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Proctors Un-Gala: A decade of growth, with plans for more

Thursday, September 13, 2012
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Wine enthusiasts sample area wines at the Capital Region Wine Festival held at Proctors on Feb. 11, with the Schenectady Heritage Area Visitors Center as a backdrop.
Wine enthusiasts sample area wines at the Capital Region Wine Festival held at Proctors on Feb. 11, with the Schenectady Heritage Area Visitors Center as a backdrop.

— When a rescue committee was created in 1979 to save Proctor’s Theatre, organizer Lionel Barthold was hoping the theater would eventually become financially solvent.

He never imagined it would succeed to the point where it could expand to offer three additional stages, and he certainly didn’t expect that Proctors would become the focal point of Schenectady’s revitalization.

Back then, he said, he would’ve had a one word answer if anyone had suggested such success: “Absurd!”

In the last 10 years, Proctors has grown from one stage that was too cramped for the most popular Broadway shows to a major force in downtown Schenectady.

The theater now does so much that the board actually has an organizational diagram to track the various entities.

Some of it goes far afield from traditional entertainment.

There’s the heating and cooling business — Proctors provides it to some of its neighbors, through a plant near Clinton Street.

And there’s the heat system under the sidewalks, which melts the snow for the entire block.

The theater has a water-based renewable power source and the waste heat is used to provide heating and cooling.

It took “a little bit of audacity” to propose that project, Proctors CEO Philip Morris said. But it brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars for Proctors and reduces the theater’s carbon footprint. It’s also made the theater eligible for grants aimed at encouraging energy efficiency.

It’s a surprising way to make money. But, Barthold said, it’s exactly the sort of out-of-the-box thinking that Morris has brought to Proctors.

“He is a very, very extraordinarily competent man in finance. You wouldn’t think a roly-poly artsy guy in pink shirts would be able to understand finance,” Barthold said.

That’s not to say that all of Proctors audacious ventures have made money.

Apostrophe, the cafe near the box office, isn’t making a profit yet — after 20 months.

“It’s going to take a bit,” Morris said. “This year we might actually make $1,000.”

Proctors took over the cafe from a lessee to improve the food that many theater-goers grab just before going to a show.

“It’s a hospitality question. They should have the ability to get a dessert or dinner quickly,” Morris said. “It took us a long time to get good at it — 6 months — but the food’s good. We’re happy to eat there, and we hope others are.”

Tourism site

In some cases, Proctors has expanded for reasons that have nothing to do with entertainment.

The Schenectady Heritage Area Visitors Center was invited into the Carl Co. building when Proctors ran out of money while renovating the site.

“We had run out of money and Robb Alley wasn’t finished. It was pretty rough walls,” Morris said. “The museum wanted exhibit space. It fixed our walls and we became the tourism site.”

Box office workers are now trained to tell tourists what else there is to do in Schenectady, from restaurants to special events.

But mainly, Proctors has expanded its ability to offer entertainment.

In the last 10 years, the company expanded its main stage, bought the buildings on both sides of the theater (the Carl Co. building and an old KeyBank), and added three more venues, including the GE Theater.

None of it was easy. Renovating existing buildings and fitting modern stage equipment is complicated. Morris still wants to add another stage on the third floor of the Carl Company building, and Key Hall isn’t quite ready for full use yet.

Key Hall has hosted half a dozen performances so far, but Morris wasn’t satisfied with sound quality and spent months testing new sound equipment. It’s being installed this week.

Key Hall has been used mainly for private weddings and banquets.

But with the expansion, Proctors had 175 live events on the main stage last year — up from 35 to 40 a decade ago. The GE Theater has added another 80 to 100 live events a year, and another 100 are held in the small performance space downstairs at the Carl Co. building.

Including movies and conferences, Proctors had 1,738 events last year. A decade ago, there were just 140 events.

“We have roughly quadrupled our paid ticket attendance,” Morris said.

Many people doubted that Proctors would succeed when expansion plans were first announced. Adding the GE Theater was considered, by some, to be a money-losing idea.

“There was a ton of people who kinda didn’t believe it,” Morris said with a laugh. “People said, ‘Won’t you just expand the main stage and be done with it?’ ”

It took “audacity” to propose building a second theater instead, he said.

It’s been such a success that Morris says he has only one regret.

“If I’d known what I know now, I’d build two of them,” he said.

But the success wasn’t a surprise to Morris and the Proctors board. They had asked performers whether they would use the new stage.

“People say ‘Build it and they will come.’ That’s not what we did. [What] we did [was] test it, build it, and then the people who said they would should show up,” Morris said.

‘Regional resource’

Proctors has also taken under its wing two other production companies: Schenectady County’s public access channels and Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany. That’s part of Proctors’ effort to become a “regional resource,” Morris said.

Philosophically, Morris thinks the region should compete against Buffalo and other big cities, rather than competing internally. So Capital Repertory is an ally, not a competitor — even though Proctors shows small productions on two stages of its own.

“We need to see ourselves and the community needs to see us as a regional resource,” Morris said. “When Capital Rep was in trouble, we wore that regional resource hat.”

Proctors now manages Capital Repertory and the public access channel, known now as Open Stage Media.

Morris said Proctors could improve the quality of public access programs, by providing better cameras and filming venues.

Proctors’ youth program has blossomed through OSM. The summer school for the arts has transformed into a program that sends teachers into local schools for yearlong film projects. OSM plays the movies they create.

“Our educational program was leaning more and more toward media because that’s how young people connect,” Morris said.

After a decade of growth, Morris is still planning for more.

The expansion of the music program at Schenectady County Community College has hemmed in the theater program, he said, because they have little time on their shared stage.

He wants to build a 100-seat theater on the third floor of the Carl Company building for the theater majors.

“We’d love to have it reimagine the college theater program,” he said. “We still have dreams.”

 
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