As the City Springs Theatre Company prepares the final shows of its inaugural season, it’s also prepping for what it expects to be another season of packed shows as it tries to keep up with the enthusiasm and demand from the community.
The theater company survived major leadership changes at City Springs, Sandy Springs’ civic center, and has succeeded in implementing one of the complex’s key initiatives – educational programming.
“I’ve been involved in nonprofit theater for 33 years now. I have never, ever in my career seen anything like the level of support and desire for musical theater,” said Brandt Blocker, a veteran in community theater who serves as the nonprofit’s executive and artistic director.
The nonprofit community theater group launched shows last fall when City Springs and its 1,070-seat Byers Theatre within the Performing Arts Center opened. The company is a separate organization from the civic center, which is also home to the Sandy Springs City Hall and hosts performances and events from many other groups.
“Nonprofit theater certainly has challenges, but what I haven’t seen in this community yet — and hope to never get there — is struggles,” Blocker said. “Challenges are understandable, but struggles are far too difficult and painful.”
Some of the challenges have included a lack of rehearsal space, trouble with the initial operator of City Springs and meeting the “unbelievable” demand for tickets from the community, Blocker said. The first two challenges have been solved, and the company is working on ways to meet the challenge of almost being too successful, he said. But it hasn’t had any struggles with a lack of resources or support, he said.
The company’s inaugural season brought “42nd Street,’ “Elf: The Musical” and “South Pacific” to City Springs’ opening year and holiday season. That season has not wrapped up and will finish with “Billy Elliot: The Musical” in May and “Hairspray” in July.
Many shows are sold out and are playing to an audience at 97 percent capacity, he said.
“That is also unheard of, especially in a 1,000 seat theater,” Blocker said.
The second season will bring a musical version of the book series and classic Disney film “Mary Poppins”; Irving Berlin’s “Holiday Inn”; the Tony award-winning “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”; a musical comedy based on the 1992 film “Sister Act”; and “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” a comedy based on the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
The announcement of the second season has been low key — so low key that many may have not heard the shows and schedule have been set. That approach has been intentional, Blocker said, to ensure it doesn’t create demand it can’t fulfill
Because of the success ticket sales and attendance have seen, the nonprofit has barely touched the marketing budget and rarely does advertisements, he said.
Filling demand has also meant adding extra shows. The current schedule has a show on Friday, two on Saturday and a Sunday matinee for two weekends. The company has needed to add performances for several shows because of demand and is considering adding shows on Wednesday and Thursday, he said.
When the first season’s tickets went on sale, the nonprofit received over 300 calls in five minutes. Finding themselves unprepared for such a large response, it took several days to return all the calls, Blocker said. But in the end, the company earned over 4,000 subscribers, or season ticket holders, for its inaugural season.
“We had no idea about the passion and magnitude of what they wanted,” he said.
The company was formed in 2017 to bring Broadway-style shows to the Byers Theatre. It’s not technically an in-house theater company, but operates as an affiliate of the Performing Arts Center.
The formation of the theater company initially started as an idea to lure the popular Atlanta Lyric Theatre to move from Marietta to City Springs. It morphed into creating a new company, and Blocker, Lyric’s former managing artistic director, was picked to lead it.
When he left Lyric, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary next year, it had about 3,000 subscribers.
“To think in our first year, we are over 4,000 subscribers…I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said. “That really shows again that this is a very special community.”
A new venue can spur extra excitement, but Blocker said the strong ticket sales are continuing into the next season. Over 3,200 subscribers have renewed so far, he said.
“I think that really speaks to this community that has taken this idea and really given us an opportunity to create something really special here,” he said.
One big challenge the company had early on was a lack of space to rehearse, but a donation helped it secure a large space in an office complex on the city’s north end. It moved into the space in January. The space holds the offices, a dance studio, workshop, rehearsal halls and private rehearsal rooms and was funded by donation from Ken Byers, whose gift also secured the naming rights to the Byers Theatre in City Springs. The personal piano of Eva Galambos, the city’s founding mayor, is in one of the private rehearsal rooms.
Another challenge was the operator of City Springs, Blocker said. The city contracted with Comcast’s Spectra company to run the theater and manage bookings. But Spectra was an arena-based group that did not understand community theater, he said.
“I just think it wasn’t the right fit. It was unfortunate it didn’t work out, but I think it was a very wise decision to part ways,” Blocker said.
The theater company coordinates with the city on booking its shows in City Springs, but operates independently, shaping the season and running auditions for the shows.
While the first two seasons have been completely musical theater, it may not always be that way. Surveys found what the community most wanted from the company was musicals, so that it the focus for now, Blocker said, but the staff tries to “build a season for everyone.”
If that fails, the company will try to produce shows so well “you’ll want to see it anyway,” he said.
Another one of the nonprofit’s responsibilities is running the educational programs, a vital piece of City Springs set as a priority by Mayor Rusty Paul and the city.
Blocker said that has “kicked off quite well.” Programs include discounted matinees available to students for shows that are playing in the Performing Arts Center. “Master classes” are also being offered, including a class observation and discussion about shows. Another allows students to go behind the scenes on the show to learn about the set design, construction, lighting and sound design and stage management.
“That’s really a crucial component to the success of the theater company,” he said.
And the educational programs are planned to grow next season, according to a presentation given by Natalie DeLancey, the theater company’s managing director, at the April 16 City Council meeting. Participation in this season’s programs is projected to reach 5,500 students. The goal for next season is 14,480.
While the nonprofit theater company is funded through ticket sales and donations, the educational programs are funded by the Sandy Springs Art Foundation, a nonprofit originally formed by the city that is now a private organization.