Cider Mill director charting a new course for established theater

EDITOR’s NOTE: Over the next few weeks, BAMirror will be chatting with recently appointed leaders of local arts organizations. We begin, appropriately, at the Cider Mill Playhouse, which opens its 37th season tonight (Sept. 13).

By George Basler

As he begins his first full season as executive director of the Cider Mill Playhouse in Endicott, Robert Rogers knows he has taken over a theater with a proud heritage.. He knows that the venerable playhouse, which is starting its 37th season this week, has become an important part of the region’s cultural fabric.

Still, to remain successful, businesses need to adapt to changing times, and that rule applies to the theatrical world as well, said Rogers, who began as the Playhouse’s executive director in March.

When the Playhouse began, “we were the only game in town,” he said. There was no Endicott Performing Arts Center, no Goodwill     Theater, no Know Theatre, no Chenango River Playhouse, no Half Light Theatre and no Ti-Ahwaga Community Players. Obviously that’s no longer the case, and that means the Cider Mill must aggressively compete for people’s entertainment dollars.

“A lot of people love the Cider Mill Playhouse. They subscribe year after year, and it’s part of their social calendar. But there are many people who haven’t been in years,” Rogers said. He wants to recapture some of these lapsed patrons, not through a complete shakeup — the theater certainly doesn’t need that — but through tweaks to heighten the sense of excitement about taking in a show at the Endicott theater.

A common complaint is that the experience of going to the Cider Mill is “always the same,” Rogers said. “What does that mean?” he added. “We’ve examined the repertoire over the years and found diverse genres and time periods. It’s not always the same. But maybe there’s a lack of surprise.”

Moreover, the facility at 2 S.Nanticoke Ave., Endicott, needed to be upgraded, Rogers said. He made that one of his first priorities.

When the season opens, the theater will feature an updated concessions menu. Patrons also will see also a different entrance to the box office, a new ramp into the building and a repainted lobby area. Staff members are looking at all aspects of the theater from decor to refreshments to promotion, Rogers said.

Rogers comes to the Cider Mill from a theatrical background. He has operated his own puppet theater company for many years and performed at the Cider Mill in the past. He applied for the position of the Playhouse’s first executive director after seeing it posted by the Cider Mill’s board of directors.

“I was trying to find a way to stay in the arts, but  not be on the road so much,” he explained.

In the past, committees of board members, working with the artistic and management staffs, have guided the non-profit, professional theater, Rogers said. He believes the board wanted a change because it recognized that, in order to move the theater forward financially and artistically, it needed for one person to provide “a unified vision.” He compares his job to a quarterback running a football team.

“The board wanted a new pair of eyes to take a look at how the theater is operating, and what it’s presenting to the public,” he said.

In his job, Rogers will manage a four-person administrative staff and a three-person artistic staff, including Artistic Director Penny Powell. The six-show season is similar to past schedules, including a mystery in the fall, a farce in the winter and a musical to cap the season in the late spring.

“A lot of people kind of like the pattern. They like the fact that it’s dependable,” Rogers said.

But, within the pattern, Rogers and the staff have worked to make some tweaks. For example, the first production, It Could Be Any One Of Us, is “not another Agatha Christie clone,” Rogers emphasized. Instead the play, by prolific British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, gently parodies the genre and sets up a situation with three possible endings that can vary with each performance.

The second show, Tintypes, deals with the immigrant experience in America, a topic that is certainly timely considering the ongoing debate over immigration in this country. The topic is also pertinent to the Southern Tier because of its immigrant heritage, Rogers said. Trying, deals with the life of former U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle, who served as the primary American judge during the post-war Nuremberg war crimes trials of Nazi leaders.

Perhaps the biggest risk will come in the spring when the theater presents End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Rogers said he wanted “to ramp up the challenging  nature of one show” and present something that may not appeal to everyone in the Cider Mill’s core audience,but will hopefully boost the theater’s artistic image. Although the play is a comedy, it deals with social, political and religious themes as a damaged family forges a way back to wholeness in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy. Some reviewers have called the play heartwarming and funny while other, notably the New York Times critic, have panned it as artificial.

The Cider Mill Playhouse board picked Rogers to run the theater because he has a strong set of skills that fit the job perfectly, said Sandy Monachino, a local attorney and chair of the theater’s board.

While the theater is on solid ground, the board decided it needed an executive director to keep it that way for the next five to 10 years, said Monachino, who also performs at the Playhouse. For example, having an executive director, will make the theater better able to seek grant funding to help finance the operation, he said.

Rogers has already made his mark, Monachino said, pointing to the improvements being made in the theater’s physical appearance.

The Cider Mill Playhouse has a lot to be proud of, Rogers said. It’s developed a strong fan base and presented hundreds of first-rate productions over the course of its history. Its loyal fan base will continue to be served, he said, adding: “There’s  nothing wrong with presenting a farce. There’s nothing wrong with a Neil Simon comedy.”

At the same, he hopes people who come to the theater for one specific type of play will return for others because they trust the Playhouse’s style and energy.

“We have a great heritage. We just need to build on it,” he said.

IF YOU GO: The Playhouse is located in the Cider Mill, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. The season opens tonight (Sept. 13) with It Could be Any One Of Us. That plays ends on Oct. 7. Other 2012-13  productions are: Tintypes, Nov. 1-25; Leading Ladies, Jan. 24, 2013-Feb.. 17; Trying, March 14-April 7; End Days, May 2-19; All Shook Up, June 6-30.

Ticket information and a detailed schedule are available on the theater’s website, www.cidermillplayhouse.com. The box office telephone number is (607) 748-7363.

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