Central Minnesota’s Center Stage

by | Nov 2, 2022 | Investor Features | 0 comments

GREAT Theatre’s People, Philanthropy, & Passion Shine Bright 

For 25 years, Great River Education Arts Theatre (GREAT Theatre) has provided entertainment, inspiration, and enjoyment for the Central Minnesota community. What started as a children’s theatre has morphed into a cultural icon and event destination alike, shining the brightest spotlight on talent and togetherness one curtain call at a time. 

The Backstory

When people take their seats in the Paramount Center for the Arts, the Helgeson Learning Lab Theatre, or The Ledge Amphitheatre for showtime, or drop their kids off at GREAT’s musical summer camps each summer, that’s just a fraction of what the theatre’s mission is all about. Lacey Schirmers is the Executive Director at GREAT and explains what goes on behind the scenes as a non-profit community organization now in its 25th year. “There is far more to what we do than the big, fun musicals and summer theatre camps we are well known for. Yes, those are incredibly important, but what many don’t realize is all the programming we do within the community beyond traditional performances —like our program Youth Artist Project, partnering with local school districts, Boys and Girls Club, and other organizations to meet youth and students where they are and introduce them to the transformative power of live theatre.”

She continued, “The demand for our programming in those spaces is extensive and continues to grow—especially in light of the pandemic and the realization of how the arts play a critical role in social-emotional learning and overall well-being. Live theatre has a proven, tangible benefit to student learning with demonstrated enrichment in literary knowledge, tolerance, and empathy. Theatre is, by nature, collaborative in building teamwork, leadership skills, and confidence. The youth of our community are our future leaders; access to theatre arts opportunities shape our future.” 

Cast, Crew, & Community  

GREAT was founded by volunteers and a quarter century later, volunteers continue to be a driving force behind what the organization does. Per Schirmers, “Over 300 volunteers and 40,000 hours are contributed each year! Having a community that is willing to share their time and talents is not only core to our success as an organization but as a whole for our community to thrive. GREAT is a community theatre—creating these experiences with and for the community. It’s important that our own folks on the GREAT team are invested in our community, and I also hope and challenge other companies to share that value both in their recruitment and employee engagement efforts because it has a direct impact on creating a stronger, more vibrant community. And that comes full circle and helps with retention as well! It’s really a win-win.”

If you haven’t caught a GREAT production (yet!) you’re in for a treat when you finally do. The entire cast and crew of any show, large or small, is composed of volunteers. Schirmers said, “The caliber of talent in our community is outstanding. And, our actors are not professionals, so to speak. They are your teachers, doctors, bankers, and baristas. Theatre is a commitment for all of them, no different than being part of a sports team. It’s how they fill their cups. This creative community is about a sense of place, a way to find connections, and a way to be engaged.” Schirmers explained the magic of watching audiences and creative teams coming back together under the house lights when the pandemic eased enough to safely allow the shows to go on. She said, “Art gathers people, and the absence [during the pandemic] was so profound, such a void. Science shows that people who experience the same creative event simultaneously sync heartbeats.” Think of the divide communities might feel at times, and the opportunity for reconnection theatre provides. 

From a community standpoint, Schirmers talked about what opportunities await Central Minnesota, highlighting the trend towards creating a sense of belonging for everyone. “That’s encouraging; there’s a real desire to not only create a positive narrative by celebrating the amazingness already happening in our region, but to also address core issues that detract from that,” Schirmers said.

The Nitty Gritty of a Nonprofit 

Schirmers continued, “The arts are also a driving force for our economy. When the Paramount is filled with audiences attending a GREAT show, that also fills the nearby restaurants before and after a show—helping those businesses thrive. The number of jobs the arts industry alone employs, from the artists, the technical and administrative staff, the leadership teams and business professionals, is huge. According to the most recent Creative MN report, the total economic impact from the arts and culture in Central Minnesota is over $48 million.” 

But like anything worth doing, there’s a cost, sometimes substantial, to doing what it takes to ensure the show goes on. Schirmers said, “Producing live theatre is expensive! The direct expenses alone, such as royalties, theatre and venue rental, technical effects, costumes and sets, can be mind-blowing for those not in the industry. Not to mention the overhead and the people it takes to make that all happen—all those jobs mentioned earlier. We have a full-time team of 14 staff and contract with about 50 professional directors, designers, and teaching artists each year. 

Many people don’t realize we are a nonprofit organization and are often shocked to hear we are a community theatre because of the quality of our productions and programming. We hear all the time the opportunity to be part of and attend theatre produced at this level, in a community our size, for tickets at a fraction of the price as in the metro, is so fortunate. We can only do that because of the support of individual donors, corporate sponsors, and foundations.”

Play a Starring Role

If you or your organization is interested in ways to support GREAT as a community jewel, there are several ways you can support its mission to continue to serve Central Minnesota for another 25+ years. “Theatre has always been expensive. Production costs are high. A ticket price is a great way to support that, and donors are the key as is philanthropic support. Buy the ticket. See the show. Support our local arts community.”

Upcoming performances now on sale include Irving Berlin’s White Christmas November 26th-December 11 at the Paramount and Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity at the Helgeson Learning Lab December 9-18th. Schirmers shared how collaboration is how GREAT is able to run two productions with overlap … and during the busy holiday season at that. “Black Nativity is a partnership with Higher Works Collaborative, a nonprofit organization that works to advance the lives and livelihoods of the African-American community in Central Minnesota. We leaned into this community to help us tell a story that would not be authentic for GREAT to tell on its own.” Black Nativity premiered in 1961 as one of the first plays Off-Broadway written by an African American and has been presented around the world over the last 60 years.

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