AUBURN | Ten years ago today, 102-108 Genesee St. was technically still Paul's Pocket Billiards, junked pool tables and all.
Ten years ago Dec. 7, it was officially Auburn Public Theater.
It was on that day in 2005 that theater founders Angela Daddabbo and Carey Eidel held an open house at what, today, is a downtown performing arts hub that last year hosted more than 250 concerts, plays, movie screenings, comedians, open mic nights and more.
It was on that day Daddabbo and Eidel launched an all-volunteer effort with an annual budget of $7,000 that has bloomed into an employer of seven full- and 12-20 part-time jobs with an annual budget of $1 million.
It was on that day Daddabbo and Eidel invested in Auburn.
They invested $200,000, to be exact, in purchasing what was once Grant's Department Store after moving back to Daddabbo's hometown from entertainment careers in Los Angeles. And as they've continued investing in significantly renovating the space over the last decade to present the performing arts, they've also realized its value to the community through space rentals, youth classes and regranting to other arts organizations. They've realized its value to Auburn.
I sat down with Artistic Director Daddabbo and Executive Director Eidel in their Auburn Public Theater offices to ask them about how the past 10 years compare to their expectations, plans for future programs, surprises, misfires and more:
Q: Let's go back to when you first opened the doors. At that time, how did you size up your chances of getting to 10 years?
Daddabbo: Well, the original plan was to survive for at least 100 years. Because the original intention was to create a brand-new public institution, like the library, public television, public radio. And we named ourselves after The Public Theater in New York City. So we didn't create it, we didn't invent it, but we see ourselves as an offspring of The Public Theater in New York. If there was anything cutting-edge about us, the group of us who started it, it was that we were going to try to do that not in New York City, or a major metropolitan area, but in a small city. So I'd say getting to 10 years feels like a good, solid first rung on that ladder that has nine more 10-year steps to go.
Eidel: I think that when we first got into the building it was 10 years ago, but for the previous couple of years, we'd been working — mostly Angela and some of the original founding members. We did two productions. Our first production was actually in Westminster (Presbyterian Church) upstairs, and then we did one called "The Soup Comes Last," which was an original production from The Kitchen Theatre that we did at the black box theater at (Cayuga Community College). And I think that when we got into the building, for me, the priority was to be able to keep the doors open on a consistent, present basis while we formulate more of a comprehensive plan for sustainability. Which happened. But we had to figure out how we were going to pay the mortgage on the building that we just bought that nobody else wanted, that was falling down in the middle of downtown.
Q: If you could, back then, see what it is now, see what it's grown into — what do you think your reaction would be?
Eidel: For me, besides my children, it's the best thing that I've accomplished in my life. I think that when Angela said to create an everlasting or sustainable public institution, it's a worthy goal. It's something, looking back, we say, "wow," we've created an institution that has served the public so well, so far, given our resources. And we've seen the lives that it's touched, both audiences and participants, whether it be students or performers. And certainly the staff that's grown — those lives have been touched and changed forever, and that's a very good feeling.
Daddabbo: When (fellow founding member) Brian Anderson and I first started, we went around to anybody and everybody that we could get some time from to ask, "How do we do this?" We met with the man who started The Little Theatre in Rochester, we met with Rachel Lampert at The Kitchen Theatre, we met with people at city hall and economic development, we met with the mayor, we met with Gerry Martin, who had been a mentor of mine at high school who had done lots and lots of productions, and we also met with Steve Keeler, who's head of the Telecom department at CCC. And he gave us some great advice. ... He said, "Here's the thing about setting out on a journey like this: Don't try to imagine the ending. Because you're just not creative enough. If you're doing it right, you're not creative enough." It wasn't that we weren't creative enough, but the general you is not creative enough. Because when you're in true creative process, you're completely present. Don't have the endgame be so important. Stay open to the process. Stay present in the day-to-day. And let the end take care of itself. I'll give you an example: We now have Auburn Public Studio. That was never anything we thought we'd be operating. We always knew we wanted to offer, and always have offered, classes to students in the summer and opportunities to be in full productions. But we never saw ourselves running a year-round performing arts studio. So that's just one example of what Steve was talking about. I guess that sort of speaks to the question of: What do we think about 10 years, or 20 years, or 30 years, or 100 years? Brian and I always said, 100 years from now, when we are way, way, way forgotten — that will be the ultimate success of Auburn Public Theater. And I have to tell you: Recently, I came to see a show. The (Finger Lakes) Musical Theatre Festival has rented us out for the last few summers. And I came to see a show, and a volunteer said to me, "Have you ever been here before?" And I said, "I have." And she said, "Well, would you like some help finding your seat?" And I said, "Sure, that'd be great." I didn't want to discourage her. And so she gave me some help finding my seat and I sat down and I sent Brian a text: "I just got shown my seat by a woman who has no idea who I am and thinks it's my first time in the building." We thought it was going to take a little longer than this to be so easily forgotten, but we're as successful as we hoped to be 100 years from now, right now. We got there, Brian.
Q. What do you think, generally, have been your keys to success these last 10 years?
Daddabbo: Carey's business acumen.
Eidel: (Laughs) No, I think —
Daddabbo: That's true.
Eidel: I think, seriously, that running the business is certainly an integral part, and that's why they call it "show business," because there's the show part and the business part. I think the keys for success for us — I think fortune had something to do with it. The town was ready. Although many people didn't know it, they all felt it. And because we had a pizzeria downtown, we were living downtown and we saw it, and we felt it. It's about almost EQ — emotional intelligence, just feeling the vibe. It was a wonderful town. I'm not from here, obviously Angela grew up here. And the people were so friendly. Everyone loves pizza, so everyone came in with a smile on their face — unless they got a bad pizza, and that's a whole other thing. But we felt like something was happening, and it fell into a dream that Angela and I had spoken about in Los Angeles to start a theater, which wasn't practical there. And personal circumstances with Angela's family and just with the way we set up our lives here — she was inspired to revisit that idea of a theater. Then what happened was we had to put together a plan. And Angela being part of the community, as well as having a show business background as I have a show business background and a business background, we marshaled our forces. And one of the biggest things to success is finding a team around you that has the skill set to move you forward. You look at the "Team of Rivals" book — Abraham Lincoln was so brilliant. We had a lot of people who had very different ideas who sometimes were opposed to one another, but they were all community-, arts-minded people who wanted to see the town become better. So what we did was we embarked on something where we set up a business model where we knew we could pay the mortgage and at least pay expenses. We all worked as volunteers for quite a number of years, but it was our choice — it was a labor of love. Then, as we developed the business model, we figured there were four areas that blended the community with the arts. That's what you need to succeed downtown in a small upstate community, taking over a department store where it's not the same town as it was. The large, wonderful theaters — it's not that we shouldn't have them again, it's that they weren't here. So we focused on four things: Professional presenting and producing of shows, cinema — but the artistic cinema that you might not see on Grant Avenue, Sundance award-winners and foreign films, independent cinema. Then we had, at first, our community part, which was that we're always on the lookout to partner with some organizations and people in the community to bring them in for an artistic, cultural, business, social — some kind of event that we can help with. And then the final piece was, of course, the education: Auburn Public Studio. Which obviously brings in the young people, and some adults. Our model was to give almost 40 percent of the students scholarships. So it's about reaching the community that's underserved, as well, and giving them an opportunity. Because they're our next audience. So when you focus on all four of those areas, and you add Angela's creative programming, which comes from her gut, and her research — she's always working toward looking and seeing stuff — plus my talent that I have in at least balancing the books so you never run in the red and spend money you don't have. That unique combination has really been the floor on which we've grown.
Daddabbo: And Carey's business acumen.
Daddabbo: Roger Beer is a very well-respected accountant. He's from Auburn, he's worked in Syracuse for a long time, and he was on the board of directors. And he said once, "You know why so many arts organizations either fail, or sort of teeter on the brink of failure, and Auburn Public Theater does not?" It sounds like a riddle. And I said, "No, Roger, why?" And he said, "Because Auburn Public Theater has Carey Eidel on its team, and those other organizations do not. That's the difference." Like Carey said, success has a lot of different measures. We have a poster in the hallway near the bathrooms, and one of them has a poster of Harriet Tubman, with a quote by her: "Every great dream begins with a dreamer." And Carey was telling me that, recently, he saw a young student and she was standing in the hallway, by herself. He just happened to catch her out of the corner of his eye. She was looking up at the poster, and she had read it, and she said out loud, to the poster: "Wow." So that's a different measure than keeping the lights on, but the measurable part of keeping the lights on is Carey's business acumen. I cannot stress that enough. And what Carey said: The now thousands of hours put in by volunteers to run the place, to sit on the board of directors, the staff, the community that's embraced it. Wonderful partnerships.
Eidel: It's definitely about partnerships. We all live in this town, we're familiar with all of the dynamics of the town. And you know, it's not a very big town when you think about it, and there's a finite number of resources. And I think that to succeed, you need to be strong in business and stand up for yourself. And sometimes that doesn't make certain people happy. But you don't go with the spirit of trying to destroy or to get something that somebody else wants. What you want to do is you want everyone to share in it. You want the other guy or the other organization or even if it's not an arts organization that's vying for the same pool of money, whatever — you want everyone to be successful. Because in a town like Auburn, we cannot afford to be so competitive that people leave or people don't succeed. A rising tide really does lift all boats. We realize as we come up that we have to be sensitive to that, but not necessarily be a doormat. We have to be strong in business to be able to survive. But we also want to have that spirit of generosity and — to be loosey-goosey, because I did move from California — the karma of just creating something so that what you leave in your wake is somehow better than when you got there.
Q: To touch on what you were asking about measures of success, I want to ask more about the creative side. Specifically, what do you think has been key to programming, creatively, for this market and for Auburn? And I guess as a secondary question to that: What have you learned about what Auburn wants and what it has an appetite for, creatively, over these past 10 years?
Daddabbo: I feel like at the end of 10 years — honestly, David, I have no idea what Auburn wants creatively. And I say that only half-jokingly because it's not like before we program a comedian or schedule a movie we run some SurveyMonkey questionnaire. There's a slogan we used to use, which was, "Bringing the world to Auburn, and bringing Auburn to the world." The very first comedian we ever programmed was a guy called Paul Mecurio. The reason we booked him is because I'd gone to see a taping of "The Daily Show" in November 2005. He was the warm-up comedian, and he was so talented that I sent him a fan email. I lived in Los Angeles for nine years, out and around some famous people. I used to go to the same pizzeria where Dustin Hoffman and his son used to come in. You know, you just don't bother people, they're living their day-to-day life, no matter how much you admire or respect them. But after I got back to Auburn from that show, I was so impressed by Paul Mecurio that I absolutely had to reach out and tell him, "Wow, you are so fabulous." So we just started this email correspondence. We didn't take possession of the building until about a month later. And after that back-and-forth I said, "I know you probably do a lot of colleges up here, and comedy clubs — would you ever consider performing in the theater?" And he said yes, and he came that January or February in 2006. And it was so wildly successful — we did four shows, like a traditional comedy club, two shows Friday, two shows Saturday — that we decided, "Hey, we're gonna book comedians." It was so serendipitous. Sometimes I think back when I have some extra free time, when I'm lying in bed and I can't fall asleep: What would have happened had I not gone to that taping of "The Daily Show" and seen Paul Mecurio? Would I have thought of booking comedians? And comedians have been coming once a month for five or six months a year for the last 10 years. A lot of what we program are audience requests. A lot of films are films that people are asking for. This is the "public" in Auburn Public Theater. Sometimes I think I should have a blog on the website where I explain who asked for this film and why. Not just to lay off the credit, but sometimes people say, "Oh my God, Angela, that was brilliant!" — and I think, I had nothing to do it except make the phone call! It's sort of that: half instinct, half personal taste. After 10 years you start to have some data, too, so you can look back and say, "This worked better than this," "This worked better than something that was successful because that day there was a snowstorm and the same day last year there wasn't a snowstorm, so that's the part that weather played." I guess it's like any creative job: Just trying to stay with your gut, not overthink it, and respond to what's successful. We got a lot of feedback after the musical theater festival first brought "The Calamari Sisters." A lot. Every time I went to Wegmans, every time I went to the drug store, every time I got gas, it seemed like somebody was coming up to me to tell me what a wonderful experience they had. Which, again, is why we reached out to say, "Could we get them back again?" Because there was such great audience demand. It wasn't because I happen to love the Calamari Sisters. In hockey, they call this ... what do they call this, when you get the three?
Eidel: A hat trick?
Daddabbo: It's a hat trick: I love it, they love it, it makes financial sense. (To Eidel) Do you have anything else to add to that?
Eidel: I would just say that it's an ongoing process. I get a little bit involved with (music) because I'm an amateur musician. Also, a lot of the ticket-buying public is of my age group, and they like folk, and they like guitar-picking, and they like country rock and all that stuff. And so do I. So we started booking a couple of people, like Livingston Taylor. I have a friend who I grew up with who was James Taylor's piano player. I was thinking of calling him — this is a convoluted story, but we actually had a one-man show that Angela booked from a fellow that we knew in Los Angeles, that was great.
Daddabbo: "Men Fake Foreplay."
Eidel: Mike Dugan, right? So we brought Mike in to do it and it was really terrific, but Mike was trying to get it to New York. So he connected with a producer, who was very big, to come up and see it in Auburn. We'd not renovated yet, and it was on cinder blocks, but it was terrific and we had a great audience. And (the producer) was amazed. He likened the theater to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, "Hey, we got a theater! Let's put on a show!" It was very funny. But he also represented James Taylor. So we were like, "Call him up!"
Daddabbo: I called him to see if he could get James Taylor. He had those blue-tinted sunglasses that only people in Los Angeles and New York wear — anybody who wants to be very chic and cool-looking. And he had $5,000 of shoes and suit and belt and watch, all that kind of stuff. And as Carey said, he was very responsive to the space. So we called and we said, "Is there any way on God's green earth you could get James Taylor to come and play this little teeny tiny house? As a benefit for our little space?" And he said, "You don't want James Taylor. First of all, he's very shy and he doesn't play rooms this small. He's not that much of a showman, really. You know who you want? You want his brother: Livingston Taylor. That guy's a showman."
Eidel: So we booked Livingston and it was a terrific success. We fit like 175 people into a room that was supposed to be 100 seats at a time. Packed it. We realized that there was an audience for that kind of music, so we've been booking that music, and that's how that audience was developed. We try to push the envelope, and we've found some very interesting things. Unless the audience is really familiar — either with a nationally touring performer or because they know them personally because they've come up in the area, like Martin Sexton, who's both — they won't come. It's not a conscious thing, they just are not familiar with it. So that's how we kind of tailor things. And this is a whole other conversation, but we're trying to renovate our basement so that we'll have that big space like the Westcott (Theater) does where we can have younger bands. Because they don't want to sit in the seats. They want to stand, they want to move. And the basement is somewhere we could get 300, 400 people, because it used to be a nightclub like that. It used to be Cagney's Night Club. So that's something we'd like to do in the future, because we'd like to reach that audience. But with our fixed seating, and with the size of our Stage Right space, and knowing what the audience who buys tickets is — it's a puzzle to put it together properly. And we've figured out, generally, the model. We're also starting to develop a theater season. That's why we started the theater. And it's something which is never going to make you money, but that was close to our heart. So now we're figuring something out about how we can put together a theater season that doesn't bankrupt us, but that serves our mission and our hearts. We've started recently again, after great successes with "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and this play by a woman named Lynne Adams, Brooke Adams' sister, called "Two-Faced," which was wonderful, that Angela produced in Los Angeles, as well as our first production, which Angela also worked on in Los Angeles with the actor Louis Fantasia, called "The Double Bass." But this past season, we did an original, our first original production, for a number of weeks, called "Dear Mom." It was written by Jay Falzone and his partner, Nancy Holson. Jay is one of the "Calamari Sisters" team. But it's not like the "Calamari Sisters." It was a wonderful production. And when I sat in the theater with Angela, I really did get emotional. Because I said, "Wow, this is professional." We used Equity union actors, which was our first time, and the quality was superb. But not that many people showed up. We didn't get any coverage in Syracuse; nobody knew us for theater. So financially? It wasn't so hot. But we knew that going in. It's like when you spend money at a casino and it's money you can lose; it doesn't affect your lifestyle. That's how we got to that place with "Dear Mom." But we can't do that on a consistent basis: We have to find some economic model where that will work. But the artistic output, and the way it touched the audience that came in — it's the same as when I saw the kid looking at the poster. Those are the moments where you know you've hit it and you just have to stick with your gut so that you find an even greater audience for it.
Q. On that note, I want to ask more of a fun question. Do you have any dream programming that you just want to land some day? Whether it's a comedian or a show you want to do, or a musician?
Eidel: (To Daddabbo) Well, I know you're doing one of them in the spring: Anne.
Daddabbo: Anne Lamott is coming. That's been a lifelong dream, a lifelong Auburn Public Theater dream. She's coming to do a lecture. We have an aspiration to partner with The Public Theater in New York City. They do wonderful programming, educational proramming, for young people in the summertime. And I'm just now wondering, "OK, who do I dial at the Public? Who do I get on the phone with to begin a relationship to say, 'Do you have a couple of instructors you could send upstate so that we could have this level of programming here for our students?'" Joseph Papp, he's the one who founded The Public Theater, and I was thinking: Should we get a cart like he did and drive it around? Could we get a group of people to learn to have those Shakespeare plays in (repertory) like he did? And could we send them around, instead of the five boroughs of New York, to the five major parks of Auburn? And could we just get down and dirty like Joseph Papp did? As far as musicians, there are always people we're sort of reaching for who are certainly beyond our grasp financially. But like Carey said, we're willing to not have them on a Friday or a Saturday, but on a Thursday or a Sunday. And I think as the theater becomes more established, I guess the hope is that starts to turn around a little bit and agents and managers start to know that we're here. By "here" I mean geographically, that we're somewhere between New York and Toronto, that we're on the way from Rochester to Syracuse. And they start contacting us to say, "We want to pick up this extra gig — do you guys have this night available?"
Eidel: You never know, because we may get a call from James Taylor's manager (laughs).
Daddabbo: "Are you guys still alive up there?"
Eidel: "Do you still want him?" That would be interesting.
Daddabbo: And as far as film, I've had a dream for the last few years to do a Spike Lee film festival. And I've actually called, and I got a quote on his fee. So we have the broad brush strokes of what it would take. And to show, for however long it takes, from 9 in the morning to 9 at night for as many days in a row, every single Spike Lee film from the beginning of his student days to the end, and then end with some great presentation Spike Lee makes with a question-and-answer. He has been a great influence in my life, cinematically. And recently I've been thinking how great it'd be to get Jim Jarmusch up here; Todd Haynes has a new film coming out called "Carol" and I was thinking, you know, Todd Haynes is ready for his own film festival. A long, long, long, long time ago — as Anne Lamott says, "before we all turned on Woody Allen," I had a dream that he came upstate to do a film festival. Which he actually made a movie about, called "Stardust Memories," where he's a film director who goes to the middle of nowhere to be the honoree at a film festival. It's one of my all-time favorite Woody Allen movies. I don't know if that'd be successful, if so many of us have turned on him that we wouldn't show up anymore, but that's a great interest.
Eidel: I also have aspirations of creating an original piece of theater — not musical — but an original piece of theater that would go beyond Auburn Public Theater. In other words, could we take something of quality to New York City and mount it at a theater either in partnership or by ourselves? That would be pretty terrific, but again, you're talking about a dream — I don't have a project off the top of my head, and I think it would have to be organic, it would have to come out of an artistic vision that we wanted to do. Personally, my background is more show than business, although it's developed into more business than show because someone needs to do what I do. It's a big responsibility to make sure those paychecks are paid every week, and that people have jobs, and that the place looks nice. But what I'd rather be doing is creating original music and original theatrical pieces. I like the idea of having people create and then having a unique product in many different arts areas. For instance, the Schweinfurth does it all the time with its wonderful exhibits with quilts and "Made in New York." So it's almost like I aspire to be something in the performing arts that they are in the fine arts.
Q: Turning from that, looking back again, what do you think have been your biggest mistakes or misfires?
Daddabbo: Have we made any mistakes?
Daddabbo: Biggest mistakes. A friend once said to me that the things we do right — you write a good story, you make a great meal, you watch a movie that you enjoy — life sort of goes by. But the mistakes, they stay with us and they continue to teach us. So, by the very nature of what we learn from them, "mistake" is a misnomer. When we've lost a pile of money, we say we've made a really important "investment" —
Eidel: In our knowledge.
Daddabbo: In our knowledge of how not to do it the next time. But mistakes?
Eidel: I think that cliche "everybody makes mistakes" is true, and whether it's in a program choice or the way we've approached a situation, I'm sure we can look back and say, "What's our responsibility in this, and how can we do better?" We just happen to be the kind of people who constantly do that. I've actually been described as neurotic about that — I don't know where that comes from. But I guess what I want to say, for me — I'll share something personal. My personal journey has been that my biggest challenge — I won't call it mistake — is to not take things personally in a small town when I know my heart is in the right place, but some people misinterpret it or seem to, for want of a better word, make up stuff based on their own agenda, and I have to learn to not take it personally and to just keep looking forward to the mission, the good work that we're doing. And I think that's how every day becomes precious. I think the word is "grateful," if you can be grateful every day for the opportunities to do better. Even though I'm not always successful, my intention every day is to treat people nice — when I can (laughs) — and to be of service, to be of use, so that we leave something better.
Q: What have been the biggest surprises of the last 10 years?
Eidel: I'll jump in and say while she thinks that there have been a number of people in this community and in the general region who have surprised us with their amazing generosity.
Eidel: Both financially, and of their time and their talent. And that has surprised me over and over again. It's not always the richest person and it's not always the person who has the most time. It's always a surprise because of the level of that. There have been many, many people like that: families and organizations. We've been supported by foundations locally, by state foundations, by businesses that are tiny that want to just help — and that has been amazing. Especially when they didn't quite know what we were when we started, because we do so many things. "Where are you?" "What's that street?"
Daddabbo: We have somebody who used to be on our board, Joanne O'Connor, who used to be from Auburn. And she's lived in New York City for the last 30 years. And we're sitting under a picture of Patricia Neal and Joel Vig (in the office). I met (O'Connor) for the first time at an arts event in Skaneateles — hot, sunny July day. We were seeing Judy Collins, and she had this big, beautiful straw hat. We had a mutual friend who set us up to meet her that night. And I'll just never forget, she said, "Would you be interested in bringing Patricia Neal to Auburn Public Theater?" This is what I mean by people making outside suggestions, because you just never know these days. I said, "The Patricia Neal? Or some 30-year-old called Patricia Neal that I've never heard of?" And she said, "No, no, the Patricia Neal. She and my friend Joel have a show that they do and I thought it might be fun to have them come up and present it for a couple of shows in Auburn in December." We had such tremendous response to that. Janie MicGlire, the third founding member who works here full-time (as Director of Operations), says that people still come up to her and comment, "That Patricia Neal, she was so fabulous."
Eidel: Do you know the story of Patricia Neal? She died shortly after she came here. We understand it was pretty much her last live performance. And she was married to Roald Dahl, but she also won the Academy Award. She was in a lot of movies with John Wayne, and then she had a stroke in the early '60s but she kept going, she kept acting. And she was wonderful. Joel was a Broadway actor who'd been on Broadway a number of times, including "Hairspray" — where, ironically, when I did Syracuse Stage last year, I played one of the roles he played. Talk about a surprise and a success. And actually, even though it's a little more obscure in terms of what people would follow, Krishna Das is literally The Beatles of meditative chanting music — he is the guy. And Sheila Chandra is a very famous singer in world music. She lives currently in England. Angela was trying to get Krishna Das to come, and when it turned out that he always had a hankering to perform with Sheila Chandra, we actually arranged to have her flown over from England just for a couple of nights of performances. Our space was not renovated. We did not have dressing rooms. We had hard folding chairs. Our production was nothing. But the spirit that they brought in — to have two of the world's top performers in this genre come in to basically a bombed-out, emptied-out pool hall at that time.
Daddabbo: If you went to Krishna Das' website, he was touring internationally at the time. So he had dates in Sydney, Tokyo, Vancouver, Hawaii — and Auburn.
Eidel: That's about Angela being passionate about the programming, and she got to both of those performers. And with very little budget, which was probably all of our money at the time — it's like when you bet it all. And it turned out to be OK.
Daddabbo: The other surprises are the numbers at the studio. We began three Septembers ago with 25 students. We began a year ago in September with 80 students. And we began this September with 133 students, which is pretty fabulous. I'm also continuously surprised by jam night, our Open Mic Night, on Tuesday nights. I'm often home with my children on Tuesdays, but Carey will send me video clips of people performing. Young people, old people, men, women, rich poor, talented, not talented, amateur, professional, instruments we've never seen because people made them at home in their kitchen, styles of music we've never heard before — and it just keeps going.
Eidel: When we moved here, many of the performers — they're still around, but they have families or they're older. And the new generation's come in. It's one of the events that really defines Auburn Public Theater in terms of bringing the community and arts together. We run it like a show. I emcee, or we have a nice young lady, Stephanie Figer, who helps out as well. It's $2 if you want to perform or not. We have spoken word, we have stand-up, we have poetry, slam poetry, a great beat-box guy gets up. And then we have your folk, and we have younger person's music that'd be more like heavy metal or rock or grunge. So we're open to everything. And the audience that watches it is literally from 6 years old to 86 years old, and we get an average of 30 to 50 people every week. It surprises me, and yet it's just so wonderful. You never know what's going to happen. We had a young lady here just about two months ago. She and her family came down from the Alexandria Bay area just for the night to perform. She was 12 years old. She came up to me, she's this tall, and she goes, "I want to perform." I say, "Why don't we try one song." She got up there — it was like when you see it on "America's Got Talent," the best singer I've heard, ever! She was like a little Barbra Streisand or something. She was so good that we booked her to open for a nationally touring artist, Cheryl Wheeler, six weeks later. Her family couldn't believe it, and she was excited, and Cheryl Wheeler embraced her and gave her some tips. And that came out of jam night. Then what we did was we created what's called the Sunday Music Series, where we feature these local musicians and we give them either all of the door or most of the door, because it's their job to help fill it. Because we're giving them a venue and a tech guy and lights and equipment and sound and tables and this and that to do a show. Where do you get to do that, where you don't have to pay to do that? Those are the kinds of things that I just love about APT.
Daddabbo: The last surprise I want to mention is that I have a friend who was looking for a place to live. So I got on Craigslist to look for apartments in the downtown Auburn area. There was an apartment listed, and there was a series of amenities. And the amenities included proximity to the Y, to the library and — you know what I'm going to say — the public theater. I get choked up just saying it, because I think, "We're listed as an amenity!"
Q: That's actually where I wanted to go next. Over the past 10 years, your presence and your growth has obviously coincided with growth for downtown — with restaurants, with living spaces, with breweries. How do you size up your role in that?
Daddabbo: Brian and I used to say, it's like we threw a match at a bonfire that already existed. There are so many wonderful, talented, creative, interesting, worldly people living in central New York. What was missing before Auburn Public Theater, for me — besides the greatest job I ever had — was the container, the space. Someone said recently, "Auburn Public Theater has made things better," or helped to save somebody, and I corrected them: "No, the arts have done that. The arts saved that person. Auburn Public Theater was the container that held that artistic experience for that person." I think it's important to differentiate. In the brief description of Auburn Public Theater on the website, we say that it's the unlikely result of a feng shui consultation Carey and I hired because we were just trying to beef up business at the pizza shop. Sheila Murphy, who's become our dear friend and was our consultant, looked across the shop and said, "Those windows (in what are now the Auburn Public Studio space) are dirty, and there's a 'For lease' sign and half of your customers are looking out at that. And even though it's subconscious, it's registering. It says 'vacant,' it says 'black hole.' That affects people's digestive system. That's why nice restaurants play music and have soft lighting, because you want it to be a great experience. And you're giving people, unintentionally, the opposite experience. So if you could do something to shape up that building across the street, you could give people better digestion at your restaurant and therefore sell more pizza." So, in its infancy, it was that. She explained to me that downtown functions like a living room functions in a person's apartment or house. When you have people over, chances are you invite them into the living room. And if the living room is a complete disaster zone, you pretty much don't want to see the rest of the apartment. The living room tells you all the information you need to know, whether you want to continue with the tour or not. Similarly, when people drive through downtown, if it's welcoming, if it's inviting, if the lights are on, if it's hard to find a parking spot, if the storefronts are lit up, if there are people walking around, then chances are, people are going to want to pull over and take a look and see what's going on.
Eidel: One of the things Angela said rings true: We did what we did because it felt right to do it at the time. I think Angela coming from Auburn, growing up at a time when her early childhood was kind of the end of this golden time where there was manufacturing and the Arterial hadn't been built yet, and it was vibrant downtown. She grew up seeing the transformation, which she educated me on, not having been raised around here. I think her desire, because of her personal circumstances, to give back to her community and invest our funds into a dream was something that gave meaning to our lives at the time, and still continues to. Out of that, it acted as a catalyst for people who already had great ideas and great dreams. Two things I can speak to practically are that when we started to think about this project, the mayor at the time, Melina (Carnicelli), and Steve Lynch, the city planner, they had started the project to renovate Exchange Street and they consulted with us because they were so excited we were going to do this — it affected their plans. Then we realized that we had to give up the pizzeria that we had run for seven years because we couldn't do everything. We had two children, we had no immediate family here and Angela's parents had passed, so we were doing everything ourselves and we had three restaurants. One thing we did is we solicited to sell our restaurant in an Italian newspaper in New York City. And through that, we got someone to purchase the restaurant, who then turned it into Bambino's Bistro — and then opened Osteria Salina. So we feel we brought an energy in that enhanced the town. And then Angela's brother Jimmy, who was an original partner in the pizzeria but left very early on to go back to California, decided to come back to the area and create Mesa Grande (Taqueria) right next to the theater because we were there and that would help business — which it definitely has. So just our little pocket — I think we've done what we can to leave things better than when we got here. We have people coming up to us, almost on a weekly basis, excited that they can't find parking. Because they can remember when it was a ghost town, and they see the economic engine that we've hopefully been a part of creating. And that's such a great feeling, because I know, personally, that Auburn Public Theater now has seven full-time employees. We had none. That's seven jobs full-time, plus another dozen part-time instructor jobs. That did not exist before Auburn Public Theater. These people are living in apartments, they're having families, they're staying in the area. We've trained them to have a skillset that, should they leave, it makes them easier to be employed somewhere else. These are the things that I find have come out of what we have done from the heart. You want to pat yourself on the back — I think that's a dangerous way to go. You just want to do your job because everyone is obviously working hard these days and struggling with a problem that you don't understand. So we try to be kind, and we try to follow our heart.
Q: The last thing I want to ask is looking the other way with that question. What do you see as the pathways for growth for APT and, to some greater extent, downtown?
Daddabbo: As Carey said, hopefully, when we're sitting down together 10 years from now, the basement will be fully developed and we will have built a third story by then. That's the footprint of the building. I'd like to see a lot more housing downtown — whether Auburn Public Theater is involved or not, that remains to be seen. We are in four out of the five elementary schools and an after-school program, with an acting teacher, a dance teacher and a music teacher. This idea of having a Shakespeare cart, like Joseph Papp did — it's been obsessing me the last three to six months. I close my eyes and see the cart and go, "Oh God, is that what's next? Somebody's gotta build the cart." That will be (support staffer) Charlie Mills. I'd say it's that same old advice Steve Keeler gave us: Don't try to imagine the ending, you're not creative enough. Just keep doing what you're doing every single day, keep loving what you're doing every single day. And stay really open to suggestions, to recommendations. And, as Carey said, I grew up on Woodlawn Avenue, which is just a few blocks from here, and with my pin money, when I was my son's age, I used to come to the Grant's Department Store to get a chocolate milkshake and a plate of french fries. The waitresses were never that friendly — in fact, they were pretty rude. But it's only as a grown-up that I look back and realize that I never tipped! But I could walk downtown as an 8-, 9-, 10-year-old, and I could walk into a soda fountain and have a meal and start to experience real independence, and I could walk to the Y, and I could walk to the library. And when I got a little older, I had my paper route downtown, so I went in and out of all these buildings. As Carey said, it was the end of the heyday. I'm very proud to be from Auburn. Wherever I went in the world — and I've been very blessed, I've lived in some fantastic places — I've always been very proud to say that central New York is my home. When Carey and I moved back here with our daughter, who was 18 months old at the time, things were not looking so great downtown. I just didn't want to deprive our daughter of that great gift, which is to have pride of place. So we said, "We have to get out of here, and go someplace that's more robust, or we have to do something about it." And that it's happened as quickly as it's happened is just so fantastic.
Eidel: I agree with everything Angela said. We've reached our organizational capacity at the moment. We do so many things that in order to expand what we do, we need a little bit more space. So as we develop the basement — we're in that strategic planning stage, and we just received a nice grant from New York state to work on architectural plans for it — it allows us to expand the four areas we do. So in the presenting and producing, we'll be able to do a theater season. We'll be able to afford a little higher on the food chain. Not quality, necessarily, but a little more known. We'll be able to expand to more cinema offerings. Obviously more classes for students. It's a self-perpetuating machine, once you have the space and the organization. I guess my one hope is that in this finite pool of people in our immediate community, that the people who haven't discovered Auburn Public Theater yet would walk in the building. I just had somebody who walked in the other day, who was a lifelong Auburnian, who had to pick up something for somebody else. And they walked in and I just heard them from around the corner: "Oh my gosh! What is this place? This is amazing!" They'd never been there, and they'd lived here their whole lives. We have people who work downtown, I see them walking past the theater every day for 10 years — they've never walked in. It's scary: You don't know what it is, and by virtue of the name Auburn Public Theater, they think it's just a theater. It's more than that: We have a number of spaces, obviously. So I guess the future is about making sure that everybody knows about Auburn Public Theater. If they choose to come? Great. And if they choose, once they know us, to do something else with their lives, that's their choice. But we want them to know that we're a choice, that we're here, and we'd love even more of the community to embrace Auburn Public Theater as the unique organization that we feel it is. You don't find this kind of organization in a lot of places, and certainly in a town in this part of the country. We have people coming from all over. We just had a performer who moved back from Europe who said, "This is unique." It's not even in Europe. It is something that I hope that more of the community discovers so it's part of their life.
(Editor's note: This interview has been condensed.)