By Megan Cochrane
The Williamston Post
The Williamston Theatre has been a landmark in town since it opened in 2006. However, it was not until 2014 that the small, not-for-profit, professional live theatre company took ownership of its building at 122 S. Putnam St.
At more than 120 years old, the structure requires improvements and repairs. Funding for such maintenance is not always easy to find, but grants from several organizations have allowed the theatre to maintain a quality experience for audiences.
According to Emily Sutton-Smith, development director of Williamston Theatre, the theatre’s annual budget is $471,000. Fundraising and donations make up just half of that. The other half is raised through box office sales, the standard for professional theaters.
Sutton-Smith said, “People jumped at the chance to help Williamston Theatre buy the new building because that’s ‘sexy.’”
Sutton-Smith said maintenance is hard to fund because it is not the most visible result of a contribution. She said many donors want to purchase set pieces and costumes rather than more expensive items that are not as noticeable.
Bonnie Bairley, a theatre senior at Michigan State University, worked as a production assistant on the Williamston Theatre’s production of Rounding Third this season.
Bairley said, “Originally, the theatre was a storefront. So, that transformation over 10 years is pretty incredible, thanks to Tony Caselli, John Lepard, Emily Sutton-Smith and all the donors … who have helped to create this space.”
Williamston Theatre applies for several grants each year to supplement donations from community members, said Sutton-Smith. For the 2015-2016 season, the theatre has been awarded two grants from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
The theatre received an operating grant of $22,500 to go toward general operating costs and a capital improvement grant just shy of $15,000 to help with facility improvement projects.
The biggest portion of Williamston Theatre’s budget is people, said Sutton-Smith. The theatre uses operational support to pay its artists.
“We hire professionals. That’s why our shows are so good,” said Sutton-Smith of the artists both on and off of Williamston’s stage.
Mark Colson, a professional actor of stage and screen and a professor of media acting at Michigan State University, said he became involved with Williamston Theatre because he wanted to support and be part of the only professional theatre in the area.
“Williamston is an amazing place to work,” said Colson. “They treat their artists very well—designers and actors. They have created an atmosphere that allows creative people to flourish. They understand the creative process and enable all artists to create on a very high level.”
As for the capital improvement grant, Sutton-Smith said the exterior of the building was painted very recently with masonry paint to help protect the historic structure.
“It’s nice to take care of things the proper way,” said Sutton-Smith.
Sutton-Smith said she looks forward to purchasing/repairing units for heating and cooling the several areas within the building. With each costing upwards of $10,000, the investment would require a great deal of planning.
On Williamston Theatre’s wish list for future improvement projects is the relocation of the stage manager’s booth, which is the command center of a theatrical performance. Sutton-Smith said they would like to move it to a better viewing location. While the move would actually allow for larger audiences, the electrical work and removal of a structural pole would be costly and complicated.
Colson said there are several load-bearing columns in the theatre that mess with sight-lines. It would take an estimated $75,000 to eliminate the poles, but he said the results would be fantastic.
Sutton-Smith said there is less funding available for the arts in this area so the theatre continues to look for state and national funding.
Bairley said, “Williamston Theatre is a perfect example of using what you’re given, following your passion and creating professional theatre right here in Michigan. Equity houses are found beyond New York, and I’m grateful that they are. Bringing arts of such a high caliber is crucial for any community.”