. He also hopes to raise another $100,000 to $160,000 in donations by the end of the year, and feels well on his way with $45,000 donated in September.
“People are being very generous. They realize the need to go beyond subscriptions and individual ticket sales,” Gardner said. “This is the beginning of the process for us.”
Those funds are targeted for operational expenses plus technical improvements in lighting, sound and patron listening devices. Money is also being sought for apprentices and a new education program that Rader said nearly sold out last summer, requiring more staff than expected, and is due to be expanded because of its success.
Another $30,000 was donated over less than three weeks last summer to match a Mass Cultural Council grant to “develop a long-term master plan for sustainability and to assess immediate facility repairs and renovations” needed for the theater and its outbuildings.
While concerns had been expressed for more than a decade about the condition of the theater structure, little money had been spent on major repairs. Officials are now hiring a company for the assessment work, and hope to have results by spring that will determine what steps to take next to preserve the 19th-century church that was moved and turned into a theater in 1927.
Fundraising will enter a new phase Wednesday with the start of a November “month of gratitude,” in which Bernardini is urging donors to give money in honor of a person, event or a part of the community for which they are thankful. He hopes to share stories on the playhouse website and via social media.
That’s just one way the new administration is reaching out to supporters, and leaders are determined the playhouse will become more visible and involved in both the Cape arts world and the community in Dennis and beyond.
“We will continue to need the support of the community all along,” Gardner said. “But there’s every reason to believe and hope the community will stay with us.”