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Vero Beach Theatre Guild, going strong at 55, planning first expansion in years

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ, (Week of July 11, 2013)

When cast members prepare for their roles next weekend in the Vero Beach Theatre Guild’s “Pirates of Penzance,” they’ll be changing in dressing rooms as distressed as the damsels. That is about to change.

The July 18-21 run of the comic opera is a soft kick-off to the guild’s first capital campaign in 15 years. The group wants to add a two- and possibly three-story building east of its existing theater, adding dressing rooms, storage space and a rehearsal hall. The freestanding building would connect to the main theater by a hallway. Vero architect John Dean has come up with the preliminary design.

“Everywhere I go, people say, ‘Good for you. You need it, you’ve all worked hard,’” says Mark Wygonik, president of the 55-year-old guild.

Competing for theater-goers with the all-professional Riverside Theatre, whose $6.5 million budget is more than 20 times that of the guild, is like stepping out of the shadow of an overachieving sibling.

The guild nevertheless had 1,100 season subscriptions last year for its five productions involving 270 actors and crew – none of them paid. In recent years, ticket sales have totaled more than $200,000 each season.

Taken together, the numbers prove the institution is serving a sizeable chunk of Vero’s cultural community with a budget of under $300,000 and only one paid employee.

With season tickets topping out at $98 for a package of five shows, the guild reaches theater lovers who can’t afford Riverside’s near Broadway-caliber musicals, with budgets of several hundred thousand per show and ticket prices two to three times the guild’s.

That’s not to say the shows are at all comparable, apart from the fact that both stage shows with an older audience in mind.

The guild generally does two musicals a year – “Into the Woods” and “Kiss Me Kate” next year; “Oklahoma” and Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” last season. In addition, there are farces and the occasional straight drama, a hard sell in Vero. The summer season can include reader’s theater, low-budget plays or the odd special event, as in next week’s “Pirates of Penzance,” directed by Wygonik.

All are staged with neighborly camaraderie. The product – if uneven – is often highly entertaining if for no other reason than seeing familiar faces acting in utterly unfamiliar ways. “People like to see their friends on stage,” says member Joyce Levi.  “And their lawyers and doctors.”

In the air-conditioned quiet of a hive of tiny rooms backstage, volunteer seamstresses bent over whirring sewing machines in one room. In another, they sewed with needle and thread, chatting idly as one stitched lace onto a gown, and two others nipped the seams on pirate shirts.

On the stage, two men pummeled and painted cardboard into rocks, attaching them to hidden wooden risers to form the storm-dashed coastline where the action takes place. 

One of Vero’s oldest arts organizations, the guild dates to the 1950s when members put on plays at the Women’s Club downtown, then on the stage of the old Naval Base, then the junior high and high school auditoriums. Rehearsals, one member noted in a program, were held in people’s garages.

Finally, in the mid-1960s, with the guild boasting more than 2,000 members – astonishing considering the county’s population at that time of around 30,000 – the city told the guild it could lease for next to nothing land in Riverside Park. The guild scraped together $28,000 to build a rehearsal space (now part of Riverside’s backstage area) but still trucked its sets and costumes over to the high school, striking sets after each show and mounting them again for the next day’s performance.

Meanwhile, five benefits raised $850,000 to build the earliest incarnation of Riverside Theatre. It opened in 1973.

For the next 13 years, Riverside was the guild’s home. The theater, though, had its own board, the Vero Beach Community Theatre Trust, and the guild had turned over all financial decisions to it.

Increasingly ambitious, the board added programs like children’s theater and celebrity performances and started a fund-raising arm, The Friends of Riverside Theatre. It wasn’t long before it wanted to raise the caliber of Riverside productions to appeal to a changing barrier island demographic: older, affluent northerners building homes in the Moorings, John’s Island and eventually Windsor.

Long-time member Joyce Levi, a former professional actress who retired to Vero from New York City, joined the guild in early 1984. She and her late husband Win had heard about auditions for “The Music Man.”

“We figured we needed to make friends here,” she recalls. She was cast as Marion the Librarian’s mother; he was cast as the constable.

They signed on just as Riverside, eager to fill the new theater to capacity, was beginning to make noises that the Guild could no longer choose its own shows and cast; the Guild had no choice but to move on, Levi said. “Our charter says we’re a community theater,” she says. “And we were a good community theater. We do wonderful work, sometimes with people who have worked professionally in theater. It’s not always perfect. But sometimes it is.”

Today, she maintains, Vero’s community theater “may be one of the best in the state – maybe in the U.S.”

Wygonik performed in a 1985 production of “Brigadoon,” the last show staged by the guild at Riverside before the all-volunteer guild was replaced by the Riverside Theatre Acting Company, which began using equity actors the following year.

“I sang and I danced in ‘Brigadoon,’“ says Wygonik. “Then the big move happened that summer. Three years later, we were doing ‘The King and I,’ and the director asked me to design the set. He knew I was an artist, so I said, why not? That’s the beauty of community theater. Everybody gets to try new things.” 

Searching for a new home, the guild looked first at the Florida Theatre downtown, a 1924 landmark movie theater that had just closed. The price was too high. Finally, members settled on a former church south of Aviation Boulevard.

For eight seasons, actors performed on a platform where the altar had stood. The audience, perched in wooden pews on a flat floor, peered over and around each other to see the action.

There were no doors to the chancel area so the actors made their entrances through the audience, and stayed on stage until the end of their scene. When doors were eventually added, actors waited outside in the night air.

“They had umbrellas if it rained,” says Levi.

That year, the guild hired its first production coordinator, who remains its only paid employee.

By 1993, enough money was raised – including $70,000 from the state – for a renovation that inclined the floor toward the stage. Last year, amidst great (mock) hoopla, the women’s bathroom was enlarged to 12 stalls from six, to keep lines shorter at intermission.

 Today, the guild is trying to make things more pleasant for its performers and crew.

The new building will have storage for sets and a vast costume collection. Most importantly, it will add a rehearsal hall, so that while one show is mounted on the main stage, the next production can rehearse. Currently, the guild has to rent space to practice. Combined with leasing storage by the airport, the group spends $44,000 a year on rent.

Nevertheless, one large donation gives the current capital campaign a leg-up. Betty Abbott, who first performed for the guild in 1978, bequeathed $160,000 to the guild when she died in 2002.

Levi credits Wygonik with initiating the effort to expand. “He’s aware of things we needed,” she says.

 “He’s given every ounce of his energy, his talent and his imagination to make the guild work the way it should,” she says.