After two decades of healthy growth and a significant contribution to Billings’ cultural community, Venture Theatre, its board members, staff and volunteers are doing everything in their collective power to prevent a final curtain call.
“The response from the community in the past two weeks has been incredible,” Venture Theatre board President Brooke Buchanan said this week, after weeks of buzz about the theater’s financial woes.
Ms. Buchanan told The Billings Outpost this week that Venture staff and board members have raised 24 percent of the $125,000 fundraising goal. In addition, the board is developing a long-term business plan.
“We are preparing for a major push over the next 10 days,“ Ms. Buchanan added, “and are confident that if we raise these funds, Venture Theatre will continue to do what it does best - engage, challenge and inspire people of all ages through the arts.”
Board members in December terminated then-artistic director Robert Brian Wood after discovering a substantial shortfall in the company’s bottom line.
“The Venture Board of Directors discovered that critical financial information has been misrepresented and/or not disclosed,” Ms. Buchanan said, “including payroll taxes that were not paid, unpaid rent and payment on the loan to the city of Billings. Certainly the month-to-month expenses for operations were not meeting the financial obligations, so the board is looking at all aspects of operations to rectify the situation and put together a plan to move forward.”
For his part, Mr. Wood would only respond: “I sincerely want the best for Venture Theatre. I love what I did there and the people I worked with. We created great things together.” Mr. Wood has been invited by the Outpost to elaborate further at his convenience in an effort to share both sides of this developing story.
Venture Theatre was formed in 1992 by Mace Archer and Lysa Fox, a talented duo who advocated tirelessly in the early years to carve out a niche to promote Billings’ budding actors and performers. Archer and Fox, who were married, divorced and left Venture Theatre in 2008 to pursue other endeavors, and the theater today is run by a nine-member volunteer board of directors, a handful of staff members and countless volunteers.
The theater produces more than 20 shows each year, along with hosting classes and fostering a love of the arts in youth, including the Venture Youth Conservatory for kids ages 5-18, who participate in productions, classes, workshops and camps; Venture into Schools, which is a two-week program that takes an artist into local schools to create a production for the entire school; and Venture Kids, a program that provides ongoing classes in music, dance and voice.
As Venture’s key players behind the scenes work to restructure and bring it back to financial stability, it’s the performers who are left a bit in the dark, desperately hoping against hope they won’t see a “fade-to-black,” for good.
Longtime Venture performer Garrick Sather found his calling at Venture when he was 17 in a production of the successful book and movie, “The Outsiders.”
“I got my first role at Venture as Darryl Curtis, which I loved being a part of,” Mr. Sather recalls. “I auditioned with my best friend, Wallace Johnson, who got the role of Sodapop Curtis, which was perfect because we were already practically brothers. Being my first show at Venture, I was very unsure of how things were going to go but before I knew, I was friends with our whole cast plus a handful of people outside of our show. It was so great to be in an environment where I was accepted by everyone and I felt like it was where I belonged.
“After ‘The Outsiders,’” Mr. Sather continued, “it wasn’t hard at all to go back, audition more, take workshops and meet more friends who would later become part of my second family.”
After a short jaunt to Seattle, Mr. Sather returned to Billings, when he become a part of the musical sensation that is “The Who’s Tommy.”
“It’s one of the best shows I’ve gotten to be a part of,” he said. “Right now to this day I honestly could not picture myself without acting, theater, music. Venture has helped grow my dreams into the things that I fear most. Venture has helped me grow into the person I am today and the person that I always want to be.”
Today, Mr. Sather is assistant director on the upcoming Venture Theatre production of “Show Choir.”
Board members have been flooded with stories like this from community members of the value Venture Theatre has brought to their lives.
“Everyone the board talks to tells us stories on why Venture Theatre cannot close because of what we do for children, adults and others in the community,” Ms. Buchanan said.
“In 1993, my sister auditioned for a show with a new theater company in Billings - Venture,” C.J. Armstrong says. “She got a role in their second production, “Godspell,” and that experience has created a 20-year relationship with this great community theater. In the beginning I just attended shows, following them from location to location, to see Improv, One Act Plays and full productions.
“When my daughter, Jordyn, was going into kindergarten we started with the Venture Youth Camps and she has been involved every summer for the past nine years,” Ms. Armstrong continued. “As she grew more confident we signed up for classes thru their Youth Conservatory and she then began auditioning for their main stage productions.”
Ms. Armstrong says she’s watched her daughter grow into a self-assured young woman who today is confident in her abilities.
“Venture Theatre has brought many new productions to our community and has allowed new writers, directors and actors to showcase their talents,” she says. “Having the opportunity to see a first-time writer see their words come to life, or a first-time director see their actors succeed, is what Venture started with 20 years ago. There are so many of us that have Venture to thank for their willingness to let us all learn.”
Send donations to Venture Theatre campaign fund, c/o First Interstate Bank, 401 n. 31st St., Billings, MT 59101. Donors can also go to www.venturetheatre.org and give online.
Upcoming fundraisers include: the remaining weekend of the Fringe Festival, Jan. 25 and 26, a cabaret show Jan. 30 at Venture Theatre and a comedy explosion event featuring Funky Bunch and Projectile Comedy on Feb. 1.
at Venture Theatre. For more information, visit www.venturetheatre.org.