Monday, May 22, 2006

Sean Cercone, Artistic Director of Carousel Dinner Theatre

Spotlight on Sean Cercone, Carousel Artistic Director

Usually when one thinks of the Artistic Director of a theatre with a more than two million dollar budget one envisions an older, seasoned person with years of theatrical experience in producing, selecting plays, casting and choosing directors and technical staff. This is definitely not the case with Sean Cercone, the Artistic Director at Carousel Dinner Theatre.

Cercone is young, and a relative newcomer to the theatrical scene. His background includes only one administrative theatrical position, founder of the West Virginia Shakespeare Festival. He has a Master of Fine Arts in acting from West Virginia University, not in either theatre or arts management.

So, why would a venue, which invests between $300,000 to $500,000 on each production, place their fate in the hands of such a neophyte? And how was he selected? In a word, the New York born and raised Cercone has “chutspah” (the Yiddish word for “nerve”).

He saw an ad for the Carousel position on a website. Most people with his background would not see “newbie” and “Artistic Director of one of the major dinner theatres in the country” as being synonymous. This, of course, was not Cercone’s view. He saw the job as an opportunity to parallel his outgoing personality, self-avowed “awesome self-confidence,” desire to educate audiences, develop an image for the dinner show industry, and create a positive national portrait for the theatre. He perceived it as “a challenge, an opportunity.” He obviously was able to convince the new owners of the facility that he was the right person for the job as they turned over to him, the entire artistic operation of the theatre.

Cercone set for himself the task of learning everything he could about the business. He believed that there needed to be a change in the financial and artistic structure. He set budgets for each play where there had not been financial accountability in the past. He developed job descriptions for employees. He set in motion a philosophy that each season should have a set purpose. He envisioned changing the demographics of the audience to lower the average age of the attenders, while not ignoring the venue’s base which includes bus and senior tours (25% of the attenders), as well as subscribers (one-third of the audience). The remainder are individual ticket purchasers. He set out to eliminate the attitude that dinner theatres are often regarded as the trailer park of the theatre world by casting shows with professionals, many of whom are selected in New York tryouts, but not overlooking local area equity performers, while hiring top quality professional directors and choreographers.

Cercone, because of his involvement with the National Alliance of Musical Theatre’s New Works Committee, a national group which seeks out new scripts, envisions Carousel as a player in the creation of musicals. The first step in this process came to fruition when early this season ‘JOHN DOE’ received a staged reading at the theatre. The show’s creators were present, as were producers from various theatres around the country and theatrical agents. The staging of ‘JOHN DOE’ cost Carousel $16,000, with little financial income from the invitation-only event. However, the theatre received much publicity for the staging and all future productions of the show will masthead that the first staging was done at Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron, Ohio. The “JOHN DOE” staging was also part of Cercone’s “subscriber appreciation days” which have the purpose of teaching audience members about the facility and how plays are developed and staged.

Cercone went out on a limb with his selection of ‘URINETOWN’ for this season. It is a departure from the safe musicals of the past. He chose the script because he “has a responsibility to stretch the audience and hopefully, can aid them to develop new attitudes toward theatre.”

Considering that the audience tends to be conservative and gasp at any swear word or sexual connotation, ‘URINETOWN” should be a challenge. Interestingly, the musical, which is about corporate greed and is basically a love story, doesn’t have the “yuck” factor, but the title may be enough to keep those with “red state” attitudes away. Only box office receipts will tell the tale.

Carousel productions are usually mounted in 10 seven-to-ten hour days. As a comparison, musicals produced by such theatres as Beck Center, usually have a five-to-eight week rehearsal period. The fact that Carousel’s directors are seasoned professionals and the performers are equity actors allows for the “speeding up” process. Even so, the first week or so of the productions often illustrate signs of still being rehearsal periods. The shows tend to run 10 weeks. The out-of-the-area performers are housed in Carousel’s home-away-from home, a residence with 8 apartments. Actors are provided with cars and gym memberships.

The future? Cercone hopes to mount some new scripts to intertwine with old favorites, further fulfilling his vision of making Carousel into a major player in not only the local world of theatre, but expanding its national image. If that happens, Carousel is going to have to fight to keep the young man who is working hard to become the “wunderkindt” of the dinner theatre circuit.