~story and photo by Jeff Tryon
As it celebrates its 70th year, the venerable Brown County Playhouse will push ahead into uncharted waters, trying to create a successful formula of a diverse range of live performing arts productions and events for visitors and residents.
This year’s unexpected loss of the Playhouse’s first executive director, and the launching of the new music center, left the organization seeking to redefine its place in the local entertainment spectrum.
The next act for the Nashville landmark will take it back to its roots—plays staged by amateurs. But the productions will be mounted by a local community theater group instead of Indiana University.
Acting executive director Hannah Estabrook said the Playhouse will do less next year, but will try to do it better. “I guess ‘less is more’ is kind of the model we’re going for next year, because this year we had event after event after event. It’s not only exhausting our resources, but the community can’t support us for every event. We’re just trying to put on the best shows we can, and make sure we’re not running ourselves into the ground trying to put on a show every night.”
Since a local board has been managing the Playhouse, it has presented concerts featuring local and nationally touring musicians, plays, live radio shows, magic shows, youth musicals, nostalgia musical groups, and movies.
New board member Mark Stolle got the ball rolling in a new direction by calling for volunteers for a new amateur community theater group.
In September, Stolle announced that the new “Theatre Brown County” group will mount a production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” by Christopher Durang next June.
Stolle said the group also plans to produce a musical in mid-September of 2020.
He said the all-volunteer group will hold open auditions with no pre-casting of roles, and stressed that the group will need a lot of volunteer help in non-acting positions.
Estabrook said that once the June production is done, they may consider adding more plays in the fall timeline, when there are more people in town.
“We want to do live entertainment,” she said. “We’re not necessarily going to move away from live music.”
She said the advent of the new music center won’t necessarily impact the Playhouse.
“We’re looking at it more like a collaborative effort,” Estabrook said. “Our shows are marketed toward different groups. A 2,000-seat venue is going to serve a different audience that a 426-seat venue. Also, it’s for-profit versus non-profit. So we are doing a lot of similar things, but I don’t think we’re affecting each other in terms of customer base. It’s actually even helping us a little bit with audience numbers.”
The Playhouse struggles to fill the house; Eastabrook has only seen a couple of sellouts in her six-month tenure. The venue does better in spring and fall.
“The music and the live shows really do well,” she said. “I wish the movies would do better…. But, I think that if we do community theater right, we could turn ourselves back into what the Playhouse originally was. I think that’s something we could move towards, but as of right now, live music shows are what works best for us.”
Estabrook said the Playhouse has had a lot of community support and has been gaining momentum over the past few months.
“We’ve had sponsors rolling in,” she said. “All of the shows were sponsored in October, either by individual donors or businesses. It’s just been really wonderful to receive and see. There are so many things that businesses can get themselves involved in—they’ve had to pick and choose.”
Over the past year, the Playhouse board conducted a strategic planning process including a “constituent survey” of about 10,000 people.
“We know that a lot of people are really passionate about the Playhouse and what we have coming in the future,” Estabrook said. “And we’re just hoping that our new direction for 2020 will be what everybody wants.”
“Hang with us, we’re getting it together, it’s just been kind of a rough transition,” she said. “But we’ve got really exciting things in store for next year.”
For more information visit <browncountyplayhouse.org> or call 812-988-6555. You can also follow the Brown County Playhouse on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.