Cider Mill Playhouse charts a major move

By George Basler
The Cider Mill Playhouse, now marking its 40th year, is making a major move.
In December, the venerable Endicott theater announced it had signed a contract with Actors Equity Association, the national union for actors and stage managers, making it the first Equity theater in Broome County.
To the general public, this move could seem like “inside baseball,” but it will mean big changes for the playhouse. By the 2017-18 season half the actors in a production, or the first five hired, whichever is less, need to be Equity members. Previously the Cider Mill had to request permission to hire someone from Actors Equity and was limited to two per show.
Cider Mill officials see the change as a way to attract high-quality professionals and chart a strong future course for the theater.
As the Cider Mill moves into a new era, Gail Belokur, the theater’s executive director and artistic director, sat down with Broome Arts Mirror to answer some questions about the change and the theater’s future.
Why is the Cider Mill taking this step?
As you know, the Cider Mill has been actively engaged in restructuring and rebranding for the last couple of years. Based on the strategic planning we’ve done, both endeavors are necessary keys to our sustainability. It became clear that, in order to distinguish ourselves from the high-quality community theater in the region, we had to establish ourselves as an Equity house. It will strengthen our brand.
How do you hope this will impact the size and scope of audiences?
We’ve enjoyed great support from the Binghamton community, but outside dollars are needed, and becoming an Equity house is a means to bring those in. We hope to attract patrons from a wider geographic area. Also, we are growing and adding jobs, and we want to attract strong professionals. This designation greatly influences our applicant pool.
Where do Cider Mill audiences currently come from besides the Binghamton area?
We draw from Syracuse and upstate and down to central Pennsylvania. But these people usually come because they are related to someone here or know someone in the show. We hope this move means more people will come who are avid theater goers. We want the Cider Mill to become a destination that people come to see.
Is there a potential downside to becoming an Equity playhouse?
The change is admittedly a calculated risk. We’ve enjoyed support from the (local) Hoyt and Klee foundations to get to this point. Now we have to attract more audiences and funders of arts programs.
So is this a gamble?
Yes, but it’s a necessary and good gamble. Competition has changed, and this puts us in the best position to have people choose the Cider Mill Playhouse as a place to spend their entertainment dollars. The change also puts us in a better position to get more funding from arts organizations.
Is attendance increasing?
Our goal is to fill 70 percent of the seats over the course of a season. We exceeded that last year and are on track to do it again this year. Two years ago our attendance was in the 60 percent range.
What is the process for becoming an Equity house?
The first thing we had to tackle were facilities that were not up to Equity standards. For example, actors were rehearsing on a concrete floor, which was hard on them, especially dancers. We installed a specialized floor for rehearsals. We had one common dressing room with little privacy and therefore had to create another one. We were not meeting minimum compensation standards for actors, so we made a commitment to improve compensation for all actors.
What will the change to an Equity house mean for local actors?
As of Sept. 1, 2017, they will become eligible to earn points toward Equity membership that provides benefits such as health care and pensions. In the immediate future, local actors will have better working conditions, increased compensation and increased connections with directors outside the area.
Will it impact the ability of local actors to get roles at the Cider Mill?
I don’t expect the percentage of local actors we engage going down to a significant degree. We’ve always brought in a certain percentage of actors from outside the area. For the most part, they will now be the source for Equity actors we have to employ.
Will becoming an Equity house change the type of shows produced at the Cider Mill?
We expect to strengthen our shows and broaden the type of work we do well. People will see increasingly compelling performances.
Will the move to an Equity house impact ticket prices?
We’ve already increased actor compensation to go to an Equity house, so the increase in expenses has already occurred. Ticket prices are a separate conversation. We’re working to hold the line on prices, and, in order to do so, we’ve relied on donor drives and foundation support. But we may increase prices for premium tickets and go to a tiered seating pricing system.
Will patrons see any changes?
Under the Equity contract, we cannot take refreshment orders in the theater itself. Starting with The Fantasticks (the next production, opening Jan. 28), all orders and exchange of money will take place in the lobby. But patrons can still enjoy refreshments at their tables.
How has the move to become an Equity playhouse already had an impact on the Cider Mill?
In the course of getting the facility up to Equity standards, we established a fully functioning scene shop. This freed up the stage, and we are now renting the theater out three to four more times than ever before. We’ve opened to community groups, including STAR (Southern Tier Actors Read), Dark Horse Dramatists and SPARE. We’ve also launched the Fresh Cider series of children’s shows. In support of our move to Equity, the Klee and Hoyt foundations have supported us in significant ways, including support for an apprentice program for emerging professionals.
How important are volunteers for the Cider Mill?
Volunteers are the key to our front-of-the-house services and have expanded to support administration and special project work. They helped clean up areas and paint. We have over 100 volunteers on our roster and are always looking for more.
Are there any plans for future expansion?
We will continue to expand opportunities for school groups and other community groups to come in at reduced group-sales rates. We will expand educational programs to schools this spring by taking Shakespeare to the classrooms. A recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts found the biggest influence on creating an interest in the arts is being exposed as a child.
What does the Cider Mill mean for the local economy?
We see a big part of our mission as strengthening the local economy. Last year we spent 88 percent of our dollars in Broome County.
In addition to interviewing Belokur, BAMirror talked to two local actors about the move. Both were positive.
“Whether this will improve the quality of productions: Who knows? It depends on the quality of the Equity actors,” said Tom Kremer, a veteran Cider Mill performer and former artistic director of the theater.
But the move is necessary if the Cider Mill is to take the next step and become a regional theater that brings in people from outside the area, Kremer said. The move “needs to be taken to grow,” he added.
The change will mean more competition to land roles at the Cider Mill, said Amoreena Wade, who has acted at the theater, most recently in You Can’t Take It With You.
But it will be good for the local theater community as a whole and bring in “fresh blood” from outside the area, Wade said: “It will raise the bar.”