Festival could make area famous

Festival could make area famous

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A whole lot of song and dance may be the way Auburn reaches its renaissance.

The creation of an area musical theater festival has been presented as a pathway to enriching Auburn's culture and enhancing its commerce. The suggestion is one step of Call to Action: A Blueprint for Our Region's Future, a report generated by a 23-member focus group of community members.

“There are many positive aspects of this proposal, not the least of which is shining a spotlight on Auburn and the central Finger Lakes,” said state Sen. Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette.

The festival would raise Auburn's profile on the national stage and pull in thousands of visitors each summer, when the event would likely take place. The boost in tourism could benefit the city in several ways.

“If they're staying here three or four nights and go to a play every night, they'd be staying in our hotel rooms and eating at our restaurants, getting gas at our gas stations and probably shopping here. So the impact is really felt in many different parts of the community,” said Meg Vanek, Executive Director of the Cayuga County Office of Tourism.

Specific details of the festival have yet to be decided upon, but it would span several weeks and feature musical theater at stages such as the Auburn Public Theater, the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse and eventually the Schine Theater. With its surplus of 1,000 seats, the Schine could be the crown jewel in the festival's itinerary.

Given the massive renovations that the Schine must receive in order to operate, festival organizers would likely face a few years without the theater at their disposal. Ed Sayles, producing director of the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, predicts that festival organizers will either wait for the Schine to finish getting its facelift or overhaul the existing stages at Auburn High School or East Middle School.

“Or there's always the chance that someone will walk up to me and say, 'Here's $6 million, go build a theater,'” Sayles said. “But I don't think that will be happening.”

Sen. Nozzolio looks forward to the quickened restoration of the Schine as a result of starting the theater festival.

“The restoration has been ebbing and flowing for years, but the community getting behind it would be very important to see, not just the festival realized but also downtown revitalization,” he said.

Sayles predicts that each Auburn venue will fill a niche of musical theater in order to make the festival a versatile one. One would feature the work of young local playwrights, another would expose patrons to experimental theater, and the Schine would showcase “the most recent Broadway hit that we can get our hands on,” Sayles said.

Local actors and playwrights could also take advantage of the spike in demand for their services.

“It would be a real shot in the arm for people who have a hard time getting their stuff seen,” Sayles said.

Angela Daddabbo, artistic producing director of the Auburn Public Theater, likens the emergence of local talent to an episode of “American Idol.”

“The idea of discovering the next great musical is so thrilling to me, there's something so historic about it,” Daddabbo said.

She predicts the festival will be of particular interest to cultural tourists - travelers who want to do more during their vacations than lather on suntan lotion and sip beachside margaritas.

“This is a small city dense with history and culture, I think we have a record number of museums for such a small city,” Daddabbo said.

The focus group arrived at the idea for a theater festival after assessing Auburn's similarities in terms of population, infrastructure and market size to both Niagara-on-the-Lake and Stratford, Ontario - two cities that host successful theater festivals.

Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival annually attracts more than 325,000 people to the small Canadian city with a theater seat count of only 1,511. When factoring in the Schine Theater, Auburn's theater festival could sport close to 2,000 seats.

The Stratford Festival of Canada began at the suggestion of a local journalist who thought the event could ease the economic strain that had beset the railway town. The first festival opened in the summer of 1953 with only one stage, on which productions of “Richard III” and “All's Well That Ends Well” were performed each day. It was originally intended to run for four weeks, but the shows' overwhelming popularity prompted a two-week extension.

The festival's success was in no small part due to its first artistic director, Tony Award-winner Sir Tyrone Guthrie, whom the festival founders contacted without having any prior relationship to the director.

“They had the nerve to go up to one of the best directors of Shakespeare in the world and ask, 'How would you like to start a festival?',” said Jane Edmonds, archivist for the Stratford Festival.

Once he took the helm of the festival, Guthrie contacted a friend to grace the Stratford stage in its first year: Sir Alec Guinness.

Before Auburn can hope to repeat the Stratford festival's success, a steering committee must be created in order to advance the ideas set in motion by the Call to Action report.

“That's the very next step. It would determine what kind of schedule we have, how to promote (the festival), a good time to start and how much money will need to be raised,” Sayles said. “There is a lot of groundwork that still very much needs to be laid.”

Staff writer David Wilcox can be reached at 253-5311 ext. 245 or david.wilcox@lee.net

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