By Richard S. Gubbe
When the roof opens for the 2016 Starlight Theatre season, a dark cloud will be hanging above the campus of Rock Valley College and the entire region. The forecast: a strong chance for damaging winds that could rip apart a solid arts culture has been built over the past 50 years.
The storm that has spun from the idiocy of state officials is crippling a theater program known for nurturing creativity and success. Studio Theatre is no more at RVC and thank your politicians for that. The situation becomes more dreadful when Director Mike Webb and his 32 years of indoor and outdoor shows drift away into retirement. A third, and potentially lethal blow to the arts community, would be the elimination or scaling down of the outdoor Starlight program.
The immediate and future impact of this disaster will take years to repair, just like a city after a massive storm, leaving behind a void in the atmosphere and people wondering what could have been.
Both Studio and Starlight programs have given everyone within driving distances of the school a chance at a theater career, whether it be onstage or off. The theaters have been stepping stones, lifelines for young and old to have a chance at success and self-fulfillment while bringing joy and inspiration to others.
What Webb so shrewdly did over the years was to infuse young talent into his shows. He didn’t rely on marginal actors, singers and dancers to bring the usual ho-hum community theater. He took on the challenges of the biggest shows outdoors and the some of the most complex shows indoors but he needed a wide range of talent to do it. Through those efforts, local talent went on to become famous, and have often come back to perform, i.e. Samantha Owen playing the lead in Phantom of the Opera that opens in June.
Owen is one of many career success stories, most of which included making the leap from Rockford to New York or Los Angeles. One actor who used Studio as a springboard was Winnebago’s Joe Coots, starring in more than 460 performances of Kinky Boots across the country. Coots has appeared in many TV series as well. Webb said Mazzie Marin, now in her 70s, is playing the role of Anna in the Lincoln Center offering of The King and I. On the younger side, Rachel Gass is stage managing in NYC and her sister, Sarah Gass, is a prominent costume designer on Broadway.
Others who made stops in Studio or Starlight productions includes NBC TV President Robert Greenblatt, who performed in Starlight en route to the University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin and then Los Angeles. Joe Mantello was the original director of Broadway’s Wicked. Troy Beard is currently in charge of wigs for Broadway’s Les Miserables. Dan Webster went to Hollywood and worked as an art director on Ron Howard films. And Sharon Sachs appeared in Home Alone 3 and is currently on NBC’s Grimm.
The impact of Webb’s developing of talent hits home with Rachel Gubbe, who attended Auburn High School CAPA magnet school as a freshman this past year. She first tried out for Les Miserables in 2013 at age 12. She landed a role in the ensemble and received a small solo. After three seasons of shows indoor and outdoor, she is heading this fall to the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, one of the most prestigious arts schools in the country, winners of 14 Grammy Awards for education excellence. If not given the chance to perform at RVC, there would have been little chance against thousands of applicants. Recent LVA grads include Matthew Gray Gubler, Julianne Hough and Ne-Yo.
The numbers of dollars about profits and losses thrown around from RVC officials has differed depending on whether you see them from Webb’s eyes or the administration, which has given out different numbers for Studio and Starlight losses. The amount lost at Starlight Theatre reported in The Times last week was incorrect, adminstration officals said. RVC Board Member Patrick Murphy reported the number for Starlight operations is about $300,000 in the red over each of the last three years. Webb and other administrators have said the outdoor theater made money a couple seasons.
Webb, in response to the $300,000 figure of losses for Starlight per year said, “I didn’t lose anywhere near $300,000 (a year).”
Salaries are often pointed to as large budget expenses and not treated as a resource. The numbers of a loss in theater include salaries, benefits, maintenance and other monies.
“It’s all about salaries and benefits,” Webb said. “I’m not going to fight with them anymore.”
RVC President Mike Mastroianni has the proverbial gun to his head, but this isn’t the same as the college cutting its truck driver program. The Rock Valley College administration and board of directors has cut a part of the culture of the community. In last week’s The Rock River Times, the RVC brass said there were fewer than 50 students who would be affected, but that number hardly reflects the ripple effects.
Webb, and before him Ted Bacino, helped mold young talent and they created a culture of community and family. Many performers in RVC shows have been in multiple shows as Webb created a sense of loyalty and family within the casts he selected. He often picked shows to match the local talent pool and the results came with sold-out shows and state awards. And his actors often come back, whether to perform or visit, never forgetting from whence they came.
Once a program is killed, it rarely comes back to life. But if there is a chance to breathe life into it, the money must come from the private sector, RVC employees and community volunteers. A lot of people help out at Starlight shows at the event site, but others are needed to take of the torch of raising money.
Private sector help during this crisis is needed now and in the future. In European countries, the arts are supported through the government and through schools supported by the government. In Illinois, the government wants nothing to do with funding of liberal arts and never has over the last four decades. Now the arts face the biggest crises of all: apathy.
RVC is an enormous resource sitting on a pile of land. Make use of it to help raise money. Instead of cutting salaries like a factory, a more corporate attitude of making employees do more work instead of sending them to the unemployment line is one way to go. Better to be overworked than not paid at all. What employees can do: host events, fundraisers, community events, indoor and outdoor concerts, sporting events. Collaborate with the Rockford Park District or compete against them. Ask for money from donors, write grants locally and elsewhere.
There was no warning of cuts, no chance at getting benefactors or a solution to present itself for Studio. Manley Motors of Belvidere and Karen Manley, who will appear this summer in Children of Eden, held a promotion recently for Starlight to take a survey and test drive a Lincoln and Starlight gets a $20 donation. It’s a start. Individual donors and foundations give money to those who ask. The makeup of the audience for both indoor and outdoor shows are seniors who dress well and still have money left.
The current group in Springfield has made the budgets for social services and education shrink each year. Rockford residents can recall the direct correlation between cutting sports and crime. While kids in the arts aren’t known for breaking into cars, the waste of talent is a bigger crime.
Not that Rock Valley College is responsible for all things theater in town, but Webb and his associates led the charge with making Starlight and Studio the crown jewels of live theater outside of Chicago. Rockford University is left standing along with pay-driven acting schools. New American Theater is no more and Studio is a memory.
The important message is to save Starlight. Webb is at the end of his run. Yes, he and his predecessors built theater here and maybe someone can step up to replace them.
No matter who leads them, the arts breathe life into this community. Perhaps someday Studio will be revived. But Starlight needs to be preserved at any cost.