By Denise Ruttan
On a chilly Thursday evening, the Majestic Theatre buzzes with warmth. Ken Jaynes pours wine and hard cider for guests winding into the lobby. From overhead, the thumping noise from the soles of tap dancers echoes through the room. Birds of Chicago, a folk-rock band from Chicago and Montreal, carry out a sound test on the main stage. In a conference room up a stairwell squeezed between the Peacock Bar & Grill and the theater, women audition for roles in upcoming performances of The Vagina Monologues.
It’s just another evening at this theater, which for more than a century has stood the test of time as Corvallis’ hub for the arts. But behind the scenes the picture has not always been so rosy. The theater is emerging from a troubled past marked by board and executive director turnover in its nonprofit, Majestic Theatre Management. Such an uncertain history has its supporters asking how the performing arts can still thrive even in difficult economic times.
Yet a temporary solution has presented itself. Corvallis City Council voted unanimously Nov. 17 for the City’s Parks and Recreation Department to take over operations of this City-owned building for two years starting Jan. 1, 2015. By the end of the second year, the City will either continue operating the theater, or decide on a new model.
The City Council will adopt a supplemental budget for the theater based on financial projections during the month of December. The parks department will develop a stakeholders group, develop job descriptions, and recruit and hire staff.
“I am convinced that we need a break to start fresh. I am convinced that the theater will be sustainable and this will give us some stability and consistency,” said council member Joel Hirsch. “I believe the theater will rise again and be better for it.”
What does this transition mean for the theater’s 10 paid staffers and contractors? In a word, uncertainty. Facilities manager Marshall Andersen will have to reapply for his job, if it still exists.
“I have mixed feelings,” said Andersen. “A lot of it is that I don’t know what to expect and what’s going to happen. I’d like to see the theater keep going forward and I’d like to keep my job.”
Much of the Majestic crew plans to reapply for their positions depending on the new job descriptions.
“Job security is feeling a little more up in the air than before,” said office manager Gabriela Ochoa. “But all of us really enjoy what we’re doing here.”
For some of the theater’s longtime volunteers, meanwhile, the transition presents an opportunity as well as uncertainty.
Stephanie Long is one of those volunteers.
“I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in that theater,” Long said. “I can show you every nook and cranny. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run up and down those stairs. I’ve hung lights, stage managed, ran fundraisers—you name it, I’ve done it.”
She also started the Majestic Theatre Education Program. That nonprofit experience has given her ideas for how the Majestic might survive.
“You don’t sustain a theater by ticket sales alone,” Long said. “We need donors, patrons of the arts. I think solicitation of local arts donors has gone on the back burner. You have to sell tickets, write grants, and get patrons.”
Her friends through the arts are volunteers Mike Aronson and Robert Leff. Aronson loves the “wonderful theater, with its cute red curtains.” He presented a model for the theater to the City Council—several arts organizations working under the umbrella of a board that handles the business side.
All three want to see the theater focus more on community productions than it has in the recent past. Aronson, in a move that challenged previous perceptions of volunteer involvement, began the Reader’s Theatre series years ago.
“For those first auditions, 30 people showed up for four parts. It’s now called the Majestic Reader’s Theatre Company and has close to 60 actors,” Aronson said. “There’s lots of talent in this town and no place else for it to go.”
Leff, meanwhile, is something of a keeper of theater history. He knows each transition this theater has gone through over the decades. But he also knows the joys of seeing his friends and neighbors on stage.
“From my point of view, the Majestic should be bigger than any one person. All of us have a stake in the theater. No one group should dominate.”
Above all else for these dedicated volunteers and staffers, one theme has remained certain throughout the ups and downs of the Majestic’s history—no matter what happens come January, the show must go on.