The Barn Theatre: Taking stock and making stars
You don’t stay open for 69 seasons as the oldest resident summer stock theater in the state and one of only a few professional Equity summer stock companies left in the country without learning to adapt and roll with the inevitable punches delivered by time.
The Barn Theatre in Augusta has been in the same location and owned by the same family–the Ragotzys –since its start. And while this family’s commitment to producing high quality professional theatre in a unique atmosphere hasn’t wavered, the way the Ragotzys do business has had to change with the times.
Most significantly, in 2013 The Barn Theatre became a non-profit, now called The Barn Theatre School for Advanced Theatre Training. Betty Ebert Ragotzy, who founded The Barn with her husband Jack in 1946, put the wheels in motion for the change shortly before her death in 1995. It may have been an issue of pride for Jack not to cede ownership to a Board, said Resident Manager Eric Parker and longtime actor and director at The Barn. Jack’s death in 2003 was followed by difficult economic times that led to The Barn’s closure for the 2010 season. The theatre reopened the next year, functioning as a nonprofit within a for-profit business. And for the past two years, it’s been a fully-fledged nonprofit.
“It was initially to have scholarships for the apprentices,” said Penelope Alex Ragotzy, 30-year leading lady, publicist, School Dean, and wife of Producer and Artistic Director Brendan Ragotzy, whose parents founded the theatre. “We had to take baby steps.”
It has meant positive changes. “We’re now governed by a lovely group of people. We’re dealing with business people and movers and shakers in the community,” Ragotzy said. “We have a very active Board that’s seeking out grants.”
And that was a huge part of the point. “The aim of the School was to underwrite the apprentice program and facilities improvement,” said Parker.
Every year, The Barn hires young “apprentice” actors from all over the country to perform and learn all aspects of theatre production, working alongside seasoned Equity theatre professionals, many of whom came up through the ranks earning their Equity cards at The Barn. “Coming out of here is like getting your Masters’,” Ragotzy said.
Apprentices not only perform on the main stage and in the Rehearsal Shed cabaret lounge after each performance, they also park cars, sell tickets, work publicity, mow the lawn, usher people to their seats, build sets, make costumes, serve cocktails and scoop ice cream. “The apprentices learn a lot about themselves. We push them to levels they didn’t know they had in them,” Ragotzy said. “It turns out a better performer.”
That has always been a part of how The Barn educates; however, a more recent development, part of becoming a nonprofit school, has been the Backstage Xperience, a free interactive outreach program for K-12 kids. Students from surrounding areas see a show, have a meal, and participate in brief classes that teach them about scenic and props, lighting, costumes, and choreography. They even receive a brief dance lesson in which they learn to perform choreography they’ll then see on stage.
Staffers teach the classes and then pass on the students to apprentices, rotating through the company on different nights. The process turns everyone into a teacher and cultivates theatre appreciation in a new generation. This season 750 kids came through the program to see Ghost and Mary Poppins.
The Barn also educates its audiences, particularly with how the artistic leadership selects the season lineup. “We find it important to teach our audiences, to say, ‘Open your mind to this now,’” Ragotzy said. They must do recognizable crowd-pleasing shows, but they also take chances with new and edgier material. Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t. This season Mary Poppins and Rock of Ages were hugely popular, though Ghost, American Idiot, and Hands on a Hardbody simply didn’t draw the audiences. “Artistically it was an amazingly successful year, really just a fantastic season,” Ragotzy said. However, “we won’t end in the black. It’s a smaller amount of red, though,” she added.
“Being a union theatre has its whole other level of professionalism, which is why we do it. We want a good product,” she said. But as one of only four or five places left in the country with the level of pay and number of union contracts they must hold, “the dollar signs are much much higher.”
Audiences predominately come from Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, but also from Jackson, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and even as far away as Indiana and Ohio. The bulk of them are baby boomers and older, though Ragotzy said the audiences “are getting younger, which is so amazing,” she said. “We’re reaching different people with social media and digital advertising and such. We’re getting a lot of new people—beautiful friends of friends who see posts on Facebook.”
In the off-season, there “is a massive cleanup in the hopes that the weather will hold out,” Ragotzy said. They put on a wildly popular Christmas show in December, “a mix of sacred, pop, and well-known Christmas tunes” that Ragotzy said she directs. In January, they begin auditioning and hiring—at a regional audition in Ohio and via Youtube. Every year they turn down 100-150 actors. They come because “we have good exposure, our alumni is impressive, and word of mouth from past Barnies.”
And once they come, they return again and again. Just this season, two former apprentices earned their Actors’ Equity Association cards, and Robert Newman, Rex Smith, and Tom Wopat, celebrated Broadway and television stars who came of age at The Barn, appeared on stage.
“It’s the family, and the connection you have with a live audience that is like nothing else,” said Parker, who’s closing his 22nd season this year. “I come back for the job and for the friends. I’ve had other opportunities but I choose to come here.”
So things change and things stay the same. The Barn has always educated, and they’ve always entertained. It’s just that they’ve formalized it with a new name and nonprofit status.
Or as Ragotzy said, “It’s our little performance Disneyland and we like to keep it so.”