Keeping Festival Theatre afloat the last few years has been no picnic, but supporters are hoping Picnic will help the summer theater group continue its slow but steady forward progress.

That progress can be measured in a number of ways, said new managing director (and former Oak Park village trustee) Galen Gockel. The theater group didn’t even have a managing director for several years until Gockel, a former Festival board member and longtime supporter, assumed the post a couple of months ago. Jack Hickey remains the artistic director and Joyce Porter continues as president of the board.

Gockel said he sees his role as bringing tighter financial controls and budgeting to the organization, not an uncommon need for arts organizations which tend to be staffed largely by volunteers. He’s also responsible for development (fundraising) and audience-building (marketing). “Pretty much anything that’s not artistic,” Gockel said.

On the audience-building front, Gockel is hoping Festival’s extra offerings will help. Last season, the group added an American play to its repertoire (Arthur Miller’s All My Sons), and the Shakespeare/American theater tandem will continue next summer when Festival produces Julius Caesar and William Inge’s 1953 classic Picnic, the latter holding to the “outdoor” setting concept established with the Miller play.

But Festival isn’t stopping at two. Joyce Porter, who has been pushing for an indoor production, will get her wish this April when Pleasant Home hosts a month-long run of Moliere’s Tartuffe, a French farce. Gockel said the large living room at Pleasant Home can accommodate up to 60 people comfortably. He’s hoping the play will generate an extra $14,000 in ticket sales to add to the roughly $36,000 generated by the summer productions. This past season, the Miller play, after starting slowly, built word of mouth and actually caught up to Comedy of Errors by the end of the run. The summer total came in “just a shade lower than Romeo and Juliet the previous year,” Gockel said.

If those numbers hold next summer, roughly half of the group’s $99,000 budget would be generated by ticket sales, leaving half to fundraising and grants. As the only Equity summer company between the Loop and DuPage County, Gockel said, they have to meet payrolls. The Actors’ Equity contract requires hiring a union stage manager, plus a specified number of Equity actors (compensation totaling $19,000). They pay an additional $12,900 to their health and pension funds plus another $12,000 to pay non-Equity actors.

Grants from arts organizations like the Illinois Arts Council and the Oak Park Area Arts Council, in addition to past grants from the Austin Family Trust, have supplemented ticket sales, but more will be needed. A Nov. 12 gala raised $4,400, which is a good start, Gockel said, but they have to continue building name recognition. Oddly enough, he says, that seems to be more of challenge within Oak Park than elsewhere. “I run into that all the time,” Gockel said. “Oak Parkers don’t even know we exist. We need more ambitious and thoughtful marketing. If you cut back on that too much, you look amateurish.”

He says Village Players, which has also struggled financially, has nonetheless done a good job with its printed materials and cultivating sponsorships. “Those are the kinds of things we really have to do,” said Gockel. “There’s no reason this theater can’t attract more Oak Parkers.” Out of 3,000 people who attended the productions last summer, he noted, 40 percent came from Chicago and DuPage County.

The other challenge is paying off old debt, but Gockel said they’re making progress on that front as well. Operations have been in the black for the last three seasons, and the original $14,000 debt is now down to $3,000. If all goes well, he said, “We should be debt-free in three years.”

A lot of Oak Parkers take Festival Theatre for granted, Gockel observed, because it’s been around since 1975. “It was part of the Oak Park renaissance of the 1970s,” he said. “It’s still an important quality-of-life element.”

CONTACT: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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