Ever wonder about what keeps theater alive in places that aren't Broadway or the West End? There are a million theaters all over America doing just that: but in keeping theater alive, it's not about what - it's about who.
Meet Noelle D.W. Chandler, the Education Director at Playhouse Merced in Merced, California (a city about 4 hours north of L.A., in between Fresno and Modesto). Having attended the University of Maryland as a theater major, Noelle traveled across the U.S. for an internship. She expected to stay for a year, and instead, spent the last 11 years completely overhauling the Young Artists Conservatory. I caught up with Noelle this week (a.k.a. "Miss Noelle" to her students) to talk about how she's effected so much change.
Stage Writes: What drew you to a smaller theater like Playhouse Merced?
Miss Noelle: There's a real lack of regimented boundaries at the Playhouse, which is exciting for someone who likes to feel like they can do it all. As a director of my own department, I hire and maintain employees, oversee contracts, schedule classes and events, and do my own marketing. But as a theater employee in general, I am constantly cleaning, building, writing, inventing, creating, assisting, directing, designing and performing. It's very fulfilling and not something that can be done at a bigger theater with more money and a larger staff.
Noelle Chandler as Charley in Deadwood Dick
SW: Your degree is in performance, and you still appear in productions at Playhouse Merced. What triggered your interest in theater education?
MN: I had no real interest in teaching all through college, but I did it: I directed plays for children, ran camps where students needed to have classes planned and prepped, and worked directly with kids of all age groups. While I was interning at the Playhouse I would sub in for dance teachers, and once I stopped working there as an intern (for all of 18 months, worst decision of my life), I still taught in the Conservatory to make ends meet while I worked other part-time jobs. When the ED I was working under didn't work out, I was well-known and, by this time, pretty passionate about the kids and the job, so I was a natural choice to move up.
SW: Tell us a little about what the Conservatory looks like today.
MN: The Conservatory itself serves upwards of 90 students right now, and over 150 during the summer. We also see over 3,000 students annually visiting us for 22 performances of daytime shows for student fiend trips, as well as 3,000-4,000 students we visit when we perform our Touring Shows. We are also serving 18 schools this year for our Play Anywhere experience, an original script with original music sent to a school with two instructors for 10 days to put up a fully-fledged theatre experience with set, lights, costumes and sound, starring up to 68 students!
SW: The conservatory isn't the only thing that's grown. Can you tell us what other fundraising events attract people to Playhouse?
MN: We do a variety of supplemental theatre events, from the Wildly Inappropriate Cabaret (a late-night showcase for adults only of local burlesque-style talent) to Drama Island (a Survivor-style episodic theatre experience pitting community members against local actors for prizes) and Merced Feud (where non-profits battle for cash in a Family Feud style game show). There is always (and yes, I mean always) something going on at the Playhouse. We also hold a large fundraiser every August called the Annual Gala, during which we regularly host 300-350 people at a downtown event involving dinner, drinks, desserts, a live auction, a silent auction and of course, entertainment!
SW: How do you think having an active theater and conservatory has helped the Merced community?
MN: An active theatre has certainly never hurt anyone: it can only help. And having a place for students to pay affordable prices (our classes cost $35 per month each, with discounts for multiple classes, multiple family members, and paying for the semester or year in advance) to experience a culturally profound performance opportunity is priceless to the youth we deal with, not to mention their awestruck parents.
Noelle Chandler as Maggie in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
For more information on Playhouse Merced, the Young Artists Conservatory, and Miss Noelle (my beautiful and talented sister), visit www.playhousemerced.com.