Play On! Theatre begins a new era in a new space

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Play On! executive director Alex Citron takes his long-running nonprofit theater to Belmont.  Photo credit: Christian Hommel Play On! executive director Alex Citron takes his long-running nonprofit theater to Belmont. Photo credit: Christian Hommel

Nothing screams summer like weekend yard sales, and on this sunny Saturday in late April, one lot at The Ix Project stands apart from the rest. Instead of the typical hand-me-down clothes and dated board games, bargain hunters comb through overflowing costume trunks, warehouse shelves of lighting equipment, and table after table of stage props in need of a home.

They’re the remnants of local nonprofit theater Play On!’s 10-month hiatus, a final house cleaning, before it debuts the 2014 season at a new venue in Belmont.

After seven years at The Ix, production halted last year when they lost their space and rattled the volunteer theater group. “We didn’t know if we’d survive,” executive director Alex Citron said. “It was scary, it was frustrating.”

It was painful for those involved to watch a place with so much Play On! history be deconstructed. “The week after the show closed…it really got to me,” Citron said. “Every day, more and more things would leave. The building [became] less of our theater and more of a big empty room filled with all kinds of memories from seven years and over 50 productions. We were all just standing in this empty shell.”

Citron said the reason for relocation was simply financial. “Basically, the landlords there had been providing us a rent below the market rate because they knew we couldn’t afford it,” Citron said. “But then, they had another offer from somebody…It was all about money, unfortunately.”

Landlord Fabian Kuttner confirmed that it came down to a financial decision. “We were happy to support them as long as we did,” said Kuttner. “It was a bummer it didn’t work.” According to Kuttner, Play On! paid one-third to one-quarter of the market rate for the 170-seat theater, lobby, office, and storage space, and eventually he opted for a more competitive offer from Portico Church.

Given six weeks to wrap production and move items into storage, Citron turned to donor support for the $20,000 necessary to pay for a storage facility and other bills.

“We had to go to a lot of people and get a few dollars here, a few dollars there,” Citron said. “Our donors and friends responded very generously and quickly. “

To find a new theater, Citron also relied on help from friends in the arts community, including executive director of Live Arts, Matt Joslyn.

“For Play On!, the real estate problem is their biggest problem and frankly every arts organization’s problem,” Joslyn said. “Losing another downtown theater company was not good for Live Arts or for Charlottesville. It was really self-serving to want Play On! to survive and thrive [because] we exist in a shared ecosystem.”

Joslyn encouraged the group to modify its expectations for a new space. “What we wanted to find last May wound up being very different from what we now have,” Citron said. “We had to pare [down] more and more of our criteria.”

With less than 40 seats, Citron said the new theater at 106 Goodman Street is “really more of a rehearsal studio and office space.” While Play On! will stage some intimate black box performances onsite, they will supplement this with performances at satellite venues throughout Charlottesville and its surrounding counties.

“It makes our job that much harder, but in other ways it simplifies things,” Citron said. “We can’t get involved in big elaborate sets or construction. I think that could be an interesting creative challenge.”

Play On! opened its new season May 15 at Albemarle Ciderworks with the original musical revue Two Ladies.

“My wife is a singer and one of our conversations we had was how so few duets are written for two women,” Citron said. He went on to compile a collection of female-only songs from Broadway, pop, country, and opera for a cast of seven local women.

“Our music revues have always done very well for supporting the theater financially,” Citron said. “They’re inexpensive to put on and audiences love them.”

Play On! will continue its summer season with the original play The Diaries of Adam and Eve, based on the short stories of Mark Twain, and a second musical revue Now That’s What I Call Evil, a collection of songs by beloved Broadway and Disney villains.

Despite the excitement of finding new rehearsal and performance space, the battle is only half-won for Play On!.

“The hiatus turned into a longer period than we thought and now we’re at the period where we’re out of money again,” Citron said. “Once again, we’re going to have to get back to fundraising.”

Producing director Devynn Thomas is grateful that the group can continue to make theater locally. “The most important thing to me is that we’re thanking the community for all the support they’ve given us,” said Thomas. “It’s a really exciting start for us being in these different venues.”

Play On! Theatre continues its inaugural season at 106 Goodman Street with a performance of Two Ladies on Thursday, May 22 at 7:30pm. Check playontheatre.org for more details.

~ Danielle Bricker

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