After 90 years of "wow," the 2017-18 season is as much about rejuvenation as it is honoring the past while looking to the future through a set new of lenses.
"What I learned from our (90th anniversary) gala is that (we) really matter to people. The gala was off the charts," said State Theatre President and CEO Shelley Brown. "It really motivated me, for one."
The 91st season opened Friday with country-gospel group The Oak Ridge Boys. The rest of the lineup is a full-bodied blend of seasonal staples (Haunted Illusions, The Fab Faux); the return of old favorites (Bobby Collins, Wizards of Winter); and State Theatre firsts ("Early Elton," The Purple Xperience, and Evil Dead: The Musical, complete with "Splatter Zone" seating).
Broadway will especially be represented, with scheduled stops by the touring versions of The Wizard of Oz, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Cabaret, RENT, and Dirty Dancing. "We're a gorgeous theater with the best capability in the region because of our (stage) grid to do Broadway shows. We do it well because we have top-notch Broadway and people support it, so bring it on," Brown said. "I think that falls into the category of, 'What can we do better than anyone else'?"
The theater will also continue its film screenings and actor question-and-answer pairings. Veteran actor and comedian John Cleese will appear Sept. 19 for a Q&A and screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail; award-winning actor and Broadway star Nathan Lane will visit the theater on Oct. 22 for a Q&A and showing of The Birdcage.
Brown said the biggest competition for the theater is not necessarily the amount of performance venues which have popped up in the greater Lehigh Valley, but attracting new fans in the age of social media and rapidly changing technology.
"The bigger competition, if you will, is people just want to stay home or watch stuff on their phones or tablets, or get their friends together and watch at home. If anything, the 90th season made me think about there are reasons to go out," she said. "There's a lot of anger in the world and a lot of it, I think, is because people don't gather as groups anymore... At the end of the day, it's about getting off your butt, and I'm just as guilty as the next person. I think that's something that's hurt all of us."
However, Brown emphasized that going out to a show means sharing a range of emotions with others. "People sit down together, they laugh together, they tear together, sometimes they cry together. It's a unique experience," Brown said. "They leave the theater feeling a little bit closer to other people. I think that's what we are danger of losing if we don't take care of our live venues."
Brown said she and others at the State Theatre have been looking at the venue with a different, and fresh, set of eyes. That means, she said, experimenting with the type of shows that have come before without tossing the entire kitchen sink out of the window. Bringing in performance artist-prop comedian Tapeface, Brown said, is an example of trying something completely different.
"My generation is used to sitting in a seat and watching a show. We're trying to look at the building and think, 'How can we use this beautiful building in new ways," Brown said. "I'm big on let's think outside the box. When I first came to the theater a century ago, I did boxing on stage. We tried all different kinds of things. It's a beautiful building, but if it's empty, it's worthless. So let's do what we've always done, but let's look at it differently."
Brown said the allure of the State Theatre goes beyond what's behind the curtain -- from free trolley rides from nearby downtown Easton parking garages to the theater and being greeted by friendly, smiling and attentive ushers. "That's what we do best. If it what was about what's on stage, we could be anywhere and you could walk in and see a show and leave," Brown said. "There are those things that make it special. That's what this is about."
Home away from home
For many, the State Theatre has become a second home, Brown said. Hearing those stories and chatting with theatergoers drives home the community spirit of the theater. "For me, it's about the fact that people make us such a part of their lives," she said. "The fact that there are still people who put something on their calendar a year from now and say, 'I'm going to be at the theater that night, no matter what'... To matter to people, that's what gets me going."
The annual Freddy Awards, which honors and recognizes excellence in high school theater, is a reflection of the connectivity between the theater and the audience. "Of course, the Freddys, which has become this iconic thing more than anyone of us ever could have imagined, this iconic thing to the kids, is just such a wonderful blessing and responsibility to have," Brown said. "There's always something unique because it involves people. There are stories to deliver to people each night; that's special and something they'll remember."