#AdAstraStrong Music Theatre Wichita

“Ad astra per aspera” is the state motto of Kansas, which translates to “to the stars through difficulties” – a sentiment that has never felt more true than it does today. It emphasizes our values and optimism that, even when faced with the most difficult hardships, we come together as a state and keep our sights set on what’s important. We launched our #AdAstraStrong campaign to highlight “stars” throughout Kansas who are going above and beyond to give back to their community and provide hope during these challenging times.

We have extended this campaign by partnering with the Kansas Association of Community Foundations to recognize communities and organizations that are working on the frontlines during the COVID-19 pandemic, standing up for racial equality and working to better their local communities. The selected local community foundation promoting its stars will receive a $10,000 donation from our Blue Health Initiatives. Stay tuned for more star stories and stay #AdAstraStrong.

We are excited to recognize our next community star, the Music Theatre Wichita (MTWichita), which was nominated by the Wichita County Community Foundation. We talked with Wayne Bryan, MTWichita producing artistic director, about the team’s efforts to adjust their annual fundraiser and develop virtual programming during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can you tell us more about your annual fundraiser for MTWichita and what it has been like in years past? 

Curtain Up! has been the signature fundraising event for MTWichita for nearly a decade, and is held in annually in May, right before the five-production season begins. Traditionally, the event is held at the Scottish Rite facility. We transform the downstairs area into a festive gathering space decorated in the theme of one of the five upcoming shows. Guests enjoy food and beverages while playing show-themed games and bidding on silent auction items. Performers from the upcoming summer season dress in costume and circulate among the guests – visiting, refilling drinks and answering questions about their backgrounds and hopes for the future. Later, the guests take their seats in the theatre where highlights from the upcoming season are performed and an auctioneer leads the live auction.

The 2020 Curtain Up! was planned to be a “Wizard of Oz” theme and held at the Cotillion for the first time ever on May 29, 2020.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, did you immediately start planning for alternative options? 

The date for Curtain Up! was set for three weeks after the Jester Awards, our annual salute to excellence in high school musicals. On March 12, COVID-19 closed down all of Broadway, as well as the facility where we were about to hold auditions in Oklahoma City. Then on March 17, our facility, the Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center, was closed to the public. By March 24, all staff still working out of Century II were told to vacate by midnight. It seemed clear that we would not be able to start building sets and props in May, in anticipation of a June 10 opening. We announced the postponement of our season and began planning various scenarios. By mid-May, we realized the whole season needed to be postponed until 2021.

After we were able to successfully hold the Jesters virtually, we were encouraged that Curtain Up! might also survive the digital treatment. Our staff coordinated with Larkspur, a Wichita restaurant, to create a dinner menu with several options, and Curtain Up! ticketholders were given a choice of cuisine. On the night of the event, the MTWichita staff worked with the Larkspur staff to organize the meals and beverages into bags. Teams of drivers volunteered to collect their assigned bags and deliver them to ticketholders across Wichita and El Dorado. Each home was also offered a 90-minute video of specially crafted entertainment, some newly created in an “Oz” theme, and some pulled from the archives of MTWichita. Partygoers gathered in their own homes and had dinner while watching the entertainment. There was a brief pledge break during the entertainment video with a phone number so anyone could make additional donations.

Does the money from the fundraiser go directly back to the theatre program? 

Like most non-profit arts groups, our ticket sales do not fully cover our expenses. Traditionally, ticket sales cover about half of our $4.5 million budget. The rest of the money comes from rentals of sets and costume to other theatres, corporate and private sponsorships, donations and an assortment of fundraising efforts.

Everything earned at Curtain Up! goes toward paying performer salaries and other costs of putting on the shows. In past years, earnings from Curtain Up! ranged from $40,000 up to $100,000. When we made the decision to go digital in 2020, and with fewer auction items, we did not expect to raise as much money this year but were thrilled when the event raised $80,000. 

Can you tell us more about the digital programming you have offered through MTWichita as opposed to your typical schedule of shows for 2020? 
So far, our programming falls into these categories, some of which are free to the public, and some that are reserved for members of our Spotlight Society. We have three weekly news features which include:

  • Masterclass Mondays: MTWichita alumni with experience from Broadway, touring or the technical theatre, give tips like how to prepare hair to be placed under a wig cap or how to build better scenery.
  • Wayne Wednesdays:  I answer any theatre questions you may want to ask, such as why did certain shows flop or what producers look for in auditions, etc.
  • Flashback Friday: We revisit one of MTWichita’s past productions. This includes background information about the show, biographies of those involved in our production, where the cast is now and a montage of clips from the show. 

Part of our digital programming also includes “Wayne’s Movie Club,” where I create a one-hour documentary exploring a film or TV special. Each documentary is filled with historical background, interviews, film footage and more. We have also organized many virtual concerts and events for members of the community to enjoy from home. 

We are very happy with the response the digital programming has received and we plan to continue doing many of these programs, even after live performances are permitted again.

What is something you’d like the people in your community to know? Or, something you’d like to tell all of them? 

MTWichita is one of our city’s good examples of industries that morph and grow as work conditions and product availability change. By nature, theatre people have to be problem-solvers, and it’s been inspiring to see how effectively our team has learned new skills and met new challenges.

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