“A lot of theaters have to use somebody else’s space to do anything,” says Richard Resler, a volunteer for the Whole Backstage Community Theatre in Guntersville, Alabama. He is standing in the renovated mainstage auditorium, looking around. “It’s amazing what having your own place does to your attitude. It kind of takes an element of fear out of what you do… It’s just a lot more peace of mind.”
Guntersville is a community of about 8,300 people in northeast Alabama. It is surrounded by Lake Guntersville, a man-made reservoir on the Tennessee River. The town has always attracted its share of bass anglers and boaters. It is also the last place singer Ricky Nelson performed before perishing in a 1985 plane crash.
This Marshall County community is small and conservative. Resler sometimes wonders how the theater has thrived for 40 years, especially since many other theaters don’t survive nearly as long.
But then maybe he’s found the answer. “We’ve got people who are looking for an outlet to express themselves. Some people are looking for a family, however you want to define that. A place to belong, a place where… Well, it’s interesting. A place where they can be singled out or a place where they don’t get singled out. It serves a lot of different purposes. And as a result, we get people from all walks of life.
“… But it filled a need here. And it’s been filling a need ever since,” he says.
The Whole Backstage sprang out of tragedy. In 1968, three county teens died in a car crash. In response, Dot Moore, an English teacher, founded a kids club to give students something to do.
“You really would have to have known Dot to truly understand. She was a very, very accepting person. She didn’t care who you are, she didn’t care what your problems were. If you wanted to be a part of what was going on, you were welcome. And I think from that tragedy, I think she saw the need… At the time, kids had very few options for things to do. And so I think that was probably the genesis of her idea, was just to give them a safe place to go and be kids… And it grew from there,” says Resler.
Moore loved theater, but she was not a performer herself. “Dot hated to be onstage, but she liked to put together a production. She was very artistic. She did set design and painted quite a bit. Quite a bit. She was the director of the theater for quite some time until other people decided to try their hand at it,” he says.
The Whole Backstage produces four regular season shows a year, plus a holiday show. They continue to have children’s theater as well.
“I guess we see maybe 300 kids in a year, counting all the programs,” says Resler. The children come from towns throughout Marshall County.
The theater doesn’t have an acting company. They have regulars, he notes, but that has a tendency to change over time. The actors and crew are all volunteers.
There is no professional theater in the county. To find even semi-professional theater, residents would have to travel to Huntsville or Birmingham. That trip might take between 90 minutes to six hours round trip, depending on the destination.
Moore, known as the “Founding Mother” of the theater, died in April 2013. Marshall County residents mourned a woman who made the region a better place through the arts.
The Theater and Renovation
The Whole Backstage is housed in the former Guntersville Elementary School. Once known as “the old rock school,” the building consists of stone and milled wood from the county. This 1920s-era facility is on the National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places.
The theater began using the school auditorium in 1979, when there were other nonprofits in the building. The Red Cross and other organizations eventually moved, and the theater took their spaces. “And then we entered into the agreement with the city to eventually take the whole building,” says Resler.
He continues: “The city of Guntersville has been very generous in that we have the proverbial a dollar-a-year lease. And they take care of the outside basically, keeping grass mowed. Things like that. Anything inside is on us.”
A few years ago, the theater completed a $1.2 million dollar much-needed renovation. The interior was falling apart.
“And then, I don’t remember who it was, somebody at one of our shows. The lady put the heel of her shoe through the floor in the auditorium. And at that point we knew we had a problem on our hands,” Resler says.
They realized it was either renovate or move. “And we weren’t real crazy about the idea of moving. But looking back now to even consider doing a $1.2 million renovation. It’s crazy for an organization like ours. But we didn’t know we weren’t supposed to be able to do that,” he says.
Since the building was historic, the renovation had to abide by certain rules. The exterior and front part of the building had to be restored rather than altered. Inside, some classrooms have been repurposed as reception areas. “We’ve maintained their classroom arrangement… The chalkboard and everything. That was part of the requirement,” he says.
They also kept the furniture local whenever possible. A newly installed bar, for instance, came from the Guntersville State Park. Community volunteers and professionals donated their time and talent to the renovation.
These days, the theater resembles the kind you might see in a professional company. The 337-seat mainstage is about 50 feet wide and 40 feet deep. It has a 40-station fly wall and a dedicated sound and light booth. For convenience, the scene shop is located next to the theater. They renovated the bathrooms, doubling the size of the women’s room.
There is also a 50-seat black box theater to give budding directors a chance to learn their craft. It wasn’t originally part of the renovation. Resler explains how State Representative Frank McDaniel’s office contacted them in April or May of 2010 to tell them state money had suddenly become available. Could they use $75,000? “There was just one catch,” Resler says the office told the theater. “You have to spend it and have your project done by June 1st.” He smiles. “We did it.”
Although proud of the facility, Resler is quick to note that the Whole Backstage is about people. The structure of the organization reinforces Moore’s vision of community. There is no executive director. Working committees and board members run the theater.
“We have, I think, it’s a 25-member board. And then we have an executive board of the officers. The executive board takes care of the day-to-day operations. And then the board helps steer the organization. We have a paid office manager, but she doesn’t fulfill the types of duties that an executive director would. The board members and committees take care of that. She is the only paid staff person. That’s basically because we’ve got to have somebody here regular hours during the day, and most of us are not able to do that.”
To be on a working committee, all you have to do is volunteer. And that is how the community becomes invested in the theater. “We do have a nice facility, and we’re very proud of it. But really what kind of building we have doesn’t matter. The theater is our people. And … If we didn’t have enough good people doing this, we would’ve been gone a long time ago. We always need more good people. The good people who are here sometimes feel like they are carrying a lot of the load. But that’s true of any organization.”
Although Resler describes himself as a volunteer, he is also on the Development Committee. He acts and directs mainstage productions as well.
Business Versus Art
Since Resler is part of the Development Committee, he is acutely aware of the theater’s financial well-being. The Whole Backstage relies on membership, sponsorship and grants. Ticket sales will go up and down. You could have a great show, but if it’s raining outside, people may not come out to see that performance.
He believes a lot of theaters have a hard time finding the right balance between business and art. Or they don’t pay enough attention to the business side, which leads to closures.
“The business side does not necessarily have to be big. It doesn’t have to be loud or flashy. It just has to be solid. And to the degree that it’s solid, then the artistic side can do whatever they damn well please — to a degree. What I sometimes remind our more artistic members of our organization is that, it kind of comes to that trite phrase of ‘know your audience.’ There are times you can be too artistic. You can be so artistic that people decide, ‘That’s not what I really want to see.’ And so that, in turn, affects the business side because then it becomes less strong, less solid. And again, less solid and it doesn’t give the artistic side the freedom to express itself the way they like,” he says.
“To me, if the artistic component of your organization feels like the business side has their back, then they feel freer to try some of those things. If you’re not trying those types of things, you’re entering a kind of artistic atrophy. You’ve got to go out sometimes and find out not only what works, but what doesn’t work. But with a little bit of backing from the business side, to say, ‘It’s going to be okay. Go out. Don’t go totally crazy but go a little crazy and see what works.’ But you do too much of that and they can’t be there for you.”
Many artists don’t want to know anything about business, he says, because it’s boring. Business also consists of rules.
“…It’s such an interesting and complicated, sometimes very fickle, relationship between these two pieces of a performing organization. And I think it’s fascinating. It’s very hard, and not everybody is cut out for it. And not every organization is cut out for it. That’s why some of them fail because, for whatever reason, they don’t have the right people who can handle that marriage,” he says.
Richard Resler takes us on a tour of the theater, including the backstage and dressing rooms in this seven-minute film.
In his opinion, managing volunteers is another challenge for any not-for-profit performing arts organization. “It doesn’t really take a lot of work, but it takes constant attention to keep your volunteers engaged. As long as they’re engaged, they’re there for you. The minute you lose track of them or stop paying attention, they drift off to go find someplace else to be a volunteer where they can be engaged. It’s such a simple answer but it’s hard to do,” he says.
It has to be part of the culture of an organization, he believes, and the board must make it a priority. Finding the right person for the job is a necessity. Otherwise, the organization is constantly restarting its volunteer program and it will never get off the ground.
Although times are tough, Resler insists that performing arts organizations should be making more, not less, noise.
“I was talking with some friends about this the other day. We’re in competition with, pick a number, however many different forms of entertainment these days. And we’re still here because it’s a pretty good deal. And it’s a unique experience. I play some really cool video games but this (the theater) is better than most of those video games. Because it’s immediate. It’s real. It’s never the same thing twice… But we’ve got to be constantly telling and reminding people about that.
And when times get bad, sometimes we just… It’s kinda like, ‘you know, you don’t want to see a play, do you?’ What kind of attitude is that? You know? Okay, times are tough but you’ve got a good deal here. You’ve got to tell them that,” he says.