The Calliope Theater is still going strong as a local theater company 40 years later
BOYLSTON – “When we started, we were so keen to grow Calliope Productions into a viable and successful theater company that we didn’t speculate on how long it would last,” said David Ludt. “We always said we expected it to be a ‘long-term’ theater company, but we had no idea how long that actually meant.”
Forty years later, Calliope Theater is not only still in business, but operates from its own site on Main Street in Boylston.
Calliope Productions began in February 1982, with veteran community theater artists Dave and Kathy Ludt and John Leslie working together.
From a dinner theater production at a Worcester restaurant in May 1982, Calliope grew.
“Calliope’s success is due to the ingenuity of its board of directors, the overwhelming support of its performers and audiences, its resilience – or stubborn determination – to overcome obstacles, and a healthy dose of luck. “Ludt said.
“Calliope’s leadership stability has been particularly important to its growth, longevity and success. In addition to John Leslie and myself, there are currently three other board members who have served on the Calliope board for over 35 years,” added Ludt. “Such stability, experience, institutional knowledge and a shared vision are essential to success. .”
After the first productions, Calliope was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1983.
This move “was one of the biggest things we’ve done. This opened the door for members of the public and friends to make tax-exempt donations and opened the door for employer matching funds and public and private grants,” Ludt said.
“It also allowed us to receive funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Commission, as well as Local Arts Councils (now called Local Cultural Councils). During its first two decades, Calliope relied on these donations and grants for up to 25% of its annual operating budget.
He also qualified the group for nonprofit postal rates and avoided taxes.
“An additional factor in the initial success of Calliope was the coverage that local newspapers were giving to theaters at that time. Feature articles and reviews from critics were the lifeblood of theater companies that could not afford to buy newspaper advertisements. And the local press was very supportive of local theater,” Ludt said.
Returning to a time on several dailies, he said: ‘There were occasions when the Worcester Telegram would publish one critic’s review of a production in the morning paper, and the Worcester Gazette would publish another’s review. review of the same production in the evening. paper.”
Success is measured by the number of productions, from three in 1982 with 11 performances to a dozen shows in 2010 with 59 performances.
“We managed to expand our performance venue with a new addition to the building in 2009, which greatly improved the scope and types of productions we could stage. As a result, our 2010 season was a banner year for Calliope – with a record total audience of 7,364 and houses averaging 80% occupancy,” Ludt said.
The vast majority of viewers and performers live in central Massachusetts, he said, with other “regulars” coming closer to Boston, southern Hew Hampshire and northern Connecticut.
Keeping the bills paid required more than subsidies.
In addition to the importance of donations and grants, Calliope’s youth theater program offered instruction and income.
“We started our youth theater program in 1991 and offer performance workshops for teens in the summer and tweens in the spring, summer and fall. In normal (i.e., non-pandemic) years, revenue from the youth theater program covers approximately 25% of Calliope’s annual operating budget.
Calliope was not the only theater in the region and the spectators supported them all.
“As the second largest metropolitan area in New England, the Worcester area can easily accommodate many more live performance venues than it currently has. In fact, in the 1980s and 1990s, there were at least 22 additional theater companies operating year-round or seasonally in the Worcester area that no longer exist,” Ludt said.
“The theater community supports each other. All community theaters in the region generally draw from the same pool of artists. The interpreters rotate from one theater to another… It is the same for the public of the theatres; they usually attend productions from several different theater companies. They seem to be more loyal to their love of the theater itself than to any exclusive allegiance to one theater company over another.
A first-time theatergoer who has a good experience will attend more theatrical performances, Ludt said.
“The more live theaters there are, the greater the number of first-timers who turn into long-time viewers. And a theatergoer who attends a professional production at The Hanover is likely to also attend a community theater production – and vice versa.
Overcome the obstacles
Calliope saw changes but kept going, overcoming obstacles.
“The most significant change Calliope had to deal with was the sudden death of my wife Kathy in 2003. Kathy and I had always been co-artistic directors of Calliope – she was in charge of all directing responsibilities and of the youth theater program, as well as taking care of all the finances and accounting; I was in charge of the technical aspects (lighting, sound, sets), as well as the maintenance of the buildings and properties , marketing and fundraising,” Ludt said.
“We both shared the duties of picking games and managing day-to-day operations. Fortunately, the Calliope Board has stepped up its involvement in overseeing Calliope’s finances and day-to-day operations to fill the void left after Kathy’s passing, while I have added Kathy’s leadership responsibilities to my own functions.
Over the past two years, pandemic-related restrictions have had a major impact on public performances.
The 15-month pandemic shutdown of live theaters in Massachusetts has been devastating for theater groups, Ludt said.
“With no money from ticket sales or any other source of revenue, theaters that had their own facilities or were tied to fixed leases have been particularly hard hit. Some theater companies have closed permanently; d others are still in limbo with no place to perform.
Calliope had minimal expenses for her building.
“With no revenue after we closed in early March 2020, things looked dire. As a result, in the summer and fall of 2020, I wrote newsletters that included “Covid- 19 Relief” and mailed and emailed them to everyone on our mail and email lists, resulting in a record number of contributions that have sustained us throughout this year.
In the spring of 2021, two months spent working on applications for the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Recovery Grant Program and the federal government’s US Bailout Shuttered Venues (SVOG) grant program brought good news. In the summer of 2021, funding for the two programs ensured Calliope’s fiscal stability through 2022, he said.
Looking back on 40 years of Calliope, Ludt said: “The historical highlights were obtaining our own building in 1999 and the successful completion of the building expansion in 2009.”
But the artistic highlights may have been shared with members of the public who took the opportunity to see some local theater live.
Ludt noted several:
“Our 1987 production of ‘Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood,’ which was made with the help of Broadway producer Arthur Cantor, who helped us secure the rights to the show from Oscar Hammerstein’s estate, and let us borrow costumes from the original London and Broadway productions of the show.
“Our 2000 production of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ which brought the whole house (audience, performers and staff) to tears at the end.
“Our 2010 teen production of the musical ‘Les Miserables’, which rivaled professional productions in quality.
“Our 2015 production of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, which was staged following the notes Samuel Beckett created for his own definitive production of the work in 1975, which I researched from from a copy of the original manuscript in the British Library in London.”
He added, “and I could go on and on. . .”
The road to his own house
The support Calliope received from its first production in May 1982 and the initial collaboration with the Northborough First Parish Unitarian Church (where David and Kathy were members of the church choir) led to Calliope’s first “home” in the First Parish Church Hall. They rented space there for 17 years.
“The idea of having our own space came seven years later, in 1989, when we tried to strike a deal with the First Parish Church for a long-term lease of the First Parish Hall and a collaborative fundraising campaign. to renovate and expand the building into an improved performance hall that included meeting spaces for the church,” Ludt said.
“When the church turned us down and instead doubled the annual rent, Calliope started a building fund to raise money to buy our playhouse and started looking for ways to get his own facility. Nine years later, after another big rent increase in 1998, Calliope was forced out of the first parish hall, and the future of Calliope Productions was questionable, he said.
“After months of searching around various properties and with the help of the George S. and Sybil H. Fuller Foundation, Calliope selected a church building that was for sale at 150 Main Street in Boylston and, in 1999 , received a grant to buy it.
Since then, Calliope has been a mainstay of theater in the region.
The latest stage performance is Calliope’s spring production, “Night Watch,” a thriller thriller by Lucille Fletcher, which debuts March 10.
For tickets and more information, go to www.calliopeproductions.org.