Richmond Civic Theatre is a community within a community, and there are few organizations in Wayne County that have survived and thrived the way this one has. Executive Director John Faas sat down with Kate to explore the many elements that go into not only keeping the theatre running, but keeping the passion of its volunteer base alive, generation after generation. Have a listen to learn more about RCT’s colorful past, with performers from Sammy Davis Jr to Louis Armstrong, Kate’s own childhood memories of the theatre and how they sparked her own performance career, and specific information about how you and your family can get involved.
John Faas: I am John Faas and I’m the executive director of Richmond Civic Theatre.
Kate Jetmore: From Civic Spark Media and the Western Wayne News in Wayne County, Indiana, I’m Kate Jetmore. As a native of Richmond, Indiana, I’m excited to be sitting down with some of our neighbors and listening to the stories that define our community. My guest today is John Faas, executive director of Richmond Civic Theatre. A graduate of Wright State University in musical theater, he’s worked at several Ohio venues, including Columbus Children’s Theater, the Human Race Theater Company, Muse Machine, Victoria Theater Association, and Dayton Opera. Founder of Act 2 Costumes and John Faas Designs, John lives in Dayton, Ohio, with his husband, Mike Embry. Welcome to the show, John. Thanks so much for joining me today.
John Faas: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Kate Jetmore: I am so excited to sit down with you today and talk to you about Richmond Civic Theatre, a place where I spent countless hours as a kid and a young adult. RCT just played an incredibly special role in my childhood, so I’m really happy to know that it’s not only still around but is thriving. But what I really like to do is go back in time and talk about RCT’s beginnings. Tell us, if you would, a little bit about the building’s history and how the actual theater community got started.
John Faas: Absolutely. It’s a really interesting story and one that has stood the test of time. Richmond Civic Theatre’s Home is in the Murray Theatre, which was built in 1909 by Omar G. Murray, and he and his business partner, Gus Son, operated a chain of leaseable theaters in several Midwestern cities in the United States, and Omar decided that he wanted to have one with his name on it. The Murray Theatre was erected in 1909. Originally a 700 seat auditorium with four private boxes. There was a billiard hall in the basement, a barbershop, a dry cleaner on the first floor, professional offices on the second, apartments on the third. It in itself was a tiny little business community. In its heyday, as it was originally part of the vaudeville circuit, some legendary performers have graced that stage, including the Marx Brothers. George Burns and Gracie Allen played there. The actual Fannie Bryce that the musical Funny Girl is based on played that Vaudeville house. Sammy Davis Junior played that stage as a child, and then of course the great Louis Armstrong as part of a jazz tour played there.
Kate Jetmore: Wow. Those are some amazing names. Names that even people who’ve never seen live theater before or who’ve never stepped into Richmond Civic Theatre. Everyone will recognize those names. I feel like, wouldn’t you agree, that when you walk into the building you can feel that history?
John Faas: Oh, absolutely. When I came for my interview, my in-person interview, walking into the auditorium, it felt like hallowed ground.
Kate Jetmore: Yeah, I would have to agree with you on that. What about Norbert Silbiger? Where does he fit in?
John Faas: Norbert Silbiger actually was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, and he was brought to Quaker Hill here in Richmond in 1940. They had a refugee place where people were coming to obviously seek refuge from the Nazis. Silbiger was a playwright and an actor. One of the women in the community, Hazel Thornberg Emery, lovingly referred to as the mother of the Richmond Civic Theater, she taught a volunteer drama class at Quaker Hill for the refugees, and Silbiger was obviously involved in that, and she noted his talent immediately. She’s even quoted as saying, “I have this new little man in my group and I’m convinced that he’s a genius.”
Kate Jetmore: Wow.
John Faas: Yeah. She founded a theater group called the Richmond Civic Theatre. At that time it was basically a troop of actors. In 1941, they began their season at the Goddard Auditorium at Earlham College campus and at McGuire Hall, McGuire Memorial Hall. It was in 1952 though that the Richmond Civic Theatre Organization leased the Murray Theatre, which at that time was still the Indiana when it had been converted from a Vaudeville House to a movie theater during the Depression. They purchased it for $42,000, and that’s been the organization’s home since 1952.
Kate Jetmore: I don’t think I ever knew that the Quakers had a hand in how Richmond Civic Theatre came to be, how it got its beginnings that Norbert Silbiger was taken care of by the Quaker community in Richmond, and then it was a Quaker woman, a woman of Quaker faith who actually helped the theater company start.
John Faas: Yep.
Kate Jetmore: Those are stories that I’ve spent so many hours in Richmond, the Civic Theatre, and I don’t think I ever knew any of that history. So thank you for walking us through that.
John Faas: You’re welcome. It’s very interesting.
Kate Jetmore: It is very interesting. Here’s another thing that’s interesting. Theaters, places where live theater is rehearsed and performed, open and close all the time in the United States. Somebody has a great idea, maybe it’s a little bit different than other ideas have been, and everyone gets all gungho and jumps on board and supports the idea, and then it fizzles out. But RCT has really stood the test of time. What do you think is the secret ingredient that has kept this gem open and loved when so many others have closed or fallen into disrepair?
John Faas: That’s an interesting question. This organization is unique. I think the best way that I can describe the organization, I go back to a meeting that I had last week with my board president. RCT itself is a community. I think, at least from what I’ve witnessed, I’ve only been involved in the organization now for just about two and a half years, it has had every generation has come with its own group of dedicated volunteers that essentially are at the helm or were at the helm of the organization in various capacities, whether board positions, directors, set designers, et cetera, and they took it as far as they could and then provided a opportunity and a way for the next generation under them to take it over and run with it.
It has been a finely guarded and pristinely protected gem. I could tell that within the first couple of weeks of being on the job. The new executive director comes in and questions processes and procedures, and a lot of it’s just general information and being the new guy. But people are very passionate about the organization. Even people who aren’t as involved in it to this day are very passionate about the organization. I think that’s the elixir.
Kate Jetmore: What you’re describing, I’d like to hear you say more about the word community and what you mean by that. What is it that you see at RCT that makes you use the word community?
John Faas: This organization is a second home for a lot of people. In many ways, the same way people look to the church or different service organizations as a means of feeling connected to other people and being able to be themselves and create and socialize and just basic fellowship, that’s the sense that you get by the people that are involved there. It truly is its own community. What’s interesting for me is stepping in as someone who’s expected to manage that community and run that community like a business.
Kate Jetmore: That was actually going to be my next question, John, because everything you’re describing is friendly and welcoming and passion and energy, but something that is able to survive over the years must by definition have some structure and have a business plan that’s working or at least working well enough from year to year. What does that structure look like at RCT?
John Faas: When I came in, the organizational structure was predominantly board driven as it’s been for the last several decades. RCT wasn’t always 100% a community theater. When Norbert Silbiger ran the organization from 1941 to 1962, I think is when he retired finally, it was paid. It was a paid semi-professional theater company. It’s interesting. The organization has morphed, like the pendulum swings one way and then it swings back the other. For the longest time, prior to me coming on board as executive director, there was no executive director for about 15 years. It was completely volunteer run. The only staff was part-time office manager and part-time youth theater managing director, which is now called Stage 1. Those two people are Bonnie Miller, who’s office manager, and Ryan Shaw who runs the Stage 1 youth theater program.
When I came on, I come on full-time executive director. Some of the changes that we made were we pretty much elevated Bonnie and Ryan to full-time, and then within a year we’ve hired a full-time technical director because that was one of the areas of our production process that we saw too much inconsistency in leadership. You’ve got some people who they’ll do one show a year and they’re really great and they might come back and do another one and they’re really great, but then in the interim, in other productions that come in between, you’ve got varying skill levels, and sometimes varying levels of dedication. That’s not an indictment on anyone, it’s just when you rely on volunteer talent, you’re at the mercy of the free time of the people giving it.
Kate Jetmore: Right.
John Faas: One of the things that I was charged with in this role was professionalizing the process as much as possible, and that means everything from how we produce theater to how we publicize the shows to how we raise money to how we report our finances to the IRS, et cetera, et cetera. But it’s interesting doing that while the artistic product is still 100% volunteer. All of the directors, actors, costume designers, every musician that plays in the pit, they’re all volunteers.
Kate Jetmore: Right. There will also be people out there who are listening to this podcast who have no experience with live theater and maybe tend to conflate it with the cinema or TV in the sense that, in the case of a movie, you buy your ticket, you show up at a specific time, and you watch a story being told. Right? But live theater requires the commitment of so many people, dozens of people who are coordinating their efforts week after week, depending on how long the rehearsal period is. We’re talking about, as you said, the actors, the directors, all the behind the stage, behind the scenes people, like costumes and makeup and set designers, et cetera. Can you talk a bit about the role RCT plays in the community of Richmond or in the context of Wayne County when it comes to bringing people together at the theater?
John Faas: Absolutely. Theater, the art form in itself, as we just mentioned, it’s communal. It is a collaborative art form. Different mediums, different artists, different skill levels all come together to create one singular moment in time that no matter how many times it’s rehearsed and no matter how many performances there are can never be replicated, and that is the beauty of theater. It’s fleeting. You’re experiencing it firsthand in the moment, and it’s living art. The missing piece, once all of the artists put this beautiful thing together and the curtain comes up and they perform the show, the missing piece is the audience.
I had a former boss who used to say, “If you do a play in the woods and no one comes to see it, did it ever really happen?” He was exactly right. The audience is the missing piece. The community. The people who live in Richmond and surrounding areas, quite frankly. We pull a lot of people from Western Ohio. It brings together in the same audience, parents, their kids, school teachers, community leaders, politicians, titans of industry, philanthropists, people who in most normal circumstances may not have an opportunity to be in the same room together. That is what the arts do. Not just RCT, but all of the arts. We literally bring communities together.
Kate Jetmore: Yeah. That is a real point of hope, because every community has its struggles. Every community has its points that you look at and you think, “How can we possibly improve this?” Well, sometimes what you have to do is come in the back door with something like what you’ve just described, which is, how about we just get people in the same room together? That’s a really good first step, and then we can go to the next step.
John Faas: Absolutely.
Kate Jetmore: What about, you referenced in one of the earlier questions or one of the earlier points that you were talking about how the project that is Richmond Civic Theatre and the passion that’s behind that project gets passed down from generation to generation. I know that’s certainly been the case in my family. My dad was the first person in our family to step on the stage at RCT. He introduced that tradition to me. I’ve seen it in my nieces and nephews as well. So I know that happens. There are families where different generations have performed and directed. Do you also see that when it comes to board members, when it comes to people who are working behind the scenes?
John Faas: Absolutely. Board members, I’ll set that part of the conversation aside for just a second because there’s a transition that’s happening at the board level. But as far as people who are involved in leadership roles, we definitely see that. We see people who get involved simply because they came to the theater and saw one of their parents be in a show, or they sat in the back of the room during rehearsals on long nights doing their homework while one of their parents was the choreographer or the pit conductor. Definitely, it’s in their blood, whether they’re active or not, and in some cases, in many cases, that what those experiences do and have done for the people involved make them lifelong lovers of the art and they become patrons, they become donors, and then they expose their own children and grandchildren to the art. It’s like you said, it’s something that is passed down from generation to generation.
Kate Jetmore: Right. I also think it happens on a really deep level. I think it goes beyond the conscious. It goes beyond an awareness of, oh, I’d better teach my child about theater or I’d better talk to him about the importance of. I have a vivid memory of going to see my dad in Enemy of the People, and there was a scene where he walked out on stage with a black eye, and I remember going to every performance just because I wanted to see how he could go from not having a black eye to having a black eye to not having a black eye to having a black eye. Even describing it to you in words it sort of loses a bit of its magic. That’s not something I’ve ever described to anyone before. But I have no doubt that that experience, witnessing that moment night after night at Richmond Civic Theatre is one of the reasons that I love the theater and have spent so many years in the theater. Do you have any stories of your own when it comes to what made you fall in love with the theater?
John Faas: Oh, absolutely. I want to say I was 11 or 12 years old, and the Phantom of the Opera, the Andrew Lloyd Webber Musical had come to the Cleveland Playhouse. I’m originally from Northeastern Ohio. Actually born and raised in Wayne County, Ohio, which was a nice little tie in there for Wayne County, Indiana.
Kate Jetmore: Yeah.
John Faas: My grandfather, my step-grandfather, took me to see the show. We were in a rural community. I grew up with modest means. We stood in the very top back balcony of the Palace Theatre in Cleveland, or the State Theatre rather, to see the show, and it was absolutely mesmerizing. It changed my life. It made me want to do this for the rest of my life. The second thing, the second experience I had that sealed the deal for me really was the opportunity to see Carol Channing do Hello Dolly Live the last time she toured it. It was the opportunity to see living theater royalty, a living legend play the role that she’s played for 30 years was absolutely spectacular.
Kate Jetmore: Where was that?
John Faas: That was at the same theater. Oh, no, that was in Columbus, Ohio. That might’ve been the Palace Theatre in Columbus.
Kate Jetmore: Oh, okay.
John Faas: Or the Ohio Theatre. That’s what it was. It was the Ohio Theatre.
Kate Jetmore: Okay. Okay. Well, there’s no doubt, I already knew that RCT was more vibrant than ever, and now there’s no doubt after listening to you talk about what’s happening at the theater these days. But what is next for RCT? What do you envision when it comes to the theater’s future? Not only when it comes to very specific written down on paper goals, but also your hopes for the theater and your dreams?
John Faas: One thing that I would really love to see for the theater itself, for the organization is a healthy endowment. For as old as the organization is now, it’s 82 years, it has had varying levels of support by some wonderful people throughout eight decades. It’s had its highs and lows. There is some endowment money at the Wayne County Foundation, but it is minimal. The building itself is not getting any younger. I would love to see a substantial fund set up to maintain the building and to restore the inside of the auditorium. It needs painted, new seats in the balcony, which involves a capital campaign and endowment and all that jazz.
The other thing that I would really like to see for the organization is increased audience participation and increased ticket sale numbers. Last year we had some great ticket sales, and I think it was because people were finally coming back to life and leaving their houses after COVID and they wanted to go see theater. This year, we’re seeing a little bit of a different trend. I don’t know. We assume that it is in tune with what many other theaters across the country are experiencing with decreased attendance. We’re doing everything we can to hit it off at the pass and monitor finances and keep forward with the mission and keep producing theater, which is why we exist.
Then, I think the third thing would be, I would love to see a robust education program. Stage 1 does a tremendous job with what it offers in the community to kids as far as workshops and trainings and getting them interested in the art form. But I would love to see continuing education opportunities for theater artists that are adults, and that is something we’ve talked about at the board level, and I know that we’re turning the curve on that. Some things are going to start happening.
Kate Jetmore: What would that look like, John? Are you talking about workshops for adults?
John Faas: I think it’s a combination of higher level acting courses, dance class, maybe musical theater, vocal styles taught by some voice instructors. But what I’d really like to do is give the volunteers the opportunity to work with a professional in the industry and bring in a professional creative team, professional stage director, professional music director for a show, and provide people a shadowing opportunity and everyone really the opportunity to work with people who work professionally in the industry and see if there are things that they pick up that reinvigorate them and excite them about what they do at RCT, and that just makes our product better.
Kate Jetmore: Yeah. Absolutely. That’s exciting. Would you like to speak to our listeners for just a moment about how they could become involved if they’d like to, whether as a performer or a volunteer behind the scenes or as a donor if they want to make a donation to the theater?
John Faas: Absolutely. We welcome anyone and everyone who’s interested in volunteering at the theater, and that is anything from artistic to more administrative or operational like working box office, being an usher, being a house manager. Anyone who’s interested in getting involved can go to our website, and at the top there is a little bar there that says get involved. You can fill out your information and you submit it and it goes to us, and then we will reach out to you with different opportunities based on what your interests are.
As far as being a patron or a donor, if someone doesn’t have an interest in being an artist or participating in the making of theater, we ask that you come to the theater. Bring your family to the theater. We have varying price levels. We try to provide as much opportunity for people of different incomes and means to participate and see shows. Bring your families to the theater, and if you really love what we do and you have the means, then the very next best thing that you can do is an annual fund gift. That’s a general operating support. That helps us pay the electric bill. It helps us keep the water and the lights on. That’s increasingly expensive in a 112 year old building.
Kate Jetmore: Yeah, for sure. John, what is the website address, gorct?
John Faas: Yes. It’s gorct.org.
Kate Jetmore: Okay. Great. Well, John, I want to thank you so much for joining me on this show today. I really enjoyed getting to know you and getting to know the theater even better. Thank you so much and I want to wish you and your husband all the best.
John Faas: Thank you so much for having me.