By Coral Gregory, WCACC Intern
This article details the conversation I had the pleasure of conducting with John Faas, entering Executive Director of Richmond Civic Theater, and Kathy Clopper, President of the Board of Richmond Civic Theater. John’s duties officially begin May first, but nevertheless he’s done his research and has plenty of fresh ideas and unique experience to bring to the table. Kathy began her involvement with Richmond Civic Theater in 1988 by volunteering. “I got to put button holes in costumes and a lady showed me how to put eyeliner on men, and I’ve never stopped and never looked back since then,” says Clopper. She’s graced the theater with her writing, design, and directing skills. While she will be stepping down as president in July, she is hoping to direct a show next season saying, “my directing chops are antsy to get back to work.”
Richmond Civic Theater is one of the many gems in the history of Richmond Indiana. In 1909, when it was constructed, Omar G. Murray Christened the building by naming it for himself. At the time it housed vaudeville acts, and it wouldn’t be until 1952 that a group of local talent established a large enough following to justify leasing the building. Twelve years later, in 1964, they would buy the building and officially plant the roots for the volunteer player community that we still have today.
It was a running theme in the interview to discuss how prevalent the theater’s history is. “To learn that legendary performers performed on that stage, like Louis Armstrong and Fanny Brice. Just to know that that stage has heard the footsteps of those legends- oh my gosh, could it be anymore hallowed ground?” John Faas says. “When you walk into that auditorium and you stand on that stage, you’re looking at the same view that legendary performers saw. What a privilege.” says Faas, but it was just as apparent that members of the theater allow its past to propel them to be venturesome, rather than hanging within its shadow. The theater’s longevity owes a lot to its timeless compassion and forward-looking take on the arts. “This community theater organization is really progressive,” says Faas.
John was especially excited to be offered the job of Executive Director, comparing it to “Christmas and Birthdays and everything rolled up for an entire decade into one present.” The direction he plans to take the theater is growth oriented. He plans to establish strong financial foundations that will facilitate longevity. Kathy described the theater’s relationship to the modern age as, “Civic Theatre was founded, because the community wanted a theater and I think that is still the case. It's become more challenging, because there are so many more things competing for people's spare time. Movies, social media—you can watch a movie so easily now. We have to keep that in the forefront as we plan our season.” Clopper continues, “COVID has really taught us a lot about people and theater and things we need to do to make sure that we stay in the forefront of people's minds not just as entertainment, but for people to come out and audition for a show and experience being in a show. And then perhaps have experience working backstage directing a show, or working at the front of house being an usher. There's just so many volunteer opportunities for people. And I think those are the things that we need to keep in the forefront of our minds as we move forward.”
Joining a new community can be intimidating, but John was excited about the opportunity to establish himself in the locale. “Most importantly, I have to make myself visible. So that will mean making every effort to attend public functions, particularly with other arts organizations or any major community events. And then, of course, being a physical on-site presence at the theater, not only with the day to day, but so that the audience gets the opportunity to see me whether it's a curtain speech or a handshake in the lobby,” says Faas.
He claims this position was a case of divine intervention and has a lot of hope for the future of his work at the theater. “Performing arts is a really hard industry, and it can wear people out really quickly,” John says, “When I was sent the job description I went online and did my own research about Richmond Civic Theatre and was immediately impressed. To run a theater organization like Richmond Civic on 99% volunteer artistry is just astounding to me, but also really touching.” Outside of his own tenacity and hard work, John claims he owes a lot of his continued success to his husband, Mike. “The thing that has pulled me through, has been the unwavering love and support of my spouse. In many cases he’s been my sounding board, my cheerleader, taken care of me, in many ways I owe my success to him,” says Faas. Having chaired the search to fill the position Kathy had a unique insight, and further supported John’s success, “We were so fortunate that John chose to apply. We really got the best of the best when he agreed to accept this position. The skills that he brings to the table plus his personality make us very excited.”
At the end of the day, an institution such as Richmond Civic Theater is a sum of all of the lives it’s touched in its many years long history. Kathy, in sharing some of her ghost stories, revealed a beautiful sentiment about the spirit the theater instills within its inhabitants. “The upstairs of the building where we have our costume shop were apartments at one time, and it’s neat to think about people who lived there. When I was first getting involved at the theater, I walked into one of the rooms and it's like a little rabbit warren up there. There are little rooms here, and little rooms there,” Kathy says, “I walked into one of the rooms and I looked down and I was immediately 5 years old because the linoleum on the floor was the same that we had in a house I lived in as a child." says Clopper fondly.
In closing, I asked them to share their tips and field related advice to those who are paving their own way. “Talent is only ten percent of the game. The other ninety is how you are to work with, and your professionalism,” John says before he further advises, “To be a well-rounded theater artist it’s important for someone to also be a historian and to know the stories and the pathways that the people who came before you took to get where they got.” Kathy’s tips for newcomers come from a different, more volunteerism based, perspective. “You need to jump in and get involved. Learn as much as you can about all aspects of the theater in a venue such as RCT and be willing to try new things, things that you haven’t done before. Get as much experience as you can and learn as much as you can.” Both of these extraordinary people were very kind in sharing their relationship with Richmond Civic Theater, and the art form itself, and both had humble depictions of their talents and contributions.