New Cider Mill director shakes up season, sets ambitious goals

EDITOR’s NOTE: BAMirror occasionally chats with recently appointed leaders of local arts organizations. Today we talk with the new executive director of the Cider Mill Playhouse.

By George Basler

Endicott native Gail Belokur can remember going to the Cider Mill Playhouse and “always thinking it was a unique and interesting setting for theater.”

Now the 47-year-old Candor resident is looking to continue that tradition while tackling problems faced by the venerable Endicott theater, now in its 38th season.

“We’re aiming high to rebrand ourselves as a professional theater of distinction that is known for innovation and its high impact for the arts of the community,” she said.

Belokur recently began work as the Cider Mill’s new executive director, coming here after serving for six years as the founder and co-artistic director of the Running to Places Theatre Company, a youth theater run on the professional model in Ithaca.As executive director, Belokur will supervise personnel and all aspects of the Cider Mill’s operation, manage the budget and day-to-day operations and work with the board on implementing a strategic plan.While the Cider Mill has a strong history, it’s struggling with issues similar to ones being faced by many regional theaters, Belokur said. The 2008 economic downturn depressed grant funding and shrank disposable income. The Cider Mill also faces the challenge of expanding its audience and attracting younger theater goers in an area with an aging population.“When these situations come about, the first line of response is to cut back,” she said. But a theater company can only retrench so far without impacting the selection of shows and quality of productions, she added.

“You can’t cut your way to prosperity,” Belokur emphasized. “We need to strengthen the work here, and that includes the shows we choose. People back winning scenarios,”The Endicott playhouse‘s debt has grown since the economic downturn, she said. One of her priorities is returning the Cider Mill to operating in a sustainable manner.But, over and above this, Belokur wants to polish the Cider Mill’s image and inject some new excitement into the theater. “We need to do a better job helping local residents see that, as a professional company, we can offer main stage shows and other programs that set us apart,” she said.Belokur emphasized changes began last year under the existing artistic staff. The theater plans to build on these in the 2014-15 season by offering a schedule of productions that officials hope will both please faithful Cider Mill patrons and attract new audiences.

“We took a look at the type of work regional theaters with strong reputations, of similar size, are putting up and committed ourselves to putting these on here,” Belokur said.

About Gail Belokur
Age: 47
Family: Married with three grown children
Education: Ithaca College
Professional background: Theater production, non-profit management and direction
Previous job: Founder and co-artistic director of the Running in Places Theatre Company in Ithaca.
Goal: To make the Cider Mill Playhouse a regional theater of distinction.

So, instead of opening the 2014-15 season with a mystery, as has been the case in recent years, the Cider Mill will open Sept. 18 with Into the Woods, the Tony Award-winning musical with a book by James Lapine and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Based on the Brothers Grimm fairytales, the musical is one of Sondheim’s most popular work.

Belokur hopes is selection signals that the Cider Mill is planning to stage more ambitious work.

This production will be followed by the comedy One Slight Hitch by curmudgeonly comedian Lewis Black, who is known for angry rants that skewer politics, religion and pop culture. Black appeals to young audiences, and Belokur hopes the show (Oct. 30-Nov. 16) will attract young people. At the same time, the show’s affable quality should please older theater goers, she said.

The popular farce Lend Me a Tenor will run Jan. 22-Feb. 8. Next will be the psychological drama Angel Street (March 12-29), which served as the basis for the movie Gaslight (Ingrid Bergman won an Academy Award as best actress for that film).

From April 16 to May 3 is Stage Kiss, a comedy by Sarah Ruhl, who is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award.

The season will conclude in June with Thoroughly Modern Millie, which won the Tony Award for best musical in 2002. While the show is a contemporary one, it’s in the tradition of old-style Broadway musical, Belokur said.

The Cider Mill’s board is “to a certain extent taking a leap of faith” by scheduling shows with higher production costs and higher royalty and rental fees, she said. But she believes this is necessary. “Funding follows art. You have to put out good work for funding to follow,” she said. She would like the Cider Mill to be playing to 80 to 85 percent capacity within a few years. It’s playing to about 60 percent capacity now, she said.

Besides shaking up the theater’s repertoire, Belokur is also looking at other initiatives:

Increased collaboration: Belokur is looking at cross-promotion opportunities with other arts organizations and the sharing of resources and labor. She’s in the process of reaching out to other local theater groups, including Binghamton’s KNOW Theater, SRO Productions III and the Goodwill Theater in Johnson City.

“Theaters used to be very protection and self-contained. Now we have to be fearless collaborators,” she said.

Increased volunteer outreach: Belokur wants to increase the Cider Mill’s volunteer base and make better use of volunteer expertise in the community.

“Professional theaters used to look at volunteering as a dirty word. Now they’re embracing the time and talents volunteers can bring,” she said.

Increased educational outreach: Belokur wants to increase educational outreach, including having Southern Tier Actors Read (S.T.A.R.) present more reading at the Cider Mill.

The overall theme for the coming season is mixing tradition with a new direction, she said, emphasizing that a vibrant arts scene helps people stay in an area and attracts visitors. “What I really want to do is establish ourselves as a regional theater of distinction that gets mentioned in places like Broadway.com.”

 

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