Ocala Civic Theater is back with new vigor, new leadership and a new strategy
It’s been a disquieting couple of years for the Ocala Civic Theatre.
First, in early 2019, its leader of more than 30 years, Mary Britt, died at age 64. Britt was the heart, soul and face of OCT. She nurtured OCT into one of the most respected community theaters in the country and a cornerstone of Ocala’s cultural arts community.
Then, in 2020, came the COVID-19 pandemic. It caused OCT, like most businesses and entertainment venues, to close temporarily and, later, to sharply curtail their activities and audiences. OCT was lucky, though. It was not among the 80 percent of community theaters across the United States that closed for good. OCT carried on, albeit in a much more limited way. Bottom line: it survived.
The pandemic, while a threat to OCT’s survival, turned out to be an opportunity for the theater, which had changed little in Britt’s years at the helm. The pandemic imposed a pause in which theater backers could regroup, find a replacement for the venerable Britt and assess the finances, long-range vision and relationship with the community that Britt had overseen for a generation.
The result of those steps is OCT has come back from the shutdown with new leadership and a new strategy for growth going forward.
For OCT board president Laurie Zink, getting to this point meant stepping back and looking at the full picture. What Zink and others saw was a wonderful, aging old lady who everyone loved but that had not kept up with the times. With time to work — and some federal pandemic dollars to keep things going — it was obvious change was needed.
“I was a friend of Mary’s,” Zink said. “But if we kept doing things the same way that we had always done them, there would be no legacy for Mary.
“Yes, the Ocala Civic Theatre is 71 years old. And yes, it has served the community well. But the whole community has changed, and OCT has to change, too. We evolve. We have to.”
That evolution started with finding someone to lead OCT going forward. Britt had been both the artistic director and the business manager for OCT. Zink said board members determined that model does not work in 2021. So, they conducted a search and hired a two-headed executive team with Katrina Ploof as artistic director and Rosie Miller as business and development director.
Ploof, who has spent a career in theater doing everything from acting and directing to stage management and costume design, had been a director at OCT once a year for eight years before being hired to lead OCT forward artistically. She served as interim director after Britt died. Ploof arrived in Ocala in March 2020, “the day Walt Disney World closed, and the state basically locked up,” she said.
Miller, meanwhile, had been a nonprofit executive in the Orlando area for many years and was hired to oversee the theater’s business operations and fund-raising efforts. Her first act was to examine OCT’s business model. What she found was the theater was “too heavily dependent” on ticket sales. Her focus will be on expanding the sources of OCT’s revenues and its audience base.
“The goal is to introduce more and more people of all ages and backgrounds to this theater and make it vibrant for the next 70 years.”
The 21st century vision
Determining a strategy for the future meant examining OCT’s audience. What they found was the longstanding and dependable ticket-holders of the past were aging and dwindling. The result, Ploof said, was OCT was not taking any chances, not trying anything new and in omnipresent fear of offending the audiences.
“There was just this terror that people were going to get mad,” she said.
Both Ploof and Miller agreed the pandemic facilitated a change in direction for OCT – to a smaller season, smaller productions, more focus on good plays rather than well-known ones and renewed emphasis on its popular and burgeoning Education Department. All in all, the goal is to attract younger audience members and stimulate support from arts lovers.
“My focus is excellence,” Ploof said. “I might pick a play you don’t know, but I’m not going to pick a piece of crap. You may not know it, but it won’t be a waste of your time.”
The first two productions OCT has put on since COVID restrictions were lifted are “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” a comedy that had a few suggestive and racy scenes, and “Paper Thin,” a never-before-seen three-act play by relatively unknown but award-winning Mississippi playwright T.K. Lee.
Both have attracted strong audiences, an encouraging sign to Ploof and Miller.
“We are cautiously optimistic about the return of audiences,” Ploof said. “Every play and every musical has had more people in the audience, but it can’t come back fast enough.”
Lee is a perfect example of the kind out-of-the-box thinking the OCT leadership believes can help set OCT even farther apart from other community theaters. He has written a number of plays, and he is also a poet. He worked for 10 years on “Paper Thin” to get it where it is today. When OCT presented the play’s world premiere last month, both playwright and playhouse saw it was a win.
When asked how important OCT’s invitation to produce his play was to his career, Lee was emphatic.
“Oh my god, I’m excited anytime any theater wants to tell my story … because at any theater, there is a lot of money involved,” he said. “It’s very hard to get a name without theaters like this.”
“I mean, OCT is ranked in the top 10 (community theaters) in the country,” he added. “At one point it had a membership of 60,000. It’s hugely impactful not only in Ocala, but beyond. It’s very hard to get a name and it’s hard to get a name without theaters like this. This is a big thing to me.”
For Ploof, any performance OCT puts on must be “relevant and feel like it was written for today.” She believes “Paper Thin,”which ran at OCT from Oct. 14-31, accomplished that – and maybe helped launch Lee’s career to the next level. That would be something that would benefit OCT.
“A rising tide floats all boats. That’s the advantage,” the theatrical veteran said. “If Kris Lee’s ‘Paper Thin’ catches the eye of a regional theater, or theaters in New York or London see it, the Ocala Civic Theater goes with it. What if we become known (for launching new playwrights)? What if we did a new play festival, what would that mean?”
Zink said the board of directors is all in on the new approach.
“We want to get to the point where people will come not because the play is known, but because they know OCT means quality,” she said. “The goal is to introduce more and more people of all ages and backgrounds to this theater and make it vibrant for the next 70 years.”
What’s new at OCT
The changes Ploof, Miller and Zink talk about are already happening. The coming OCT season will be six performances, as opposed to the traditional eight it used to stage. Tickets will remain $25 per performance. Ploof and Miller say that will allow for more focus on quality and audience appreciation as well as a new emphasis on other aspects of OCT, namely its Education Department and promoting its new outdoor stage as both an outdoor performing arts facility and an events venue.
The Education Program at OCT is of special interest to the new leadership as part of their new strategy.
Headed by Terry LeCompte, the Education Program provides classes and instruction in theater for young people. Currently, the program is “exploding,” according to Ploof, and has about 200 participants with a waiting list.
“The thing about an education program, specifically for theater, and especially for children, is it creates empathy,” she said. “Theater kids are good people. They learn about the world and about the people in it. They learn how to tell other people’s stories. … and what we’re creating are our future audiences.”
Miller concurs that the education program is important to OCT, both present and future.
“The biggest thing I’d like to focus on is our education program,” Miller said. “We have an amazing education director. We’re at full capacity. And the education program actually grew during the pandemic.”
A production of the “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” put on by the Education Department over the summer, sold out, which was music to Miller’s ears.
The outdoor stage, meanwhile, offers OCT a second venue for presenting plays and musicals. Miller said that in addition to that, it can also provide income for OCT as an outdoor event venue.
Financed through a grant from the Marion Cultural Alliance, the outdoor facility is lighted with twinkling lights and, of course, has a stage.
Now that things have returned to some semblance of normal, OCT’s plan for the future is to re-engage the community, restructure its approach to business and look for new ways to solidify its finances.
What Miller and Ploof say is a saving grace for the theater is the $1.3 million in federal dollars it received through the Shuttered Venue Operations Grant and other pandemic relief programs. “We applied for every grant we could,” Miller said.
It allowed OCT to avoid laying off any of its 15 employees and put a little money into its endowment. Once venues were allowed to begin having live audiences, the theater began having 60-person audiences – the theater seats 362 – and that helped keep the operation alive, Miller said.
“I think we coped with it very well,” she said. “I think the audiences coped with it very well.”
In the past, Miller said, OCT has focused almost exclusively on artistic direction and the stage – to the hindrance of fund-raising opportunities. That has to change.
Zink agreed, noting that OCT “is a 71-year-old girl who needs some TLC.”
“We’re going to start a fund-raising campaign dedicated to making sure the building is going to be with us another 71 years,” she said. “If we don’t have a building, we don’t have a theater.”
Miller said OCT will continue to be aggressive in seeking grants and soliciting more sponsorships and memberships, including going outside of Marion County, and pursuing more rentals as a venue for outside events.
“We’re trying not necessarily to change the brand, just improve it,” Miller said. “So, we’ll be very careful who we allow in.”
The goal as far as audience count is concerned, is to get back, or exceed, the pre-pandemic annual headcount of 65,000.
To help achieve these goals, OCT has created a new marketing department.
For Zink, who has been board president for a year, she believes the community will and must rally around OCT because the two are good for each other.
“We’re the only live theater in Ocala,” she said. “There’s a beauty to that that you don’t get anywhere but live theater. … But it will depend on the community.”
To contact the Ocala Civic Theater, you can call 352/236-2274, or go onlineocalacivictheatre.com.