Livia Genise is the artistic director of the Camelot Theatre Company in Talent, Oregon. She has worked in the film and theatre industry for the last 44 years. As both an actress and singer, she has performed on Broadway and in Hollywood. She has extensive experience in how to manage and navigate the complex world of running a modern day theatre company.
In 2011, the Camelot Theatre underwent a dynamic transformation from performing in a renovated feed store to a 2.5 million dollar brand new state-of-the-art theatre building. Right in the heart of downtown Talent, the Camelot plays host to over 21,000 theater goers who enjoy 12-15 plays, musicals, and musical reviews per year. We asked Livia to take us behind the scenes so she could share how the magic of Camelot is created.
Livia, thanks for inviting us here today to take us behind the scenes of Camelot!
Thank you for your interest in what we do at Camelot!
To begin with, will you tell us about your new space and how it’s not only changed but totally elevated the level of productions you are now able to put on?
When I took over as Artistic Director in 2002, we were doing a minimum of 7 productions a year – two musicals and five plays, in a renovated feedstore with only 104 seats, not all of them with unobstructed views… Then in 2008, Talent Urban Renewal informed us that we would have to move as they needed to extend Main Street through our property. We were, by that time, producing 3 plays and 4 musicals, a conservatory musical as well as 4 original musical reviews (which we called Spotlights) and often, selling out. So we were in a state of shock… At first we thought this was the end of Camelot. But we had incredible community support and my staff and I were surrounded by people who dared us to dream the ‘Impossible Dream’ of building a new theatre… in the middle of a recession!
Wow! Considering the economic crisis I have to say this telling for a community to still be able to come out and support the arts.
At that time we had about 17,500 patrons per year, not many of them with the means to make a big difference. Beginning with a significant donation from one of our dear subscribers, Jim Collier, donors both large and small were inspired. Along with some significant grant money, the bulk of our theatrical community joined in with the fundraising. In June of 2011 the new Camelot Theatre opened in the James Morrison Collier building, here in Talent.
We have been fortunate in that respect since the beginning! There are an incredible number of talented people right here in the Rogue Valley. In fact, in my ten years here, we have only used local talent. That includes equity actors, actors who chose not to join a union, teachers, community members and, of course, the next generation of theatre artists!
I’ve always seen a business opportunity for Talent to capitalize on it’s name!
There is a t-shirt for sale at the Talent Historical Society: “If you’re looking for Talent, you’ve come to the right place”. I think Camelot embodies that saying.
Being that you guys are a semi-professional this means that the actors are not being paid a salary?
We insist on giving everyone at Camelot some remuneration. Unfortunately, we have to call it a ‘gratuity.’ It is certainly not pay. All our designers, musicians, and performers are people working full time jobs or going to school. Yet they donate 10 to 12 weeks of their life per production because of their passion to not only perform, but to make a difference in the lives of the audience who comes to Camelot.
It certainly strikes me that anyone who is willing to rehearse for 5 to 6 weeks and then go on stage night after night for 4 to 6 weeks must really love what they are doing?
To a performer, it is the air they breathe. To have a gift and NOT be able to share it is what’s hard.
You made a funny joke recently about one of your star actors. 96 year old Grant Shepard. You made the joke that one should never go on stage with kids, animals and… now Grant Shepard!
I’ve been working with Grant since I came to Camelot. He has both directed and starred in many shows for me. Recently in our play The Best Man, Grant played the role of ex-President Hockstader (portrayed in the recent Broadway revival by James Earl Jones ) and literally stole the show! He has wonderful stage presence, having spent his life as a theatre educator and actor and his comic timing as well as his vulnerability as an actor are impeccable. Plus, he’s easy to work with!
So, we have the actors on stage, but behind the scenes we have the costume designers, set and prop designers, a resident stage manager, lighting designer and audio and video designer and
sometimes a live sound operator, dressers, and crew.
Yes, and each job is important and all our artists and designers, onstage or backstage, have full time jobs and families. They are often required to go above and beyond, like with our most recent production of 42nd Street. We lost our costume designer 3 weeks before opening. This is for a cast of 19 with at least 5 production numbers… so at least 100 costumes. Barbara Rains, the wife of my production manager, decided to take on this challenge. Barbara has designed for us (Sweeney Todd) and also been onstage (King of City Island and other shows). She also works fulltime at SOU. I don’t know how she did it, but she did! And the costumes were wonderful.
Ok, so Livia… most organizations let alone theatre companies have to prod and push along their employees / members to maintain action and top performance, and here I am seeing something totally different. You guys are a force to reckon with!
Everyone here truly wants to make a difference and we recognize that in one another. We are in service to each other and to the community. We are a family and we take care of each other. It makes it a joy to go to work!
Can you tell us more about the culture and formation of Camelot as an actual theatre company?
Well, it started out over 25 years ago as Actor’s Theatre with Michael O’Rourke as its artistic director. Over the years, it has had many leaders. I was brought on by the board when I moved back here in 2002. At that time, the board and the theatre’s artistic director were having issues and, as with all non-profits, the ‘CEO’ serves at the pleasure of the board. So they called me as I was driving up here on the Friday of Labor Day weekend and asked if I’d interview with the board on Labor Day… and, by the way, could you put together a 7 show season for that meeting… So I did. A year later, there were some board members who had some hidden agendas and I decided I didn’t want to work with them and resigned as did a number of board members who didn’t like the way I was being treated or where these rogue members wanted to take the theatre.. Then they realized they were going to be liable for the monies they owed me as an Equity actress and all but one resigned from the board. The members who liked the direction I was taking the theatre rejoined the board and rehired me. We decided to change the name to Camelot because symbolically Camelot is famous for the round table, where all are equal and everyone matters. Over the years, we have gone from 8,000 patrons to 21,000 this season- so I think the community likes where we are going as well.
Off the record I had asked you how in the world you had come to create and maintain such a culture… You had replied to me that you had negative theater experiences…
Here you turn it entirely around to create something simply outstanding. Will you tell us more about this?
In my experience, if you recognize the contribution each person has to make, see the glass as half full, and provide a nurturing environment, you create something that is bigger than all those involved. And you need to remember to say: Thank You! Everyday! We have a wonderful board and our artists and audience are appreciated. It makes a difference.
How are you working together with other theatres in the valley?
We work very well together! Most of the arts organizations do ad trades in each others’ programs and we often comp each other to performances.
We are not in competition. There is enough of an audience for all of us to thrive.
Livia, you yourself have not only been involved with Camelot, but you have gone above and beyond to personally volunteer and participate in many of Ashland’s most important events. This year you read the Declaration of Independence at Ashland’s 4th of July Event and then you were the mistress of ceremonies for the Festival of Lights Celebration. What part of you takes this bull by the horns and jumps into action?
The older I get, the more clear I am that life is about service! I do what I can when I can. I happen to be comfortable in front of a mic and an audience and if that is useful to the community, that’s how I’ll give back. Besides, I passionately LOVE the Declaration. We have done the musical 1776 twice, which is about the writing of the declaration. It is an honor to read that document to an audience!
What have been some of the most fulfilling experiences for you to have participated and played a role in?
I would have to say it is interacting with other teachers and helping to educate the next generation of theatre artists. Over the years, I have coached students at both Phoenix and Crater High and, of course, we have had a vibrant conservatory program here at Camelot since 2005. In fact, 5 of our conservatory students are on stage in 42nd Street, one of whom started with us in 2005 at 8 years old! All my music directors and choreographers, as well as many of my directors, are teachers, so being in a show at Camelot is an educational experience for all of us!
Tell us about a few other individuals you work with who play a silent role in making great things happen at Camelot?
I work very closely with my production manager Roy Rains and my resident stage manager Taja Watkins. We share a lot of decisions and troubleshoot issues and support each other daily. Brian O’Connor, my resident audio and video designer has been working with me either onstage or backstage (and sometimes both!) for over 5 years and has taken us forward technologically in exciting ways.
My new office manager, Marlena Gray has become a pivotal member of the team. And of course, all of our box office personnel and our volunteers and ushers- all of them add to what Camelot does.
Camelot has grown a very incredible mentoring system. Can you talk about this process of working together and how some of your younger actors have gone on to performing all around the country and even coming back to continue to pass on the tradition?
One of the things we teach in the Conservatory and reiterate in mainstage productions is that the most important person on the stage is the OTHER person. Take care of and support the other person. It is a message that resonates onstage and off. Once you have experienced this kind of community, you never forget it and you try to recreate it wherever you go. We are so fortunate in 42nd Street to have Galen Schloming back with us. He did a few shows with Camelot when he was at Ashland High. He has since graduated from Northwestern University, performed up and down the west coast, and is now playing a lead on our stage while he has the holidays here with his mother, Jennifer.
When you describe this I get a real sense of community and family that you all have created here at the Camelot?
We welcome the artists and the audience to our home and thank them for their support. Without them, Camelot would not exist. And while they are here, we treasure them.
How does this translate over into the audience? What has the experience been like for them?
Our goal is for them to know that they, by their support, have made a difference. And our goal is to make a difference to the audience. I have heard theatre described as ‘not important’ (“It’s not brain surgery”) but I believe that it is. I believe that you can change a person’s day and maybe even their life by what you do onstage. Theatre gives the audience a safe place to experience their emotions and there aren’t many places that do that in today’s world.
You must have many sweet moments watching all these shows come together.
It is like giving birth: from the joy of the first read thru, thru the pain of letting go of the script and coming from vulnerability to seeing the enjoyment on the audience’s face- it is a labor of love.
Do you have a favorite show and, or moment from this past year that perhaps captures the spirit of Camelot?
I would have to say it was Woody Guthrie’s American Song. We had 10 less rehearsals than we usually do because 3 of the 5 performers were in 1776 and they were not only learning 2 hours worth of music and harmonies, 3 of them were learning guitar as well. But I had a wonderful music director, Mark Reppert, and a committed cast- and it came together very powerfully.
Livia, one of the reasons that I wanted to take the audience behind the scenes with this Camelot interview is to not just show that Camelot Theatre loves what it does, but to put a light and attention on the sheer labor of love that has goes into bringing this all to life. At the end of the day you are still a business and the show must go on!
And it does go on, sometimes with an understudy who didn’t know they would ever have to go on! And I have to fill the seats! That’s what keeps me up nights: how to put together the right combination of shows that not only entertain but that make a difference. But the bottom line is, without an audience, we would not exist. So I have to surround myself with people who are talented, committed- impassioned even- and willing to work for very little money. My personal goal is to be able to pay people a living wage for their contribution.
2012 was a great year for Camelot. You had over 21,000 patrons. What do we have to look forward to in 2013?
We have an incredible season: three very different plays (Amadeus, Neil Simon’s 45 Seconds from Broadway and Sherlock Holmes & the Case of the Christmas Carol), 4 wonderful musicals (Sound of Music, Jekyll & Hyde, Ug- the Caveman Musical and Evita), 4 original musical revues that put the spotlight on artists Etta James, Willie Nelson, Andy Williams and Barry Manilow, and a Conservatory production of Cats. We are very excited.
Finally how can we as a community continue to support and be involved with the Camelot Theatre Company in 2013?
It’s very simple: buy a ticket, make a donation and like us on Facebook.
101 Talent Avenue