Sold Out! Ethington Shows Have Become One Tough Ticket
By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau
Photos by David Blakeman and Tim Koors
The creative minds behind the scenes at Ethington Theatre see the recent packed houses as validation, especially for a program once considered expendable.
Tonight’s performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is sold out. So are Saturday and Sunday performances on the final weekend of the theatre’s modern spin on Shakespeare.
Gone are the days of walking up to the ticket window on the day of a show and scoring seats.
“I can’t even get my family in this weekend. I didn’t think we’d sell out this fast,” said Michael Kary, a 1998 GCU graduate who returned last year to teach theatre and is the director of “Midsummer.”
Ethington is cultivating a new audience and reclaiming its place as a force on the metro Phoenix arts scene, less than two years after introducing its first class of theatre students since temporarily closing the program in 2006.
Marketing played a role in selling out the 312-seat theatre for each of six shows for “Midsummer” and five of six for “Dracula” (also directed by Kary) in October. On average, Ethington has sold 87 percent of the seats per show since reopening in August 2010, according to box-office staff.
Two-for-one discounts through Groupon and LivingSocial helped spread the word. But longtime supporters believe the dedication of program faculty in recruiting and developing versatile performing-arts students has re-established GCU as a destination for dynamic theatre.
Kary, who was working as a youth pastor in Los Angeles before coming home to GCU, said there was “something magical” about the first class of students in 2010, when the College of Fine Arts and Production reopened its doors and began offering theatre scholarships again.
“When someone tells you you’re good at something, you start believing it,” Kary said. “We’ve made it a point to go out and recruit people who are willing to learn.”
With new support, and a fresh schedule of shows, former season-ticket holders are re-upping on ticket packages. High school groups bused down from Payson and Sedona for “Midsummer,” which box-office manager Rose Werther attributed to word of mouth from students.
Like many theatre students, Werther is involved on multiple levels at Ethington. She worked as lighting designer on “Midsummer,” she manages the box office and she greets the audience at the front of the house.
“It just feeds all my gifts,” Werther said. “There’s still a vibrancy about it that I love.”
Dr. Claude Pensis, dean of the College of Fine Arts and Production, is credited with weathering the four-year hiatus to restore the theatre program. He said he hopes to introduce more musical theater — possibly a musical each year — to balance with Shakespeare, classic musical performance and modern plays.
The fast-growing University could be outgrowing Ethington, which provides limited backstage space for students to work. The playhouse also appears dwarfed by the next-door GCU Arena, where Pensis envisions hosting a weekend run of a musical such as “Oklahoma!” someday.
There’s also consideration of a student-run series of productions, in order to give more students onstage experience and opportunities to see edgier works. But space is limited for such an expansion.
Pensis said he’s simply pleased to see Ethington packed amid a fresh buzz about the quality of the performances his students work so hard to produce.
“As long as we can, we’d like to keep prices as accessible and affordable as possible,” said Pensis, who has been nominated this year for a Governor’s Arts Award in arts education. “We’re here to train students and create the best, most creative product possible.”
The popular musical “The Pirates of Penzance” launched the current renaissance as the first production in the 2010-11 series. Eight talented GCU alumni, including Kary and Joanie Colson, took roles in that one, ensuring a successful restart.
Colson, a 1988 graduate-turned-adjunct Fine Arts instructor, has been the drama teacher at Horizon High School in Scottsdale for 22 years. She said faculty such as Pensis, who selects, lights and still directs productions, and Assistant Dean Bill Symington, who oversees scenic design, do a solid job of taking risks with familiar material while avoiding the risqué or ridiculous.
Pensis “has a good sense of choosing shows that the public is going to like, but that will still challenge the students both technically and creatively,” Colson said.
After this weekend’s finale of “Midsummer,” the Ethington Theatre Series will present the musical “The Boy Friend” in mid-April as the fifth and final production of 2011-12.
Contact Michael Ferraresi at firstname.lastname@example.org.