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Spotlight on Peggy Jones and Tapestry Theatre

By • May 17th, 2008 • Category: Interviews

Listen to Mike talk with Peggy Jones about the decision to close Tapestry Theatre Company [MP3 32:36 14.9MB].

Mike: This is Mike Clark with ShowBizRadio and I am talking with Peggy Jones who is the Executive Director of Tapestry Theatre in Alexandria, Virginia. Thanks for talking with me today, Peggy.

Peggy: You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure.

Mike: You are about to open Richard III which is actually Tapestry’s last show ever.

Peggy: Yes it is.

Mike: Let’s talk a little about Richard III and then we can talk about the last show ever problem.

Peggy: Ok.

Mike: So tell me about Richard III.

Peggy: Richard III was of course written by William Shakespeare. It is a tragedy. We have a very talented cast and a very talented director, Susan Schulman. Andy Greenleaf is playing the title role of Richard III. Since this is Tapestry’s last performance we have tried to bring in a lot of people who have worked with Tapestry before. Lee McKenna and Carolyn Piccotti who are on our Board of Directors are in the show. I’m in the show as well. There is lots of sword fighting and death and destruction as well. We’re having a great time with it.

Mike: So who do you play in the show?

Peggy: In the show I play Queen Elizabeth who is Richard’s niece in law. Make that Aunt-in-law. I’m married to Richard’s brother. I play her and try to keep control of the throne because my husband is in ill health. Richard and I DO NOT get along at all. We yell a lot.

Mike: Are people going to understand this show? Or do they need to study Shakespeare?

Peggy: No, they do not need to study it at all. Once they see it, even if they do not understand everything they are hearing, they will definitely get the story. It’s a power struggle and Richard wants to be king so he fights with anybody who is in his way. He either fights with them or kills them so that he can eventually take over the throne. There is a line in this show that everybody knows. That is ‘a horse, a horse. My kingdom for a horse.’ It is at the end of the show. Everyone has heard that line before. The actors do such a great job that nobody should have any trouble understanding what is going on.

Mike: We saw part of a rehearsal last night and there were several times when I said, “Oh, I’ve heard that line before.” We really do not like Richard.

Peggy: There’s a lot of sayings today that people say that were written by William Shakespeare and I think a lot of people don’t know that these are Shakespearean quotes that are being said.

Mike: So how did Tapestry choose this for their final show?

Peggy: When Tapestry began our original mission was to perform the classics. The first couple of years all we did was Shakespeare. We later expanded that to do some contemporary stuff as well as some American literature. We always wanted to be a family type theater. so we decided we would go back to the beginnings and do another Shakespeare to close out.

Mike: Were you involved with Tapestry from the beginning?

Peggy: Yes, I’m one of the founding members. From the very beginning doing the 501c3 and all the non profit paperwork, I have been there.

Mike: So how has theater changed over the last twelve or thirteen years?

Peggy: The past twelve years. It has gotten more competitive in the community theaters. I would say fifteen or twenty years ago I don’t think as many people were interested in theater or acting. People see that normal people can do acting and they can run lights and do that sort of thing. It is an activity that people have discovered and found out that they really enjoy. Being in a theater is almost like being in sports. You have to have that camaraderie and you have to work together. All for the same ends on a good production. Or to win the game.

Mike: Has there been a lot of competition like in sports, or has it been very much that you can work with other groups?

Peggy: Other groups do work together. We lend costume and sets to each other. There have been more theater companies that have been formed over the years. Especially in our area of Alexandria, there has always been the Little Theatre of Alexandria. Port City Playhouse has always been there. So really Tapestry was the new kid on the block as far as that goes. Even in the outlying areas, in Arlington and Fairfax county, theater companies have sprung up. Some have come and gone, but there is really a lot of theater in this area. So the competition I think is for audiences more than anything. And for space to perform. That has always been a big problem as well.

Mike: Has Tapestry always been at the Lee Center or have you had to bounce around?

Peggy: Our very first show we did in an amphitheater in a Fairfax County park. We only did one show there. From there we moved to Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria. We performed there for a couple of years. We’ve had some performances at the Lyceum in Alexandria, until we moved to the Lee Center about seven or eight years ago. We have performed there consistently since then.

Mike: So it sounds like everything has been going along pretty smoothly. Have there been any rough times with finances or other problems that have been frustrating?

Peggy: We have been fortunate that we have lots of patrons and lots of good friends who support us. We get grants from the city of Alexandria. So we have learned to live within our budget. Our first show we had $400 to work with. Now our productions run about $8,000. With ticket sales money has not been a problem. Although if we had more we would buy better costumes and props and things. That is not the problem.

Our problem has been with getting technical help. We have a lot of people who like to act, but we need people to do the background stuff. The acting is really the tip of the iceberg. When you go to the theater a lot more people have to do other jobs. Design the set, get the set, build the set, do the publicity which is a massive job. Do the printing, put programs together. Book the space, which is my job.

A lot of the stuff has to be done as much as a year in advance. You have to have people to plan what shows you’re going to do. It takes a lot of people just to get a show going. The majority of the people would like to just go in and be an actor and act in a show. Our problem has been that we have not found enough people to work the background. That is why we are closing. This will be our last show.

The background is probably harder and more important than putting the actors up on stage. For at least five six seven years, there have only been a handful of us doing all of those jobs. Now we are really burned out. We have been actively been trying to find people, but there are so many theater companies in the area that everyone is busy. When we do find someone, life seems to take over. Either their parent gets sick. We’ve had a lot of that. Or they get sick or their kids get sick or there is job that takes them out of town. We have not be successful in finding consistent help over the years. We kind of saw the writing on the wall after trying for so long and we said, “this just isn’t going to work.” Everyone who works in the theater is volunteer. No one gets paid for anything they do.

Mike: For any one production is the staffing, like the crew for example, is that always the same size no matter how big the cast is?

Peggy: No. For example, for Richard III we have about 25 actors in the production, all in Elizabethan costume. Costuming this production has taken about five people. Our director, Susan Schulman, has been the main costumer. She has done a really good job. As opposed to the last show we did which was Having Our Say: The Story of the Delaney Sisters. There were two actresses in there. There were no costume changes. Susan was our costumer for that show as well. She is one of the people who does everything as well. She is one of the people who does everything. All she had to do was find them a dress to wear in the show.

You see the certain difference there just in that one job. Of course with a bigger cast, they will have more people coming to see the show. You have friends and relatives of 25 people as opposed to two. This means that the program is bigger. We have to order more programs which is a big cost and things like that. The lighting in comparing the two shows. The lighting in The Delany Sisters show was lights on lights off. For Richard III we have all kinds of good lighting and light changes when the scene changes depending on the scene. This one has been a very very big one. Fortunately since it’s our last show we have commitments from a lot of people to give us a hand with it.

Mike: So when do the tech people start working on a show?

Peggy: I booked the space in the beginning of January 2007 I had to fill out all of the paperwork. That was after having various board meetings and deciding which piece we were going to do. Then we held production meetings about this probably starting in November of ’07. We had auditions for the principal role in the beginning of January ’08. Auditions for the rest of the people in February ’08. We have been rehearsing since the end of February, last day of February, first day of March. We rehearse four days a week.

Mike: Where do rehearsals take place?

Peggy: Either at the Lee Center. And that’s another thing I had to do way back in January of ’07. I had to try to figure out which nights would be best for rehearsals during the week. We had to book the space then. There was work involved in getting that rehearsal space. Then the Packer Center in Fairfax County will let us use one of their rooms on the weekend. The Lee Center does not charge us for the weekdays, but they charge us for the weekend. So it is usually either all day Saturdays or all day Sundays at the Packer Center in Annandale. That kind of makes more work for people too, when you have to move the rehearsal space around.

Mike: So what can be done to get more techies involved? I assumed at auditions you had tons of people coming out?

Peggy: Yes, we did. To get more techies it is really word of mouth. You do advertise. There is a Northern Virginia Theater Alliance (NVTA) newsletter. We send out notices that we need people well in advance, up to a year in advance. When we announce our season, we say we need someone to design the lights, or do this. And you know, generally you will get one or two calls. If you get two generally only one will pan out. That’s because people are so committed that far in advance.

I’ve had people come to see a show and try to steal our techies for a future show. We can’t get people to commit to Tapestry, which is really what we’ve been trying to do from the beginning. Trying to make it our theater company trying to find people who will just work for us. But it does not appear to be working that way. A good techie will be in high demand and everyone will be calling them so that they can pick and choose the show that they want to do. For example, they may not have been too interested in running lights for Having Our Say, but for Richard III, which is a show that they personally enjoy, that’s the one they are going to choose.

Mike: Is there any kind of program in the area for training techies to get more people able to do it?

Peggy: Not really. In the high schools they do train them. At one point we had a campaign to go and get those kids from the high schools because they learn the latest and greatest stuff as far as equipment and everything goes. We found out that we either had to chauffeur them because they did not have a driver’s license and they were constantly busy after school. We did try that and that did not work.

The Northern Virginia Theater Alliance offers scholarships for graduating seniors who wish to pursue a technical theater degree. We are part of NVTA and we support that. Otherwise if kids go to college to major in technical theater they are going to get a job. On the community theater level we get people who used to do who may not have been in theater for years or want to do it as hobby. You know if you are a good theater tech person you are going to get a job. Community theater is last on the list.

Mike: Has the age of your audience been going up over the past few years? People on the web are saying that kids are not coming to shows anymore. Is that true?

Peggy: In our particular case where our target audience is families, that’s who comes really, families. When we do our Black History month presentation we have a lot of churches that come. And, of course, there are a lot of seniors in that type of audience. We have never done the contemporary show that possibly the younger people would be interested in seeing. We don’t do shows where there is nudity or cussing or anything like that. So I would say our audience is generally not middle age, but maybe in their 30’s to 60’s, but not the teenagers. Sometimes we get school groups coming to see a Shakespeare production. I’m not sure if the kids come because it’s Shakespeare or because their teacher makes them come. Generally I would say 30’s is the type of audience we get to come.

Mike: Do you think a viable solution to the tech staff issue would be for the venue to provide the actual operators?

Peggy: That would be great. I know the city of Alexandria has been looking for someone for years to run the lights and the sound in their booth. I’ve even tried to help them find some people, but they have not been successful in that either. It would end up costing the theater that is renting the space more money. I know when they opened up the Schlesenger Center at NoVa, I looked into renting their theater and the cost associated with the techies they provided. They would not let anyone else use their equipment. We had to hire their people to run it. That cost just about exceeded the cost of the theatre itself. It averages about $4,00 a show.

We have three shows a year. To rent the Lee Center, you can imagine going up to $8,000 for a space that is not really a professional theater space. We have a lot of limitations in that space as far as lights and sounds go. Of course it is a community theater so you also have to deal with other groups using the building and being noisy. So yes, it would be nice if the theater could provide a technical person plus keep the cost down. I think the cost in the City of Alexandria is very inflated. In Arlington, they have an arts center that an Arlington group can use for free. There is a stark contrast there.

Mike: I look at places like the Gaithersburg Arts Barn where they have got a multipurpose arts space. They have got a theater and classrooms, a store and teachers all in one place. So even though it is shared you are able to split the cost up amongst the groups using it.

Peggy: A place like that will give you a place to rehearse. A place to build your sets, which we’re doing here out in my driveway half the time building the sets. In the winter that’s not good, but we do it. We have to rent a storage unit, Self Storage Plus, to keep our supplies in. So really, if we had a space like that where we could rehearse, where we could build our sets, where we could store our costumes and our set pieces, plus perform, it would cut down our background work by more than half and Tapestry would not be closing. It could be run by several people. But we don’t have that.

Mike: How much space would be needed for something like that? How much space do you have to rent each month to store your materials?

Peggy: We rent a 17 by 20 ft. storage unit and it is piled to the ceiling and it has got a very high ceiling with flats and furniture. I have a little building in my yard that is about 15 by 20 ft. and we keep all of the costumes in there. That is packed to the hilt as well. We actually have to pull stuff out of the building to get in and find what we need. So we need that space. Then having a consistent rehearsal space would just be wonderful because right now at the Lee Center we do not get to rehearse in the auditorium because other groups are using it.

We do not get to go into the auditorium until a week before we open. Up until that point we are rehearsing in whatever room the Lee Center has available to give us. Sometimes it’s not big enough. Sometimes it’s a room that has been divided by one of those dividers and you are in competition with sound as far as the group running their meeting in the next room while we are sword fighting. Lots of problems there. So as you can see there really is a lot of work going on behind the scenes. You can understand why we are a little burned out.

Mike: Absolutely.

Peggy: Yeah.

Mike: Something that Laura and I have thought about for over a year was when one of those big box stores closed down in Woodbridge. That place is empty still. I think it used to be a KMart or something and I said, “This would be a great warehouse for a theatre.” You could subdivide it down and you’ve got bright lights. You get six or seven theaters together to share the rent of whatever this giant empty room would cost.

Peggy: That was actually something I had looked into before. But in the City of Alexandria I knew someone who owned a building. He said the rent on that space, which was really just a big empty room. We would have had to build the theater inside of it. The rent for the space was $20,000 a month. I talked to him bout donating it, saying that we’re a non profit corporation. He said he could not afford it with the taxes and the utilities that he would have to pay. I asked what if we paid $1,000 month. He responded that that would still not cover it. I’ve even called if I’ve gone by a strip mall and seen a space that had been empty for awhile I’d call the realty company and they would chuckle at me. So it has to be either a billionaire contributor who is willing to write all this off or it has to be a government supported building. I’ve tried that avenue, too. I’ll bet anything you can think of I’ve tried over the past 13 years.

Mike: One of the other podcasts that we listen to is called Your Neighborhood Stage and they had discussion a couple weeks ago which is where some of these thoughts cam from. If a theater has it’s own place, they should separate out the running of the theater production end of the theater.

Peggy: Oh, yeah.

Mike: But then my gut said, “Well, no, because then it will be too expensive for them to afford their own space.”

Peggy: My sister lives in the country. She live in a town called Matthews, Virginia. It’s a small community and she said that if you came down here you could not sell enough tickets. The church would let you use it for free. The whole community would be involved and everyone would come. It’s really just this area where everything is so congested and expensive and everyone is running all the time. I think that is part of it as well.

Mike: Do you think the number of theaters is dropping or will be dropping?

Peggy: I think it has. I have not talked to anyone who has worked in a community theater who said, “Oh, why are you doing this?” Every single one of them without exception has said that they know exactly where you’re coming from. There are theaters merging now and trying to keep their heads above water. I think the biggest complaint with all of the community theaters now is place to perform that they can afford. Unless you’re in Arlington and everyone is jealous of Arlington.

Mike: Arlington made a push about 10 years ago to subsidize that and get it all set up.

Peggy: Yes, and it has been wonderful. I had even checked into becoming an Arlington group around nine, ten years ago and the space had already been booked for the next two years. We would have had to have been either our membership or our organization itself had to have a certain percentage of Arlington residents. We made an attempt to get some members from Arlington, but those theatres that had already booked the space for the next two years and had been involved in the planning of the whole arts center to begin with. They were first in line. They were saying that Tapestry could have it for one weekend out of the whole year. I did try that avenue as well.

Mike: I’m sorry about Tapestry having to make that decision, but it does make perfect sense.

Peggy: Yes, it does. And who knows, maybe everyone will take a break for five years or so and try it again. You know times change, things change, people change. The few of us who have been continuously involved and who have done a majority of the work and have a passion for theater which is why we stuck it out for so long. But the time came when we had to yell ‘Uncle.’

Mike: So what’s next for you after Richard III? Does Tapestry have to do anything to shut down?

Peggy: Yes. We have to get rid of everything in our storage units. We have amassed some good theater equipment over the years and will be having a garage sale. The benefits from that will be given to the NVTA Scholarship fund. So maybe we can get some techie trained for other theaters. We will keep the actual corporation for about two years, just in case someone says they will take over the original mission so they don’t have to file all the paperwork. Or in case we decide we get bored or something.

So it will really be minor paperwork for the next few years. The big thing will be getting rid of all our costumes. I don’t want to continue paying rent on the storage units. Then I will probably get my life back. I have a full time day job, which I spend as much time on the Tapestry Theater as I do on my day job. If that kind of gives you any indication of how much work it is. My children will hopefully start having children. I hope to be a grandmother one of these days. That will definitely keep me busy. And also if I decide that I want to act or direct something, there are a ton of theaters I can go to and work with. That’s kind of how everyone else feels, too. If they get a bug, they’ll go audition at another local theater. We know everyone in the community. In the theater community anyway.

Mike: Is there anything else we need to chat about?

Peggy: Well, I guess I’d like to say Tapestry from the beginning thought that our niche would be family theater. I believe that we have had success with that. Not many community theaters do Shakespeare. We do American literature. We’ve had great success with To Kill A Mockingbird, Little Women. Plays that have been adapted from books. The classics. I don’t think that there is another community theater in the area that really tries to focus on that. And so it’s really sad that Tapestry is leaving.

I have noticed that other theater companies have picked up on ideas that we’ve done in the past. It was four years ago that we decided we would do something for Black History month with Black historical plays. So for four years we have done that. I have noticed that other theater companies have picked up on that. I see a lot more of those plays than I ever have in the past. Still no one is picking up on the Shakespeare, but I think we had a lot of good ideas as far as being different from other community theaters. I feel that the community might miss that. But at this point it is just too much and life is just too busy for everyone.

Mike: Well, I thank you very much for talking with me today. I do appreciate it.

Peggy: Thank you for the interview.

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started ShowBizRadio in August 2005 because they love live theater. They each have both performed in and worked behind the scenes in DC area productions, as well as earned a Career Studies Certificate in Theater from Northern Virginia Community College. Mike & Laura are each members of the American Theatre Critics Association, and Mike is a member of the Online News Association.

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