Martinsburg theater struggles against the odds

November 09, 2003|by David L. Woods

Currently, three volunteer boards in the Interstate 81 corridor are making negative news - the PenMar group dealing with revitalization for Fort Ritchie, the Region 9 Development Board, and the Board of the Apollo Civic Theatre. I've been unable to grasp the futility or financial disaster in the first two. I can, however, offer rationale for financial difficulties at the Apollo.

Within the I-81 corridor, theater and public performance is big business! From Pennsylvania's Allenberry to Virginia's Middletown - there are three year-round and two summer equity companies; semi-professional dinner theatres function in both Hagerstown and Frederick, and more than half a dozen colleges and universities (and even more public and private high schools) offer public programs.

In this admittedly complex and competitive market, how do theaters operate? The Capitol Theatre, Maryland Theatre and Weinburg Center are run by professional-level volunteer boards employing professional theater management. Paid touring companies and other performance groups appear. Local community theater groups present plays at both Capitol and Weinberg, but not the Maryland.


Both the 600-plus seat Apollo and 335-seat Old Opera House are run by volunteer boards. The OOH has employed a full-time artistic manager and half-time assistant the past eight years. Since professional touring groups omit the OOH when they learn its small size, OOH raises funds via a second-hand store, auctions, raffles, special events, receptions, grants and gifts.

The Apollo has employed at least three full-time mangers for a year or so each, plus there have been at least a half-dozen part-time assistants during the past decade.

Despite its ample size, there are few paid public events held at the Apollo beyond 20 Civic Theater events, plus a children's production.

The single board of nonprofessional volunteers serving on the Board of the Apollo Theatre face three conflicting tasks:

1. Preserving a large historic structure with limited, specific use.

2. Trying to fill a nonprofit theater with a variety of programs to attract paying customers, promote culture and increase public use of this facility.

3. Producing an annual season of amateur theatrical productions for the community and region.

Each task is unique and different - although, at first glance, all may seem related.

Historic preservation of any old building is a challenge requiring engineers, architects, historic preservationists, financial experts, and civic leaders. Virtually no such individuals now serve, nor have ever served, on the Apollo board. True historic preservation is simply beyond this board. Yet continuing costs of not only maintaining, but refurbishing, this fine old - yet often dilapidated - theatre dwarf annual production costs!

Operating any old, large theatrical building is difficult - particularly without professional theater management - and with other, modern, well-managed theatres nearby. The Apollo has seldom had a true professional theater manager. Directing a play is far different from running a theatre.

Few amateur boards nationally have ever made any theater pay off - particularly if best dates are reserved for a local community group, which seldom attracts as many as 200 customers to only 20 events yearly!

Since its inception decades ago, the Apollo Board has included many dedicated individuals interested in community theater - but most specifically in acting, directing, or producing plays and musicals for the public. While this board has continuously tried to solve complex funding and preservation tasks, those challenges remain far beyond the scope of any known little theater board in the nation. Sometimes, the Apollo has attracted performers from the Quad States, but seldom does anyone far outside Martinsburg attend an Apollo production. Group ticket sales remain a fiction. An effort to honor leaders as "Apollo Oracles" brought community personalities in to see ACT plays, often for the first time - but was abandoned as "too difficult."

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars nor the Apollo Board - but within ourselves. The Eastern Panhandle has failed to support the Apollo as it does the Roundhouse, the annual Youth Fair, Boarman Arts Center, Regional Airport, War Memorial Park, Belle Boyd House, United Way, and other public community treasures (including the OOH in nearby Charles Town).

Why? Sadly, it is simply a matter of community priorities.

David L. Woods is an adjunct professor for Marshall University, currently teaching Theater Appreciation in the Marshall Regents' program for the National Guard, Air Guard and area military students.

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