Thursday, April 10, 2008

Healey hears a Who

Weinberg reaches out to Frederick at large

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In all fairness, it was a dreary Friday evening with the promise of more rain or something even bleaker still hanging in the sky above — not a particularly welcoming night at the theatre, especially if you were slated to be the star.

Still, as the 7 p.m. kick off neared for The Weinberg’s inaugural open forum— a theater instigated call for ideas from the community it serves — more than a dozen dutiful idealists meandered about the theater’s lobby, squeezing themselves into various pockets of socialization, settling into chairs, filling out surveys, and ordering up drinks at the bar. Nestled in a corner next to the box office, the evening’s acoustic entertainment, The Sitting Ducks (, played as though the house was packed.

Throughout the halls of the historic Tivoli, a distinct curiosity coupled with riffs of funky reggae soul.

‘‘I didn’t know what, really, to expect. I just kind of came to listen,” said Clark Kline, co-creator of Frederick’s own 72 Film Fest, which will return to the theater this year. ‘‘The Weinberg has always opened their doors to us. It’s good to see them opening their arms even wider.”

‘‘I’m just excited about the community coming out,” said Kline’s cohort with the fest, Jason Streff. ‘‘I feel like, in the past, I may have had some good ideas, but that people were not necessarily receptive. Now they are, and that’s amazing.”

Jonah Sea Knight, founder of the currently on-hiatus New Play House, seemed hopeful of a new direction for the theater. ‘‘As I was filling out the survey, there was that question: What would bring you out to the Weinberg Center? The one thing that would bring me out would be a sense that the Weinberg wanted to be a part of the Frederick community,” he said. ‘‘What made me come out tonight was that they asked. And I don’t think that’s ever happened before.”

By 8 p.m., the now burgeoning crowd — 55 officially in attendance — filed into the massive auditorium, dotting the aisles.

Like a beat poet, host John Healey, executive manager of the Weinberg, approached a lone microphone and chair center stage. Instead of being accompanied by the plinkity plink of a coffee bar piano, though, Weinberg committee member Peter Hassett was stationed with laptop stage right, readied to document the proceedings.

Hassett, along with Dan Blum and Alexis Gearhart, were the brains behind the night’s event, Healey explained. ‘‘And I think it’s a great idea ... It’s an opportunity for the community [to give us feedback.] What are we doing right? What could we be doing better? What are we not doing that you would like to see?”

Prior to turning over the mic, Healey provided a brief overview of how acts are booked for the 1,157-seat non-profit, spanning committee discussion, contacting agents, routing dates, and the bottom line. Even non-profits, he said, have to make money. ‘‘We have to figure out ways to bring in acts that will allow us to, at least, break even.”

To that end, plans for the upcoming year include an Emerging Artist Series, which may find the Weinberg stage transformed into an intimate jazz club showcasing up-and-comers in the field.

Headliners include Pancho Sanchez, while the theater will continue to pay homage to its roots as a movie house. ‘‘We’ve always had films, and we’ll always have that here. Silent films, modern films —grand films.”

Films, in fact, were surprisingly high in demand when the floor was finally opened for discussion. From novelties like proposed midnight screenings of ‘‘The Wizard of Oz” synched with Pink Floyd’s ‘‘Dark Side of the Moon” (a professed ‘‘deserted island disc” of Healey’s) to ‘‘Sound of Music” sing-alongs, and even the Star Wars Saga — complete with costumes.

The latter, said Healey, is already on the books, sans Wookie-wear. ‘‘The original trilogy,” he amended. ‘‘When he [George Lucas] went back to number one — he lost me.”

Diligently, somewhat hesitantly, members of the huddled masses took turns encroaching upon dual microphones placed on either side of the auditorium’s center aisle.

A dire need for further marketing and promotion was an early contender, with the evening’s low turnout pointed to as a telling sign. Beef up radio prominence, some said. Make known the adjacent parking garage charging a nominal $1 fee, suggested others. For one, a Weinberg staffer decked out in a sandwich board standing out on Route 15 was not too much to ask.

Courtesy of a spokesman for Frederick’s Star Spangled Big Band, the call came out in favor of theme nights featuring local jazz and big band music. A good idea, agreed Healey, if not always a lucrative one. Dance, likewise, was decreed a ‘‘tough sell,” but not insurmountable.

The Weinberg, he noted, is just like any other house — albeit one that occasionally boasts 1,100 guests. ‘‘Unfortunately we still need to pay for heat. We have to pay for paper products and lights.”

A speaker series, a la Chris Matthews or Cokie Roberts, was touted as in contention. One audience member suggested a cultural roundtable of sorts — an amalgam of media (film or music) and discussion tackling hot-button items such as immigration policy.

‘‘As long as we don’t get nasty with one another,” said Healey. ‘‘Or even if we do sometimes. Conflict is always interesting.”

The big draws for the center, Healey said, continue to be bluegrass, country and comedy. But by and large, the desire for even more national acts was undeniable — names like Eddie Money, Jay Leno, Bob Newhart, and Jimmy Buffett made the rounds.

Costs for such names are often prohibitive, said Healey. The more famous the act, the larger the price point. The Weinberg, he said, has historically tried to keep ticket costs down, generally maxing out at $55. And how many, he asked, would be willing to shell out the extra cash for the added fame?

How many, he asked, would be willing to pay $75 to see, let’s say, Bob Newhart?

Around the theater, hands shot up, stretching toward the chandeliers.

‘‘Ok,” said Healey. ‘‘Interesting.”

Knight was ultimately the last to take the stand, asking how the Weinberg perceived its status as a community institution.

‘‘Vital,” said Healey. ‘‘Look, we’ve had some growing pains. But we’re heading in the right direction now. ... I always say, we’re not a community theater, we’re a theater for the community.”

Healey noted that open forums are planned to become a regular occurrence, and invited all in attendance to e-mail with any and all comments and suggestions.

‘‘Keep the ideas coming,” he said. ‘‘And I hope to see you at the next show.”