Members of the Children's Musical Theaterworks in Fresno perform a scene from "Annie" during a news conference Wednesday. Photo by David Castellon
Written by David Castellon
The show will go on for Children’s Musical Theaterworks — at least for another year.
That’s because Fresno city officials — who told the theater group last month it would lose its performance site for the past 17 years at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium by year’s end— announced Wednesday that they had changed their minds.
Judy Stene, executive director of CMT, said she had worried the loss of the stage might spell the end of the program that casts mostly children and young adults age 6-20 in stage productions.
But Wednesday afternoon, in a press conference literally on that stage, Mayor Lee Brand and other city officials announced that CMT and other performing groups would be allowed to continue performances there through 2018, under some conditions.
“I am pleased to announce today that the City of Fresno and the Children’s Musical Theaterworks have agreed on terms to allow then to produce their 2018 season,” said Brand, who credited the group with providing young performers with confidence and skills “that will play a vital role in their future success.
“The fact that we’re here today shows the city is willing to listen, to learn, to collaborate and support their efforts.”
Stene took part in the press conference, which was preceded by members of CMT performing a scene from Annie, the group’s winter production that begins a 10-day run on Friday.
She said the troubles began when her office received on Oct. 12 a letter from Fresno Parks, After School, Recreation and Community Services stating an assessment of the Memorial Building revealed it needed about $3.5 million in repairs and upgrades — with nearly $1 million of that work needed in the auditorium and stage areas — and the city didn’t have the money to pay for them.
As such, city officials planned to bar use of the building except the foyer and the Veterans Museum after the end of this year.
Stene said once word got out, there was a large outpouring of public support for CMT, though she didn’t know how many of those people called City Hall demanding some action to prevent the theater company from losing not only its stage but also administrative space, a costume shop and a storage area for costumes it leases in the building.
She said that two days later, she was approached by Bruce Rudd, interim PARCS director at the time, and Mark Standriff, the city’s director of communications and public affairs.
Standriff said he got involved because he has 35 years of experience working in community and professional theater as an actor, director and producer, and he volunteered to work with city staff to evaluate the issues at the Veteran Memorial Auditorium.
“What we did is we came here and looked at everything,” finding issues related to age and years of neglect, along with damage caused by performing groups using stage equipment improperly.
“Fortunately, I was relieved to see the equipment wasn’t nearly as in dire straits as we first imagined,” with most of the issues involving electrical and lighting systems, as well as the equipment over the stage that lowers and raises scenery, Standriff said.
This included problems caused by theater companies in the past putting more stress on the electrical system and the equipment above the stage than they should have, said Standriff, noting that he and the other officials discussed with CMT officials how they could put on shows while working around some of these problems.
All that led to Wednesday’s announcement, with Rudd, who currently is Fresno’s interim assistant city manager, telling reporters, “We have come up with a solution that will get Children’s Musical Theater and others through the 2018 season. It literally is a workaround.
“There are segments of that performing arts venue that are in need of significant repair. The way we are going to allow the performances to go on is there are certain parts of this stage [equipment] that will not be allowed to be used.
In addition, Rudd said, to ensure the stage equipment is operated properly and safely, “There’s certain apparatus in the rigging that will be barred from use, and there will be some limits on who can man the stage [equipment]. It will be exclusively manned by members of the local stagehand union.”
In allowing the stage to be used for another year, the city also renewed it year-to-year lease with CMT to operate out of the Veterans Memorial Building. It pays separate fees to put on shows in the auditorium, as do other performance groups.
Stene said she’s happy with the city’s workaround, even if it does last only a year.
After that, city officials said they will continue evaluating the condition of the auditorium, and whether performances can continue there after 2018 while repairs or renovations are done.
Officials said CMT officials are going to work with the city to try to get donations to pay for at least a portion of those repairs. For her part, Stene seemed confident enough the show will go on past 2018 that she said she’s not currently developing a backup plan to find another locale for the theater company.
Wednesday’s announcement also was welcome news for the young performers, many of whom stood on the stage in costume while Brand and the others made the announcement.
Katie Green, 16, of Fresno, who is playing Miss Hannigan in Annie, said the October announcement had worried her “Because this theater is like my home, so I was concerned — very worried — because I love it here, and I don’t want to move.
“I’m happy because it’s going to stay, and we’re going to stay, and we’re going to be awesome!”
Tickets to Children’s Musical Theaterworks’ production of Anne from Dec. 1-10 are available online at cmtworks.org.