Volunteer-powered Lyric Theatre celebrates 50 years of 'changing with the times'
A local, volunteer-run arts organization is about to raise the curtain on its 50th season. Lyric Theatre Company operates out of South Burlington with a focus on community, volunteerism and diversity.
Lyric's production of the 2018 Tony Award-winning musical, The Prom, opens Thursday at the Flynn Theatre in Burlington.
Erin Evarts is Lyric Theatre's executive director and Laurie Dana is a decades-long volunteer and costumer. They both joined Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch to talk about Lyric's half-century of creating art.
Mary Williams Engisch: Laurie, I want to start with you because volunteerism is at the front and center of the company. How many years have you volunteered with Lyric Theatre and what does this 50-year milestone mean to you?
Laurie Dana: I've been a volunteer with Lyric since 1976. I think I've lived through about every milestone that's happened, including meeting my husband at Lyric! I think Lyric is more of a family than a volunteer job, especially when you've been with them as long as I have.
Do you remember the first show that you worked on then?
Laurie Dana: The first season of Lyric was 1974. And I saw Guys and Dolls. And I had just moved to Burlington, so I thought, "Oh, I could do that!" And so I was a cast member in Oklahoma. And some of the people I met in that show are still my best friends.
And Erin, do you have any reflections on what this 50th anniversary means to Lyric Theatre?
Erin Evarts: I was a volunteer for 20 years before I became the executive director — and so I feel that sense of community and that familial thing that we were talking about.
I think what's so special about Lyric is that it will always continue to change and evolve. And it's always going to be something that's in this community that supports the people who are here — from bringing a place for people to come and create art, to being a mask factory, to staging for flood relief, we've done a little bit of everything. And the community part of community theater is really important to us.
And when you say "mask factory," you mean like actually creating masks during COVID?
Erin Evarts: Yeah, we created 25,000 masks during COVID with the city of Burlington. And so we've done a little bit of everything!
But at the forefront is creating art and providing opportunities for artists. And for people to learn. The goal is to volunteer, to be together, to create community and to create art — and give opportunities for people to learn and grow. And that's really special and always will be for the next 50 years.
Erin, I read on Lyric's website to that about 30 friends and less than $10,000 put up that very first show. And now it's one of the largest volunteer community theaters in the whole country. What are some unique challenges, though, to a small community-run theater like Lyric?
Erin Evarts: Some of the challenges are finding our audience for each and every show. Because we have so many options for people to see in our community.
There's so much amazing work that's being made. We have so many people who are loyal and have bought tickets to Lyric shows for the last 50 years. But also, as the shows change, as the audiences change, as audience's behavior changes — I mean, we used to sell so many tickets the day that we sent out our mailers. We don't even do a mailer anymore.
And now, we're right before the show, and we're just seeing our tickets take off now. So that's — you know, it's such a difference.
Laurie, as time has gone on what draws you to keep volunteering with the company?
Laurie Dana: I have learned so much, because I've had so many opportunities to try my hand at different things. And then kind of recently found my home with costuming. We have a little group called the "Rowdy Retirees" working together to create something that we can all feel proud of.
Another of Lyric's missions to to create affordable, accessible performances. What does that look like, making theater more accessible? And what gaps still need to be addressed in that regard, Erin?
Erin Evarts: I think that accessibility in theater is a couple of things. Not only is it a price point that people can afford, which is something that's extremely important to us. And we want to make sure that we always have tickets, and we do that so you can have a family of four come to see that show for $100.
Making sure that we have audio description and ASL interpretation is important to us. Those are both available for every one of our shows at this point.
But also making sure that the titles that we have, the titles that we're presenting are something that are interesting to our audiences, and things that need to be seen, should be seen and that people want to see. Those are all pieces to accessibility.
And then to make sure that the people who are onstage and backstage are representing the community that we are from. Being able to volunteer is a privilege in and of itself and we're extremely aware of that. But knowing that we need to represent our community in a broader way is important to me, and I know to our board, and it's a huge focus for our strategic plan in the next five years.
Feeding into my next question! Looking at all of the different musicals that Lyric has staged, classic titles: Annie, Get Your Gun, Hello, Dolly, and The King and I. And yet so many of those productions from past decades — they include harmful stereotypes or outdated depictions of marginalized groups.
How does this acknowledgement by Lyric spark change in what shows are staged?
Erin Evarts: Well, I think in terms of past productions, we can't undo what we've done. I don't think anybody at Lyric wants to brush anything away, because the work that went into those shows was significant. And now with a lens of 2023, we know what was wrong with a lot of those things. So we're not doing that anymore.
That's not going to be a part of any practice moving forward. We now have a real focus on outreach and inclusivity. We also work very hard to make sure that the pieces that we're doing are looked at with a critical eye for content for casting for inclusion, and making sure that the things that we're touching on are going to be representative again, of the community — but also not offensive to the community.
And Laurie, I like to get your thoughts on that too, just from a volunteer standpoint.
Laurie Dana: The shows lived in their own time. And they were informed by the culture of that time. Having been part of Lyric for 48 years, I'm so excited about the changes that are coming on. People are able to view even classic shows in new ways, and cast them in new ways. The important thing about Lyric is that we are changing with the times and we're reflecting what's going on in the larger society.
I can't leave without touching on The Prom, which is opening Lyric's 50th season. Sell it to a potential theater-goer!
Erin Evarts: It's a Tony Award-winning musical comedy from 2018. It's so funny! There are 34 cast members. It's so high energy. Seventeen of those people are brand new to the Lyric mainstage and more than 100 people are behind the scenes working on this production.
It's about two young women who want to go to the prom together in Edgewater, Indiana. The PTA says, "Not right now." And some Hollywood-Broadway liberal elites come in to try and make a prom for everyone. And in the process, a lot of people learn about themselves.
And hilarity ensues.
Erin Evarts: Hilarity and dancing.
That sounds like a perfect night in the theater!
Laurie Dana: I'm working backstage, so there are lots of fast changes happening! In one place, there are 26 cast members all changing clothes at the same time in various parts of the theater, so the choreography backstage is always just as interesting as the choreography on stage.