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Tommy, Can You HEAR Me?

Tommy, Can You HEAR Me?

How the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company is making quite a noise in its 2009 Season with big bang promotions



By Brent McWilliams and Joel M. Dorr



Nestled almost equidistant from Chicago and Indianapolis sits Champaign-Urbana, or for those so bent on blending two names into one, ‘Chambana’.  With a population hovering around 70,000, this college town was fortunate to have in its community 10 local theatre buffs who in 1991, formed the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company (CUTC). And not that the challenge of starting a theatre company wasn’t enough, this budding community theatre also drove the restoration of the historic Virginia Theatre, which for 75 years had been a vaudeville house, live theatre and movie house. 


As with most community theatres, volunteers fuel the fire to mount productions, fundraise, sell tickets and all the other administrative functions of running a theatre. Oh, and this is typically in their spare time, as most of those that staff a community theatre also work a full-time day job. And with over 530 volunteers taking part on stage or behind the scenes in the 13 years since opening, it was time for the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company to consider its future.

“As a primarily volunteer-run organization, all the other Board members and volunteers also have full time jobs,” explains Jeffrey A. Chandler, president of the Board of Directors of the Champaign Urbana Theatre Company. “Therefore progress was understandably slow as we all gave extra effort while maintaining our careers.”

A Shift in Thinking 

CUTC raises funds through several different avenues—sponsorships, grants and “in kind” trade outs.  Various sponsorship levels are offered with staggered perks dependent on the contribution.  Each monetary level of sponsorship comes with perks.  The bigger the sponsorship, the more perks.  Perks can range from preferred seating to afterglow parties to special mentions in the curtain speech.

Chandler and the Board of CUTC decided, while working with a consultant on fundraising, to change their strategy and recruit and hire a full-time managing director. “When we created this position, it had evolved from a part-time position primarily focused on production oversight and daily operation, to more of a business manager in charge of assisting our fundraising and sponsorship agenda, running our office and being a full time representative in the community,” says Chandler.

In addition to the manpower, the CUTC Board also hopes to incrementally grow its fundraising muscle for future viability. CUTC Board Member Todd Salen notes that they are spending more time on fundraising and in the future, states, “We hope to generate enough financial support to raise the money for the entire season prior to tickets going on sale.”   


Enter the Man from Michigan

Michael Galloway, the former executive director of the Cadillac Footlighters Theatre, a community theatre in Cadillac, Mich., just happened to be scanning the American Association of Community Theater’s job board when he came across the managing director position at CUTC. Searching for an opportunity that would allow him to use both his business and creative skills gained in his expansive theatre career, Galloway applied for the position at CUTC. 30 candidates and three interviews later, Galloway was the new managing director for the CUTC.



Fundraising-Music to His Ears


In and around theatre for the past 30 years, Galloway has set his sights on supersizing the fundraising efforts for CUTC and creating a strategy to increase gifts from its 4,000 subscribers and to secure more sponsors. Tapping into his fellow community theatre network, Galloway learned of others success performing concerts of popular, well-known musicals and secured the rights to perform “Tommy” as a concert version.


“What better non-profit group to present “Tommy” in concert than a theater company whose season consists of four Broadway-type musicals each season?” exclaims Galloway. “It seemed to fit us so perfectly!”


And while performing the concert version of “Tommy” was a financially better alternative for fundraising, Galloway had another promotional tie-in sure to help build awareness. He was going to invite Donnie Kehr, one of the original members of the Broadway cast of “Tommy,” to make a special appearance. Kehr grew up in New York City and played the original pinball lad in “The Who’s TOMMY.”  


“I have known Donnie Kehr for years,” explains Galloway. “I met him when I was living in New York in 1989.  When I called and asked him to support CUTC in this endeavor, he was extremely gracious and supportive.  And even though he is extremely busy currently in the Broadway production of “Billy Elliot,” he carved time out of his schedule to help out!”


In addition to the “Tommy”concert fundraiser which will take place between the CUTC’s first and second productions, there will also be an auction of memorabilia autographed by members of the original cast of “Tommy” including Donnie Kehr, Tony Award Winner Christian Hoff, Pete Townsend (from The Who) and others.  


And even though it is a one night affair of music and a bit of choreography, there will be a number of special incentives for sponsorships to help CUTC raise funds to support the general operation of the company during this current economic downturn.


Rather than stage the “Tommy” concert fundraiser at the 1,525-seat Virginia Theatre, the show will be staged at Parkland College in Champaign.  The 300-seat theater provides a more intimate setting for a show like this and CUTC can work with Parkland College’s theatre department to provide sound and lighting staff from their student body.


Fundraising Year-Round


The CUTC season runs from March through October with the upcoming season consisting of “Sweet Charity” in March, “Les Miserables” student production in June, “Annie Get Your Gun” in September, and “Jekyll and Hyde” in October. Shows typically run for one weekend, Thursday through Sunday.


Interspersed within the season are several other creative avenues for raising funds which include Singing Valentines, Traveling Murder Mysteries and theatre education series for adults and children.


Galloway has also planned a promotional tie in with their production of “Sweet Charity.”  To support actress Christina Applegate, who starred in Broadway’s second revival of “Sweet Charity” and has waged a battle against breast cancer, Galloway will not only be raising money for the CUTC but for another good cause.


“We’ve planned a Think Pink Night promotion in conjunction with “Sweet Charity,” explains Galloway. “$1.00 from each performance ticket sold and proceeds from sales of special merchandise will go to the Susan G. Komen Foundation to support Breast Cancer Awareness and Research.”


Mainly a one-man show with only the support of two part-time interns, Galloway is also embracing electronic media to get the word out and recently created a Facebook page for CUTC.  “Along with newsletters and e-news, Facebook allows more people easy access to our Web site and helps keep the community involved in all of our events,” explains Galloway.


Chandler notes that having the full-time staff person has had a positive impact and allowed the company to get a lot more done quickly, stating “With the addition of Mike and his abilities and hard work, we have actually had the manpower and ability to focus fully on making the changes we developed with our consultant.” 


Chandler goes on to say that putting on an event like the “Tommy” fundraising concert would be nearly impossible in the middle of their season without having another person to spearhead it.  

Secrets of Success

Galloway has worked for years to build up his network of peers including others working in community theatre as wells as actors like Kehr, whom he met while working at the China Club as a stage manager & lighting designer in New York City.  Galloway was also involved with the Community Theatre Association of Michigan (CTAM) first as a member, and then ultimately as a vice president. He built a strong network and continually looks for creative ways to sponsor his passion, theatre.


“Theater is a creative outlet,” explains Galloway. “When the season is announced, my very first thoughts go to how to market each show and how to find sponsors that can relate to those shows.  For example, if ‘Willy Wonka’ were in our season, I would pursue a candy maker to underwrite that production; or a beauty salon to sponsor a production of ‘Hairspray.’”


In this tough economy, Galloway has learned a valuable lesson in making sure his season is funded. He likes to work ahead to give himself ample time to find the dollars, but also to benefit his sponsors. Galloway notes, “I like to have shows underwritten before the season is announced so that the underwriters can have the maximum benefit from a whole season of advertising.”


And while searching for incoming dollars, Galloway also has a keen eye on every outgoing dollar. “The toughest part at this point is finding creative ways to ‘stretch the dollar,’” explains Galloway.  “While we are a non-profit organization, we are still a business and need to make every dollar count.  People are feeling the crunch and a large part of my daily routine is ensuring that the money we bring in on a daily basis generates a satisfying product for the community we serve.”


Fingers-crossed Future

Since CUTC is dark from November to January, they haven’t really had to test the recession waters in the box office or for sponsors yet.  Chandler has noticed as of late, like the rest of America, numerous companies in their community have begun layoffs and even some are shutting down.


Champaign-Urbana is very arts-focused and the largest employer is the University of Illinois which offers a strong economic and artistic backbone. Says Chandler, “We offer a luxury service, live theatre, although to me and our membership is vital in our lives, it is probably one of the first things to go in a family budget in the midst of economic trouble.  As our season is about to begin, we all look forward cautiously, spending only what is necessary, and procuring sponsorships and donations from companies and individuals who still have the means or passion to do so. We proceed fingers-crossed and eyes open.”


Chandler foresees a future that builds on their main season by adding smaller, lesser-known shows that expand their artistic prowess and keeps them competitive in the community “I would like to see us reach out more to the community as we expand our educational programming, our theatrical offerings and our business relationships,” explains Chandler. “I want our patrons to continue to respect us as a company that has a reputation for quality theatre, but I would also like to see our patrons continued support as we bring new titles to our stage and new kinds of theatre to the area.” 


Chandler goes on to note CUTC’s priorities by staying focused on their primary goal which is to sustain their current programming before looking at expanding on any of the aforementioned areas.  “Before we can expand our programs and productions, the current season needs to become a well-oiled machine to the point where how to do it successfully every year is second nature, then we can look into expansion.”

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