Friends of Chautauqua Theater celebrate 20 years

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Barbara Jacob and Susan Laubach lead Friends of Chautauqua Theater discussion about The May Queen July 27 in the Hultquist Center.

Friends of Chautauqua Theater began their relationship with Chautauqua Theater Company 20 years ago, watching the company’s productions from uncomfortable chairs crammed in close proximity to one another.

“Nobody’s shoulders could fit. There was no air-conditioning — or air of any kind — but nobody left because the plays were so good and so well done,” said former Friends president Irene Tabish.

After lobbying for a new space, the Friends celebrate their 20th anniversary in style: watching the theater their members so enjoy from lush seats in the air-conditioned Bratton Theater.

The Friends will hold their official anniversary celebration at 4 p.m. today in Smith Wilkes Hall, toasting with punch and cupcakes to 20 years of supporting theater at Chautauqua.

Over the years, the Friends have seen evolutions, undergoing a more official reorganization six years ago. The group originated as a cadre of fewer than 100 staunch theater-lovers, most of whom engaged in play discussions and would often stay up into the wee hours washing dishes after cooking a meal for CTC members.

“When you grow up, you have lots more people and a lot of activities,” Tabish said. “Twenty years later we’re 20 years older … you don’t want to stay up until 2 a.m. cleaning dishes. So we actually got more developed so we could direct things.”

After the reorganization, the Friends were left with a smaller executive board, a “producer’s circle” of active participants and a larger body of members who had paid their $10 dues, a sum that has stayed constant throughout the group’s years. The Friends now include hundreds of Chautauquans.

“Our numbers have gotten bigger, we’ve continually added more things that we’ve done for the theater company,” Friends President Marsha Butler said. “We’ve had to organize ourselves a little better to spread out the work.”

During the reorganization, the group also broadened their goals, deciding they would focus on theater at Chautauqua as a whole, in addition to providing a support system to CTC with programs like Be a Buddy and home-cooked tech dinners.

“We tried to be less specific to the theater company itself and more general to theater at Chautauqua. We tried to also be supportive of play reading groups and of play discussion,” Butler said. “A little more emphasis on education and looking at other aspects of theater, instead of only focusing on the company.”

Though the group is not allowed to fundraise, members said they build support by networking within the Chautauqua community to provide for the company’s needs. In the future, that means raising awareness about hopes to improve Brawdy Theater Studios, originally a hardware store that, for about 10 years, has served as offices and makeshift rehearsal space for CTC.

“The theater company has grown so much and their needs have changed,” Butler said. “We want to have better administrative offices and technical space.”

Friends leaders take pride in their ability to connect with the broader community and attract new visitors to the theater. They are confident they’ll eventually help renovate Brawdy.

“We pull in the people. Even if you’re only here one week or five weeks, they have a theater community and they feel it,” Butler said. “They go to the porch, and the Friends are there and they get involved and it makes them want to do more, buy more tickets, go to more theater.”

Former president Wendy Cohen said she agrees that the Friends serve as a liaison between CTC and the Institution’s visitors.

“Not only does it join people who are all interested in the theater — Chautauquans — but it provides a connection into the Institution and the people for the theater,” Cohen said.

Tonight, the Friends will celebrate their long relationship with CTC and their persistent love of the theater over the past 20 years.

“We got a new theater,” Tabish said. “There’s nothing beyond our possibilities in numbers.”

In the future, they hope to continue building appreciation for theater at Chautauqua.         

“We’re important to the theater company, that keeps them happier, it helps some things run smoother, which makes theater here great,” Butler said.

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