By Richard S. Gubbe
While Mike Webb pondered his retirement, his constituents made him think better of leaving a theater program he helped achieve steady growth. He had publicly bristled at the way events had transpired back and forth between the administration and the RVC board at the community college in the past year. He wants to stay on because he felt the love of the crowd.
Webb met with RVC President Mike Mastroianni last week to express his intention to stay as director of Starlight Theatre, its program and its related classes. Instead of deserting a sinking ship after 32 years, he told his president he wanted to stay.
“I’m staying; it’s official,” Webb said from his director’s chair at Rock Valley College on Sunday. Webb had announced his plans to stay prior to a performance of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He needed to inform the school he intends to captain a ship that bears his stamp of more than 130 shows.
Webb had hinted at retirement since the beginning of rehearsals April 1, citing his differences with the administration and board members. The major issues involved staff cuts and the way the college measured the bottom line on the program’s profit and loss statements. The differences came from how much to count staff and expenses toward the cost of the outdoor summer theater programs, the indoor season and staff classes. Studio performances and staff classes were eliminated after the state reneged on money promised to help run the school in the last fiscal year.
A new president and what Webb hopes will be a board with new faces were reasons to stay. “I thought I could weather the change in administration and a change in the board. By next April, things should be different,” he said.
Webb told The Rock River Times that his decision to stay was heavily influenced by his subscription patrons, his staff, actors and the general public. Rumors abounded when another media outlet prematurely announced Webb was stepping down as director.
He said his meeting with Mastroianni went “well” and that all issues had “not been resolved yet but we’re working on it.”
Ron Geary, vice president of career technical education and community outreach, said he knew nothing of Webb officially leaving RVC.
“He’s never indicated to me that he is leaving,” Geary said Tuesday. “I expected him to (be back next year). He never resigned or anything. It would have to go through me first. I don’t have Mike Webb on my retirement list.”
Webb told The Times in May that cuts in arts programs at RVC had left him pondering his future with the program. “It might just be easier for me to retire,” he said at the time.
But the longtime director now says he hopes to resurrect the Studio Theatre winter indoor program despite the state budget withholdings that started the avalanche of layoffs at the school.
Webb has had reason to smile as box office receipts have been exceeding expectations and the brisk sales were bolstered by Webb bringing back his go-to box office weapon, Phantom of the Opera. The show has been playing to near-capacity crowds each performance and concludes its second run this week, putting an end to a season with a subplot that wasn’t resolved until recently.
Webb signed the stalwart Phantom for the second time in six years and broke his ten-year rule of no repeats for the 50th season and selected the Ian Fleming show Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with British humor. Whether patrons came out to support Webb, the program, or just liked the lineup that included Jesus Christ Superstar and Children of Eden, it has resulted in large turnstile counts.
“Phantom could happen every year,” Webb said. “It’s one of those shows that generates the numbers and people adore it just like Joseph (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) could happen every year.”
Box office monies were buoyed by the adding of two shows for Chitty for Wells Fargo and Wesley Willows. And an extra Phantom show for Raymond James. He said he had no final numbers to announce yet but “the real number is rather eye-opening.”
The crowds have been appreciative near-sellouts for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “It’s a tough piece for technical work and it sold better than I anticipated and played better than I anticipated,” Webb said.
He dismissed the idea he loaded up to show the board and the administration his program was a staple of the community and he had the formula for success.
“I just wanted to do a spectacular season,” he said. “I was just trying to do a nice job.”
The crowds were a big influence on his decision.
“The audiences – most of the people in the audiences – kept begging and praying and cajoling,” he said. He said he also received support from fellow employees, staff and show participants.
“It feels good,” he said. “I hope that we can find some better times going forward.”
Webb is hoping to produce more revenue by using the theater for community events. He said he currently is working with the Rockford Area Visitors & Convention Bureau on a show for the near future.
As he prepared for the final week, he surmised, “A really good season overall. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang did a respectable amount of business and Phantom is doing a respectable amount of business,” Webb said. “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sold better than I anticipated it would.”
Despite the budget crisis, Webb is hoping to keep his staff free from the layoff ax. “The plan is not to lose anyone else,” he said.