Nobody expected Ghostlight Theatre's transition from unpredictable, infrequent troupe to respectable company to be smooth, and it hasn't been. Yet as it approaches the final show of its 2004-5 season - The Will Rogers Follies, running July 21 through 31 at Davenport North High School - Ghostlight can claim a few major accomplishments that count for quite a lot: It's still around, and it's made its budget.
"We weren't sure what to expect," said Melissa Coulter, Ghostlight's full-time artistic director. Over its decade of existence, Ghostlight had typically done four-performance runs of a few shows a year; its current season includes four productions, each running for eight performances.
This first professional season was an exercise in building an audience and putting the systems in place for a stable organization. That involved getting a "face lift" from seat-of-its-pants theatre troupe to a company poised for long-term viability.
And Ghostlight's leaders have had much to learn. In this key season, Ghostlight failed to meet its target for season subscriptions and saw a number of longtime collaborators leave the company. "There's a curve we're on," Coulter said. But "we're meeting our budget requirements."
Crucially, attendance for each play grew, from between 50 and 100 people per performance with the season-opening The Underpants to between 150 and 200 people for Gilligan's Island: The Musical. To Coulter, that meant that the theatre group was gaining a foothold in the community - something it wasn't able to do with its sporadic performance history.
Some people in the organization have also stepped back from playing a central role, Coulter said. Instead of being a free-wheeling group that performed whenever it felt like it, Ghostlight has been transformed into an organization with a full-time staff person and a working board. Because the group has professionalized, "it's not the fun job any more," she said.
Ghostlight is aiming to triple its subscriptions for the upcoming season, from roughly 200 this year to 600 next year. Coulter admitted that last year's target - 500 - was a "ridiculously large number," but she feels that with a year under its belt, the company's expectations are more realistic this year.
Its professional debut had a wide range of material, from silly to cerebral. In addition to Follies, it included Steve Martin's The Underpants, the holiday chestnut A Christmas Carol, and a musical version of Gilligan's Island.
The upcoming season appears to be just as schizophrenic, with the unifying thread being a dark and twisted streak. The opening show, Michael Frayn's Noises Off (September 8-18), is the odd play out, a backstage comedy that's been called the funniest play of the past 30 years. From there, the tone dims considerably, with the troupe's first attempt at children's theatre (James & the Giant Peach, running February 10-12), an adaptation of Stephen King's Misery (March 30-April 9), and Stephen Sondheim's Assassins (July 6-16, 2006). "We went with some edgier shows this season," Coulter said.
The adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic story is the most public element of what would appear to be Ghostlight's interest in reaching out to young people. In addition to that production, Ghostlight is in the formative stages of developing a readers' theatre program, in an effort to help schools teach reading. And the company is also planning a 10-week theatre summer camp for 2006; Ghostlight plans to apply for a National Endowment for the Arts grant in August for that effort.
"We really wanted to grow our educational programming this year," the artistic director said.
Coulter will be doing some education outreach this year as part of a summer camp on the Arsenal. "We're getting a taste of the summer-camp action," she said.
Ghostlight is also collaborating with other arts organizations to develop their audiences. The theatre organization has teamed up with the City Opera Company of the Quad Cities and Ballet Quad Cities to produce inserts for QC: The Quad Cities Magazine. The organizations have already secured funding for the initiative from the Scott County Regional Authority ($6,200), the Riverboat Development Authority ($10,000), and the Figge Foundation ($6,500).
The marketing is an outgrowth of some recent efforts to bring arts organizations together. The Quad Cities Arts, Heritage, & Cultural Tourism Plan was unveiled in September by the Quad-Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau. And in March, Joy Thompson of the Univesity of Illinois Extension helped lead several forums designed to kick-start the effort.
"Joy has brought our three groups together," Coulter said. "She's played nonprofit matchmaker. ... The trend now is toward collaboration."
For more information about Ghostlight or to buy tickets, visit (http://www.ghostlighttheatre.org) or call (563)505-7507.