by Rebecca Potts
Earlier this year, Playhouse Merced was in the middle of a bustling 2020 season. They were gearing up to start tech week on their production of Fun Home and preparing to cast another production after a successful round of auditions. And then, March hit, and the world started to look…drastically different. Fun Home never saw the stage. Two shows were cast, but never made it to rehearsals. The cast of Tarzan was never announced. There were many questions about how to move forward, and when things would return to normal.
The stage has been empty since then, but Playhouse Merced is planning a major comeback for 2021 – In two acts. I “sat down” with Interim Managing Director and longtime supporter of Playhouse Merced, Anthony Braxton, to hear about how he landed his new role behind the scenes, what’s coming up, and how they plan to revitalize the theatre once we can all come together again for live performances.
KRL: So, let’s start with you: how did you end up at Playhouse Merced with the role of Interim Managing Director?
Anthony: My relationship with Playhouse goes way back to the late 1990s. I grew up in Merced and was working there as a schoolteacher when I was invited by a friend of mine to audition for a To Kill a Mockingbird, which ended up being my first play there. I had a big interest in theatre but hadn’t done anything for a while, so I got back on stage and became very interested in not only what was going on onstage, but the entire theatre company.
Somewhere along the line, someone asked me to be a board member, and I joined the Board of Directors and eventually became Board President. During my tenure as President, we lost our founding Artistic Director, and I helped us navigate through that period of time. In 2008, I decided to move to San Francisco for work but still maintained a relationship with the theatre, and about a year ago, I went down to visit some friends and absolutely fell in love with the new Artistic Director! Shortly after that, I got an email from her asking if I would take over as the Director for Playhouse’s production of Fun Home after they lost their original director, and I jumped on the opportunity. We got to two weeks before the curtain going up on Fun Home and then…it happened.
Everything was shut down, our show was put in deep freeze, and I found myself with absolutely nothing to do. In early June, some things had changed and the AD ended up having to step down, and after she recommended me, I said I would take on the job and am now committed through the end of October!
KRL: That’s quite a story. So what’s happening to your 2020 season?
Anthony: We have canceled all of our shows for this season, and part of that is the reality that when the curtain does go up, we presume there is going to be a transition period where we are adhering to some safety protocols that we didn’t prior to this, like social distancing – which doesn’t work in a show like Tarzan. We also have to deal with the business side of things – dealing with licenses and things of that nature. And with the theatre being shut down in terms of producing live theatre, that has freed up a lot of time to look at a lot of different things like rebranding, digital marketing, getting the theatre in the best shape possible for when the curtain goes up in 2021.
KRL: Now that you’re Interim Managing Director, how do you plan to use the time from now until when you end up opening?
Anthony: We have two different aspects of what we’re looking at: our operations side and our performance side. We looked at how to have a different relationship with our audience – to keep their attention, affinity, and affection. We want to make sure that people see a positive return on their investment for this community and for themselves, so from the middle of August until Spring 2021, we are curating what we’re calling “Act 1” with our weekly series, “Saturdays at 7”.
Our first Saturday will be given over to our general audience, with something like a Cabaret. The second Saturday we are calling Promote and Point, where we will first promote whatever we have coming up for the third weekend, which we are giving over to our youth and education program. The point part is that we will create digital content that we think our audience will be interested in. For the final Saturday, we’ll have our “Backstage” feature where we’ll highlight some of the operational things happening at Playhouse Merced. We are doing a complete facilities overhaul that includes brand new seats in the Playhouse and more, so that when the curtain goes up in “Act 2,” we’re going to have a place that has been reimagined for you.
KRL: So that’s Act 1…what will Act 2 look like?
Anthony: As we reimagine many things, we’re also refining the roles of who will be the leaders in this organization, and we know we’ll need to bring in ideally two people to do management, digital media, etc. as well as an Artistic Director. We’ll begin the search for those people and put together an artistic committee to help us make those choices.
We’re going to program from Spring through August, and at the end of that “mini-season,” we’ll have our big, fun musical. We’ll also include a few small shows – maybe 1, 2, or 3 person shows that we’re also looking at the possibility of co-producing with other theatres. We’ll also get back to some of the programs that our community loves like our Season Preview and our Gala in August. Our mission is to enrich, engage, educate, and entertain, and we are planning to continue to do that in “Act 1” when the doors are closed. And when the curtain goes up, we’ll do it again.
So while the stage has temporarily gone dark, Anthony can assure us that Playhouse Merced will be back with live theatre in the Spring or as soon as it’s safe, ready to adapt to the twist and turns of navigating our new world. And if you just can’t wait that long, Playhouse’s “Saturday’s at 7” begins August 22. For more information, visit their website, send an email to Anthony directly at manage@playhousemerced[dot]org, or call (209) 725-8587. Playhouse Merced needs the community’s support, so if you’d like to donate or become a sponsor, click here.
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If you love local theatre, be sure to check out our new Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast, which features mysteries read by local actors (some of whom you have seen on the Selma Arts Center stage). You can check the podcast out on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Play, and also on podbean.