If you drop by the State Theatre offices, most days you are sure to be greeted by a bespectacled smile and a warm hello. The face behind those glasses and smile is half of the new leadership at the State Theatre, Steven Barker, the Events and Outreach Coordinator and now Campaign Chair of the #savethestate #fundthefuture fundraising drive to keep the doors open and the lights on.
The 37-year-old Midlothian, Virginia native immediately apologizes for the state of his desk, which is piled with items from performance schedules and marketing items to budgets and strategic plans. To the side of the creatively strewn piles are a stack of business cards, connections Barker has made since arriving in Culpeper in April.
Barker states, â??The first week I was here, I started the outreach part of my job. We (Barker & Theatre Manager Jodi Stone) wanted people to know that there were new people to work with at the theatre.â? Barker didnâ??t waste any time. Within one month of his being here, he was working with Lollipop Station, Miss Minervaâ??s Tea Room, and Main Street Hair Studio to launch the first Piedmont Princesses day in June. The event was a marvelous success including makeovers, tea parties, crafts, and a parade of princesses down Main Street to the renovated arts venue for a showing of the Disney classic Cinderella.
Since that first event, Barker and Stone have only looked forward, changing the venueâ??s approach to programming to better align with the State Theatreâ??s vision and mission. Stone adds, â??One day we were talking and found an early slogan, â??Showcasing The Arts To Everyone.â?? And there it was, our name was the acronym for our vision.â? Coupled with their mission â??to deliver the arts to our community in a way that is inclusive, accessible and sustainable,â?? Barker and Stone have made a clear and concerted effort to offer quality programming at affordable prices to the community.
The two make a successful team. Stone brings a background in finance and operations from her years of experience in payroll and accounting as well as from being the theatreâ??s executive assistant and contract specialist. Barker brings his 17 years of training and experience in theatre, educational programming, and arts management. Together, they are the perfect balance of big picture and small details.
Barker was recruited by Stone in April, stealing him away to Culpeper from offers in Richmond and Northern Virginia. Barker had previously worked at the State Theatre as an events stage manager and had stopped by to see if there was any part-time weekend work. Instead, he found a re-opened venue ready to make use of his talents, full-time.
Barker adds, â??The first time I visited Culpeper, I fell in love with it. The downtown has an exciting hometown charm you canâ??t find anywhere else. More importantly, the theatre has so much cultural and economic potential in what it can do for the town, the county, and the region. As I look across the Piedmont region, I donâ??t see any organization providing strong coordinated programs in arts and arts education to the schools and communities. I think the State Theatre can be the regional home base for those programs.â?
It was that potential that helped Barker to decide to choose Culpeper and along with Stone make changes to ensure the survival and success of the theatre.
Beginning in April, the team started planning offerings by season, a common practice in the performing arts world. They sought a diverse range of monthly programming to keep attracting the loyal country/bluegrass fans and pop/rock fans while adding the genres of live theatre, dance, comedy, and classical music to the lineup. The decision to broaden the base was also an effort to rebrand the theatre as a place for the entire community to enjoy the arts.
Stone expresses, â??Itâ??s great to see in a monthâ??s time Jerry Lewis, Marty Stuart, and Elisabeth Von Trapp, as well as the Charlottesville Ballet and to see different audiences for each. We know we are serving our mission and vision when we see not just familiar friendly faces, but brand new ones as well.â?
The rebranding and new audience development has been a challenge, but Barker adds, â??Every audience demographic has grown with the next performance of that genre. It takes time, but the trend is towards success.â?
Bringing in education
One of the most successful initiatives under the new staff leadership was the State Theatreâ??s Educational Field Trip program. Drawing from Barkerâ??s experience in Theatre for Young Audiences, he coordinated with well-known theatre companies from around Virginia to bring low-cost educational performances to the students of Culpeper County and other surrounding school systems.
Barker points out, â??Research shows that students find connections between live arts exposure and the ability to see situations in new ways, relate past experiences to future events, and use non-traditional methods to overcome adversity and express original ideas.â? It is the goal of the program that every child in Culpeper as well as other counties has the opportunity to see at least one production every year of their formative schooling.
Goals like this one and other growth initiatives are now on hold, however, in light of the recent revelation that the original $400,000 in funding for the 2016 season is no longer available to the State Theatre Foundation. Barker states, â??You canâ??t keep pumping the well, when you no longer have it primed.â?
This news, however, is not deterring Barker, who immediately changed hats and created the current Save The State, Fund Our Future campaign. â??The news hit hard, but I thought and prayed long and hard and realized I chose Culpeper and the State Theatre. Iâ??m not about to give up. This area needs the arts, more than they realize.â?
The news and campaign has had a few vocal detractors, but has also enjoyed lots of positive support from the community. Stone mentions, â??Every day we have someone make a financial contribution while telling us that â??the State Theatre is too important to lose.â?
Barker adds, â??Most of the concerns come from a variety of misconceptions people have about how non-profit organizations work. They think that a not-for-profit arts venue should run like a for profit business. But as the old saying goes, there is no business, like show business.â?
In the United States, non-profit arts venues function at roughly a 50 percent earned/50 percent donated threshold of incomes. â??Aside from Broadway, every other arts venue has to create annual campaigns to sustain themselves. They recruit amazing Boards of Directors to help with that process.â? says Barker.
The current Board of Directors is composed of nine voting individuals and some ex-officio members, all of whom will be stepping down December 31st, 2015. Many of the Board Members have been a part of the project since the beginning and know they need to step down so new blood can take their place. Barker and Stone are currently in the process of recruiting new 15-21 board members. They are looking for a few individuals to start immediately who can recruit others who are passionate about the community and the arts.
More pressing in the near future, Barker and Stone are working daily to secure the funds by the stated deadline. The State Theatre is implementing a multi-pronged approach to raise funds. Aside from the crowdfunding effort on Generosity.com, staff and the current board are preparing to meet with local businesses, government and other non-profit organizations, as well as previous donors.
Barker explains, â??The most important message I can say to anyone interested in supporting the theatre is to give financially now. No amount is too small and there is no risk involved. If we donâ??t make our goal, the funds are returned. Itâ??s that simple.â?
Barker remains ever hopeful that his efforts and those of other staff, board members, and volunteers will be successful. â??If we didnâ??t try, we might not ever succeed,â? he adds.
With his optimism in hand also comes some great plans for the theatreâ??s future programming. â??For our mainstage, we want to keep finding top acts and keep bringing them to Culpeper. We had some big names lined up for the spring. If we can get the funds, hopefully we can still get them.â?
Beyond the nationally-known acts, Barker envisions an impressive array of programming including a monthly music event for emerging local musicians, expanding the visual art gallery program, community partnerships to fully establish resident dance companies, choirs, and orchestras, as well as unique events such as video gaming tournaments and events to highlight the economic and cultural resources of the Piedmont region.
In terms of education, he sees the added benefit of after-school drama programs for county schools that help low-level readers with literacy and the creation of theatre camps and workshops to educate the community as well as the expansion of the field trip program. Barker also wants to create a regional Shakespeare festival, a few regional film festivals, and a dedicated theatre company, called the Piedmont Players. When asked about the theatre troupe, Barker states, â??The Piedmont Players will include both a community players group as well as a professional traveling Theatre for Young Audiences troupe similar to Richmondâ??s Theatre IV that tours to area schools.â?
These business plans might seem ambitious in light of their financial situation, but Barker states that he knows that stating a concrete plan for future programming coupled with competent leadership is the reassurance that people in Culpeper and the surrounding counties want. He assures that their investment in the State Theatre will not be wasted.
Barker asserts that, â??The arts arenâ??t a luxury, they are a necessity. Not only to improve the quality of life, but also the economic future of any growing metropolitan area. For every dollar donated to the arts, the community sees a seven fold return on their investment. Communities need a place to Showcase Their Art to Everyone.â?
With that map and compass in hand, Barker and Stone are confident that community members from across the spectrum will continue to give financially, however they are able. By the numbers, if every Culpeper County household gave $40, the State Theatre would be set.
Stone adds, â??Weâ??ve already raised 10 percent of the ask in one week. We are incredibly thankful by the immediate generosity of our friends and neighbors. We hope that others step forward and give as well.â?
Itâ??s clear in listening to the new leadership and vision that Barker and Stone bring, that the pair plan to steer the ship away from the rocky shoals and into clear water. They only need the residents, businesses and organizations that serve Culpeper and the surrounding communities to step up and fill their sails with a financial windfall.