What do Lehigh Valley residents really want from a community theatre, in this case, the Civic Theatre of Allentown? And what direction should Civic move toward in serving the community and remaining a viable organization over the next couple of decades?
That’s what the venue’s board of directors and staff asked of the public Thursday night during a two-hour town meeting held at the 19th Street Theatre located between Liberty and Allen Streets known as the city’s West End Theatre District.
The nonprofit community arts center, built in 1928, originally was designed as a movie palace in Art Deco style. It produces live theater, provides independent and foreign film, and conducts a theater school.
Civic also operates the 80-seat, black-box Theatre514, located across the street.
Approximately 50 residents were in attendance, a small number for the 500-seat main venue but a powerful enough crowd whose suggestions and ideas were not taken lightly as Civic enters a strategic planning process and business plan for its future.
There were business owners, board members from Civic and other valley arts organizations, performing artists, and avid supporters of the arts in general.
Facilitators for the meeting were Ted Swenson and Jennifer Shropshire of the Philadelphia firm of Swenson & Associates. They heard what their audience was seeking in the future from the venue and what concerns valley residents may have about the organization and its place in the valley’s cultural community.
“What’s said tonight will be a living document by Civic, not a plan sitting on the shelf but one to be used,” Swenson said. Those in attendance also were asked to complete a short survey. Swenson added that a larger survey would become available on the web.
A series of questions to the audience related to why people come to Civic, the image of the venue, qualities that make it unique, the quality of work, strengths and weaknesses, broadening audiences, and collaborations with other organizations.
The audience seemed to be comprised of two groups, one that came to see theater and the other to see film.
“The theater is essential to the success of this neighborhood,” said one resident. “It’s where I live.” Another said, “I want it to preserve this architecture. No one has figured out the way to do that,” citing much-needed repair for its peeling walls and ceiling.
Some were amazed to hear that the theater had an image problem in the valley. Said one local administrator, “I lived in the Lehigh Valley for years and never heard of Civic Theatre. I knew more about the Sherman Theatre in the Poconos.”
Dan Giles, Civic’s house organist for 21 years, said the theater was the only one of its kind in the Lehigh Valley to possess a genuine theater organ. He said he was disappointed that “we never really promoted the fact that this is what we have here.” Giles received a hearty round of applause.
Some questioned Civic as being part of the West End Theatre District when, they said, it’s the only theater there.
“We have assets here,” said Randall Forte, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Arts Council. “There are more than 125 arts organizations in the Lehigh Valley and only 50 percent have venues. Why aren’t we opening our doors to others?”
Some praised the work of the theater school, especially with recent cuts in the arts in the Allentown School District.
Marilyn Roberts, Pennsylvania Partner in the Arts coordinator with the Lehigh Valley Arts Council, cited the professionalism of Civic Artistic Director Bill Sanders in bringing quality productions to the stage.
“Theater is about literature and social justice,” she said, “and Bill has found a presenting home here.” She also felt partnerships and collaborations were necessary.
One resident stressed that “Civic needs to be a reflection of the community and needs to diversify in its programming.”
Ideas ranged from more youth programming to concert and film events and closed-circuit sporting events.
The theater has had some silent film showings with live organ music. The next offering will be Harold Lloyd in “Safety Last!” on Aug. 6 at 7:30 p.m.
Theatre514 also is featuring local visual artists in coordination with the Allentown Arts Commission. A “Meet the Artist” will be held Friday, July 19, featuring the work of Rigo Peralta.