Actors Guild of Lexington is embarking on ambitious changes that its leaders say will make the theater's on-stage offerings more professional, diversify the kinds of shows it presents and move its offices to a hot new downtown development.
The theater's board of directors has approved moving forward with a contract with Actors Equity, the stage actors union. It is also moving its offices to the Distillery District, on Manchester Street, and hopes to launch an edgy, second-stage series in that area and a roving cabaret series.
"It's an important milestone," says Barry McNees, developer of the Distillery District. "To have an established group say, 'This looks promising, and we're going to take the risk of coming down there,' makes it easier for the next group to take that risk as well."
Actors Guild will move from its fourth-floor offices in the Downtown Arts Center on Main Street in June.
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The theater's artistic director, Richard St. Peter, and managing director, Kim Shaw, say they hope the move will increase the visibility of their group, one of two professional theater groups in Lexington, and let it catch some of the energy from the emerging district.
"It will put us in people's consciousness in a different way," St. Peter said. "It will allow people to identify us."
In addition to moving offices and storage to the Distillery District, Actors Guild plans to launch a second-stage series of raw, more avant-garde works in a warehouse half a block from its offices. Also, Actors Guild plans to develop a cabaret series that will travel to area restaurants. The 26-year-old troupe plans to continue presenting its main-stage works at the Main Street theater, which it moved to in 2002.
"We're trying to maintain our Downtown Arts Center presence, but also explode ourselves and redefine people's notions of what the Actors Guild of Lexington experience is," St. Peter said.
A new Equity contract
In addition to physical repositioning, the theater is also negotiating to sign a "Small Professional Theatre" contract with Actors Equity, meaning that a certain percentage of the actors in next season's shows will be Equity members.
Actors Guild, which pays a stipend to all actors in its shows, has presented numerous shows over the past several years with actors working on guest artist Equity contracts. Lexington Children's Theatre also pays its actors.
But the move will establish Actors Guild as the first Equity theater in Lexington since Diners' Playhouse, which closed in 1982.
The contract will begin with a modest percentage of actors and weekly pay for them. Shaw said the understanding is that the theater will increase its percentage and pay as the years go by.
"We are supportive of anything that helps strengthen their programming," said Jim Clark, president and CEO of LexArts, the umbrella arts group in Lexington. "Equity would help differentiate them from the several very strong community theaters we have in the area."
That said, Clark called Actors Guild's new game plan a "calculated risk." St. Peter and Shaw agreed.
Actors Guild has struggled financially recently. At the beginning of the year, the group modified its season to cut costs, and cash-flow problems have put the theater behind in paying some bills, including rent and personnel pay.
St. Peter said, "It has been as tough a year as we have ever had."
But he added that Shaw — a Lexington native who holds a master of fine arts degree from Columbia University and joined Actors Guild after working as the assistant director of the Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University — said that retreating and hunkering down was the wrong thing to do in a crisis.
One of the major concerns about Actors Guild has been an over-dependence on box-office income and contributions from LexArts and other funding entities.
"All of this is wonderful because it takes responsibility off the main stage to be all things to all people," Shaw said. "We can do other things people want Actors Guild to do and form new streams of revenue.
"It gives people things to believe in, that we are moving forward and growing."
To manage its new offerings, Actors Guild is embarking on a new ticketing system that will first be available for the summer revival of Bad Dates and subUrbia, a co-production with the youth troupe Apprentice Players.
And though it was a rough year, St. Peter says it ended on high notes, including hit productions of Bad Dates and the world premiere of Silas House's Long Time Traveling. The theater also received $10,000 as a beneficiary of the Beaux Arts Ball.
Clark says those things are good, but Actors Guild must get on firmer financial footing so it is not dependent on good fortune.
Shaw says that several of the moves the theater is making will save money. That includes the Equity contract, which, if Actors Guild gets the terms it wants, will be less expensive than the guest artist system.
And if the road does get bumpy, McNees says, he is prepared to be an understanding landlord.
"With nearly everyone we're working with, there are flexible terms involved," he said. "In the big picture, we are for profit. But in the big picture and small term, we are for Lexington.
McNees says cultural offerings are essential to establishing a creative community. "We believe in the arts and we believe in Actors Guild."