MENOMONIE — After undergoing the search for a new executive director this spring, the Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts is ready to open its doors for the 2018-19 season. And the new executive director has one goal in mind.
“I want to fill the theater,” Jeff McSweeney said Tuesday from his perch on the stage facing the ornate theater. He added watching a show at the Mabel is an experience few regional theaters he knows of can recreate. “It’s visually exciting to be in this space. It gets you warmed up for the performance that’s about to take place.”
Each of the 280 seats in the theater are no more than 100 feet from the stage, meaning there isn’t a bad seat in the house (except, ironically, the original box seats, which he said they don’t sell for that reason). The people filling the seats for the Mabel’s opening weekend will be treated to The Mabel Summer Show: “Radio Days — The 1940s.”
The show runs Friday through Sunday at the arts center, 205 Main St. E. Tickets are $18. And while it’s a community production, even McSweeney — who relocated here from Peoria, Ill., in June to fill the position — can tell it has a sentimental value.
“This is all volunteers who have been working since June, and the whole community floods in to see these shows,” he said. “This is one of our largest fundraisers by far and that’s because of the dedicated citizens we have here who just want to perform for their family, friends and neighbors.”
If all goes well, he said the programming committee expects to raise around $9,000 over the weekend.
This might be McSweeney’s first time around the theater, but it is far from Lucy Weidner’s, who co-directs the “Radio Days” show. She has been putting on the summer show for the past seven years.
The idea started as a fundraiser for the theater, which she said doesn’t raise a lot of money in the summer months. The show has always been some form of musical review, starting with composers such as Stephen Sondheim. Since then, the theme has changed each year.
It’s a fun way to showcase local talent, Weidner said, but the show has grown into a tradition the community looks forward to each year.
“It’s local, and the majority of people in the show are known by Dunn County or the Chippewa Valley area, and that’s why they come because they know somebody,” she said. “Many of these people have performed for years on the stage in a variety of different ways.”
She and co-director Seth Berrier held “Radio Days” auditions in August. People are asked to prepare any song, but if it’s related to the theme the directors try to incorporate it into the show. Auditions are a formality, though.
“I think there was only one time in seven years there were a couple of people we couldn’t use,” Weidner said. “Mostly everybody gets a shot at trying to do something.”
This year’s show also is under the music direction of Patrick Pesek-Herriges, who Weidner said is a new addition to the team. His band, Take2Day Quartet, will be performing during the show, which comprises 17 singers plus four women who will be doing a tap dance sequence to open the second act.
The show will kick off the next Mabel Tainter season, which McSweeney said also will include a new comedy series, “The Mabel Laughs,” this year. Other highlights he’s excited about include an October screening of “Phantom of the Opera” hosted by Mark Pruett on the organ and St. Paul Ballet’s “Nutcracker — Clara’s Dream” in December.
He thinks the season includes a lot of standards their patrons expect, such as Pink Floyd and Elvis tribute bands. Because he started in June, he said he has spent much of his first two months listening to what community leaders and others involved with the Mabel have for expectations of the theater.
One of the things he has heard is from a 32-year-old whom he said is very much in support of the theater. The gentleman, whom he didn’t want to name, informed McSweeney he hadn’t been to a show in 10 years because “what you guys offer isn’t interesting to” someone his age, McSweeney said.
That was an insightful moment for the new executive director.
“One of my jobs is to find programming for a younger generation, to bring them into the theater and continue to come for years,” McSweeney said. “The founding of this building was also to be educational. We want to be thought-provoking, so hopefully we can get some of that programming to develop younger audiences as well.”
He’s still looking into what exactly that might be. He works with a programming committee to make sure his ideas align with the Mabel’s mission as well as its core audience — while hopefully finding new ways to challenge them, such as the new comedy series, which he thinks can help fill that role.
The Mabel Tainter’s season includes 20 to 25 shows a year, including four Menomonie Theater Guild productions. He said that leaves room for touring acts on their way from Chicago to the Twin Cities. Looking to the future, McSweeney hopes to emphasize the theater’s proximity to Interstate 94, the highway connecting those three major cities.
“I would like to be more of a recognized place on the route between Chicago and the Twin Cities where people would like to come to,” he said.
Historically, he’s noticed the Mabel has worked with agents who need to place acts, but he wants to be more active in reaching out to specific acts and bringing them in. While he knows the 280-seat theater in itself might seem small, he thinks the atmosphere of the Mabel is a huge selling point that can’t compare to many places.
“I have to sell the theater to both the agents and the acts to say, ‘This is a special place,’ because they’ll want to come back every time they’re in the area once they see it,” McSweeney said. “(Agents) have you penciled in, and if they can’t find another theater that is bigger, better or going to pay more money, they’ll come. I want this to be the first choice.”
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