New Riverfront Theatre Company wants to move into NAT

With the close of New American Theater (NAT), formal drama vacated downtown Rockford, at least on the stage. One group has formed to fill that void, with former members of NAT along with others involved from Pec Playhouse, Rockford Civic Theater and area college productions. They call themselves the Riverfront Theatre Company.

The company wants to call the former New American Theater, 118 N. Main St., home.

“The unfortunate and abrupt closing of New American Theater last December created a loss felt by artists, volunteers, patrons and businesses in Rockford and the surrounding region,” said Mark Kann, president of the board of directors for Riverfront Theatre Company at a press conference Tuesday, May 29.

Kann said the company is deeply committed to maintaining the highest professional standards in theater, to offer educational opportunities, to develop awareness and appreciation of theater, and to conduct business operations in a sustainable and fiscally responsible manner.

“These are ambitious and lofty goals, to be certain, but ones we strongly feel need to be reached and sustained for the betterment of the Rockford area,” Kann said.

The company consists of eight board members, initially elected March 15, and continues to expand. By March 30, the group incorporated as a charitable and educational not-for-profit (see profiles of each of the board members in our “Online Exclusives”

The members assert a strong educational and outreach program is essential to success. Vice President Michael Stanton Kelly said the company will encourage area youth and local actors to participate and interact with professional actors, similar to what the old NAT program offered.

The NAT building is now in a trust, established by a group of local business people, who purchased the theater to save it from inappropriate commercial development. This group, whose membership is confidential, according to the nature of the trust, moved to secure the building to prevent out-of-town interests from acquiring the property, according to some sources.

“They’re anonymous donors, and they wish to remain that way,” said Anne O’Keefe, executive director of the Rockford Area Arts Council regarding the confidentiality of the trust. The trust is taking the proper steps to ensure that the building remains a theater, she said.

O’Keefe said the trust will make sure that there is not just one group struggling to maintain the building. “It’s definitely going to be a multi-purpose building,” she said.

According to two confidential sources Richard Nordlof, president of the Board of Directors of Coronado Performing Arts Center and president and chief executive officer of MTE Hydraulics, is one of the members of the trust. Nordlof did not return phone calls to confirm or deny his membership in the trust.

The trust’s plans for the NAT building are unknown.

The trust, again who wished to remain anonymous, did give all the theatrical supplies from NAT, including furniture, props, and costumes to Starlight Theatre at Rock Valley college.

“I was just told, ‘we’re giving it all to you,’” said Mike Webb, director at Starlight.

This collection of furniture, costumes and props was collected in the 35 years of NAT’s run as a community theater.

Since the theatrical supplies have been removed, speculation runs that the trust does not want a resident theater company in the NAT facility. Some assert the facility will be managed by Coronado Performing Arts Center.

“We haven’t had any discussions of that kind,” said Mike Walsh, director of Operations at the Coronado Performing Arts Center. “I certainly don’t know of any plans for us to manage the building. We’ve got enough to do already.”

“We’ve made it clear that we want to be the theater company in the venue, which is part of the reason we picked ‘Riverfront Theatre’ (as a name),” said Mark Kann, president of the Riverfront Theatre Company board.

Richard Swanson, a board member of the new company, said of NAT’s founding director Jim Sullivan’s efforts: “That building was designed to have a producing theater company. If it’s a matter of have a management group in control of the building, and we hope that will be us.”

“If we would have been two weeks ahead, the building could have been ours,” said Swanson, who related their efforts to secure funding from an out-of-town source to purchase NAT came too late. He also said the group would be very happy to just manage the facility as the resident company, rather than own it outright.

Plans supposedly exist for the building to undergo renovations relating to the elevator, boiler and roof through the directions of the unknown trust.

“Right now, they’re assessing what the needs are,” O’Keefe said. “There hasn’t been any construction done at this time.”

To fully utilize the NAT building, Swanson noted any management group would have to consider NAT as a multi-use building, which is also supposedly part of the trust’s plans.

The Wandering Sons’ sold-out concerts at NAT stand as a great example of the multi-use potential of the facility. Besides shows by local musicians, other suggested uses for the lobby, downstairs space and theater are: business conferences and presentations, weddings and receptions, high school theater rehearsal and productions and Charlotte’s Web shows. Many wonder if they will be able to afford the rental fees under the new management, which, again, is unknown.

The Coronado Performing Arts Center’s potential management of the NAT facility is a concern because the Coronado is a union house. If union stage hands had to be employed at NAT, some doubt community groups could afford to use the theater. NAT never was a union house, although they did employ union Equity actors in their shows. Those costs contributed to the operating difficulties that closed the theater, even though Equity did its best to help NAT.

After NAT closed, parents and children in the youth program had a pizza party. At the get-together, W. Allan Williams, NAT’s former costume designer, now vice president of the Riverfront Theatre Company board, arranged another meeting with individuals interested in a new way to do drama.

About 40 people attended that meeting, and volunteers came forward for the board of directors of the new company. So far, 30 to 40 people have expressed a desire to be members of the new company.

Riverfront’s first season will consist of three shows, as well as Splash, a fund-raiser at the Clock Tower Resort and Conference Center theater, Saturday, Aug 11. If the group cannot become the resident theater company at NAT, other venues under consideration for their residency are Clock Tower Theater, Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center, Rockford Woman’s Club Theater or the new development of the Essex Wire factory by Ken Hendricks. Kann said the amount of rent at any venue will be the determining factor.

Special Adviser Bill L. Beard said the group will be equal to or better than in quality when compared with the now-defunct theater. The group was careful to note there are no former NAT board members sitting on the new board.

“Even though we have people that were affiliated with NAT, we’re not trying to be the new NAT,” said Williams.

Obviously, the dramatic closing of New American Theater remains unpleasant for many, and the new group hopes to distinguish itself from the past company.

Michael Stanton Kelly, vice president, said the group hopes to move on from “all that angst and bitterness” associated with the dissolution of the company.

Beard said the group hopes to address those issues. “We want to be part of some kind of healing process,” he said, “(while also being) excited about the opportunities we have coming down the road.”

Every board member stressed that what’s vital to the health of the company—and to the health of theater in Rockford—is community involvement and outreach.

Plans for youth summer camps are already in the works. The Riverfront group has founded The Riverfront Youth Ou

treach Theatre (RYOT), which plans after-elementary school workshops to stimulate memorization of scripts, team building and performances, under the guidance of Aaron Matthew Ray, a professional actor and director with more than 20 years of experience.

“RYOT is primarily aimed at elementary schools,” Beard said. “I envision it expanding to middle schools and high schools as well.”

“NAT dropping their school program was one of their failures,” Beard said. The Riverfront Theatre Company considers programs for the area’s young people an act of future success. They hope to achieve this success as the new resident theater company in the NAT building.

from the May 30-June 5, 2007, issue

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