The local, completely volunteer-run theater welcomes live entertainment to their fall schedule
By Taylor Shillam
A downtown treasure, the Pearl Theater boasts a uniquely beautiful location that has held space for artists of all kinds. Known for its celebration of the performing arts within an intimate historic setting, the nonprofit theater's mission has always been to promote, develop and showcase talent within the community.
This fall, the Pearl looks forward to entertainment returning to their schedule, including the Nancy Genys and Julie McCleish's Talent Team, Social Dancing, and Children's Choir, all starting this month. It was a long road through the pandemic to reopen their doors; especially for a theater operated entirely by volunteers.
“Everything is done by unpaid volunteers, except the art itself,” said Board of Directors Treasurer Jessica Tingley. “Our mission is supporting art, and we do that by ensuring the artists who perform on our stage are compensated fairly. It takes many hours of behind-the-scenes work to make productions happen, from planning to cleaning and setting up the theater, to working on publicity, researching and writing contracts, and coordinating everything from schedules to sleeping arrangements.”
At 137 years old, the maintenance often required by the theater is often completed by its volunteers.
“Our most committed volunteers have put in well over 1,000 hours of time," Tingley shared. "Even when the Pearl was closed, the board averaged between five and 10 hours a week researching grants, brainstorming ideas and working on rescheduling a year's worth of canceled shows.”
Even the Pearl’s board members and committee heads are all unpaid; however, its light budget is no reflection of the hard work that goes into coordinating the theater's productions and services.
The work starts with finding, booking and coordinating the production's talents and sponsorships. After an act is booked, the efforts shift to publicity: finding sponsors, and promoting the show with poster designs and social media content. Then, the theater must be set up to maximize its space and provide guests the best possible experience, with setup details dependent on each unique production.
“Our capacity is fairly small at 150, so if we've sold 50 tickets, we don't want the floor crowded with unnecessary seating,” Tingley said. “If we're planning a dinner and a movie, it's reorganized for all table seating, with the exception of the upstairs balcony. But if we're expecting a more dance-friendly band, the main floor is arranged so that there is plenty of room to kick up your heels.”
The theater is home to a small commercial kitchen. Its café menu includes beer and wine, and is tailored to specific shows.
Like its size, the Pearl's operating budget is small—making it highly dependent on community support and donations.
Before the pandemic, donations were most often gathered through membership dues or at regularly scheduled free events like open mic nights, movie nights, performers’ circles and more. During the pandemic, its team got creative to help keep donations alive. “In the last year and a half, we’ve seen core supporters and volunteers move away and, sadly, pass away, so it’s been tough on all levels,” Tingley shared of the pandemic's impact on the Pearl.
During their COVID closures, they put on a production called Floats, Fragments, Poems, and (un)Documents with local artist Paul Bonnell. The presentation explored the intersections of time, creativity, community and project work, combining artifacts, documents, and personal and collective histories in its exploration, and became one of the Pearl's most successful programs to date, with more than 1,500 views.
“We would have loved to do more of that but lacked the resources and volunteers to do it on a more regular basis,” Tingley said.
Now, with live entertainment returning to the schedule, including open mic nights and holiday productions, there’s also the highly anticipated Paul Rawlings play, Swan Song, which will feature half a dozen talented local actors and is set to debut October 29. They hope for the return of the always popular day-after-Thanksgiving concert, and most of all hope to see their doors stay open to allow these productions to come to life, Tingley said.
“We have no endowment, no savings, just a handful of really committed volunteers who have put in their own money to keep the theater afloat until it finds traction to get back to being self-sufficient again,” she shared.
Today, committed volunteers are Pearl Theater's biggest need, particularly volunteers with experience writing grants. Those interested can visit ThePearlTheater.org/volunteers.
Volunteers will have the unique opportunity to see art come to life within a beautiful, historic downtown space. “The building itself is a treasure," Tingley said. "The opportunities for multi-use are there. We hope people discover how magical of a place it can be!”