Performance, education focus at Raleigh Little Theatre

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — This summer, hundreds of Wake County children age four and older each is spending a week or two at day camp, learning about topics ranging from playwriting and comedy to Shakespeare.

And when the school year begins, hundreds more will attend theater classes after school or on Saturdays, while guest artists during weeklong residencies focusing on theater and literacy at 10 to 20 elementary schools will work with students on drama, and with teachers on how to teach drama.

Providing education programs, which reach about 1,000 people, at least two-thirds of them children, is Raleigh Little Theatre.

Formed in 1936, the nonprofit works to use “theater as a tool for education and personal growth and community building,” says Charles Phaneuf, a Raleigh native who has served as its executive director since January 2012.

The group operates with an annual budget of $1.2 million, a full-time staff of 11 people, another 40 to 50 teachers and people working under contract, and 1,000 active volunteers.

The community theater produces 11 plays a year, including five for children, with a total of at least 150 performances, and attracts a total audience of about 40,000 ticket-buyers.

In addition to its summer and school-year programs for children, it offers volunteering and other programs designed to meet growing demand from adults to learn about and be involved in theater.

In June, Raleigh Little Theatre concluded a major-gifts initiative that raised over $740,000 it will use to improve accessibility and technology throughout its campus, which includes a proscenium theater and amphitheater built in the 1930s with funding from the federal Public Works Administration, a rose garden added in the 1940s, and a black-box theater built in the 1980s.

The fundraising effort received contributions from 39 individuals and eight institutions, including $275,000 from the City of Raleigh and $50,000 from First Citizens Bank. A larger fundraising effort by Raleigh Little Theatre also received $50,000 for work on its amphitheater from Triangle Community Foundation through its community fund for  Capitol Broadcasting Company and WRAL.

The nonprofit is using the funds to make its bathrooms accessible by the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act; to add glass doors that open to the balcony overlooking the Raleigh Rose Garden; to install a wireless assisted-listening system in its Sutton Theater that broadcasts directly into theater-goers’ hearing aids or cochlear implants; and to replace some of its stage lighting with self-dimming lights.

It also is in the early stages of planning for a possible capital campaign and undertaking a master plan for its campus.

Raleigh Little Theatre generates just over 60 percent of its income from ticket sales; tuition for camps and classes; and concessions and merchandise. The remainder is contributed, with the City of Raleigh accounting for just under 10 percent of its overall budget. Its annual fund raised $435,000 in the fiscal year ended June 30.

“Theater is important because it’s an opportunity to see the world through different peoples’ eyes,” says Phaneuf. “It’s especially important at times when we’re divided, and I truly believe that theater is a place that people from lots of ideological backgrounds can come together and have a shared experience.”

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