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Wednesday, December 7,2011

Starting over again — again

Tony Sump returns as board president of Lansing Civic Players

by James Sanford

The billboard outside the firehouse that is home to the
Lansing Civic Players’ offices is still touting “A Family Christmas”
and “Richard III: A Steampunk Musical.”


But don’t bother making reservations: Neither show will be produced, at least not this season.


They are the latest in a series of LCP cancellations
(including “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “Misery,” “Mrs. Warren’s
Profession,” “A Shot in the Dark” and “North Star, May I Help You?:
Santa’s Call Center”) that have raised questions about the direction —
and the future — of the 82-year-old institution, the oldest community
theater company in Lansing.


Tony Sump, who returned as president of the LCP board two
weeks ago, replacing Oralya Garza, is quick to acknowledge the
theater’s troubles.


“The last thing I want to do is cancel a production,”
Sump said. “It’s tough to put it out there that you’re doing something
and then you have to tell people it’s not gonna happen. In my opinion,
the organization needs to rebuild community trust.”


That’s the goal he plans to achieve with the assistance
of fellow board members and theater veterans Joe Dickson, Brittney
Benjamin and Laura Croff-Wheaton.


“It’s about time we put on some good stuff for the community,” Sump said.


His first step has been to scale down the season. LCP
will produce two shows next spring: “Checking Out,” an original script
by Sarah Hauck (March 15-25), and “Vino Veritas,” a black comedy by
David McGregor that had its world premiere at Purple Rose Theatre in
2008 (April 12-20).


As for the steampunk “Richard III,” Sump said, “Oralya is
still writing it. I heard there was a lot of community backlash about
the concept of that play, but it was pretty amazing. When I heard they
canceled it, I was pretty disappointed. She’s a wonderful writer and I
hope she finishes it someday so we can see it performed.”


(Garza declined to be interviewed for
this story, but said in a message that she wanted “to give Tony every
opportunity for success with LCP, and part of LCP’s problem has been
too many voices wanting to move the (organization) into too many
directions or to hold it completely still. Tony has the vision for the
(organization) now — I think I can be most useful to him by keeping my
yap shut.”)


It’s not the first time LCP has had to
make major changes midway through a season. In November 2010, shortly
after “Profession” and “Shot” were taken off the schedule, then-board
president Bob Metzger announced LCP was going on hiatus while “a
strategic growth, collaboration and reorganization plan” was put into
place “to ensure (LCP’s) long-term sustainability and success.”


Sump, who had preceded Metzger as board
president, praised his successor as someone who “really tried to build
a professional board of director to help realign the organization.”


Sump served as a consultant late last
year while Metzger assembled a nine-member steering committee charged
with “putting together what the next step would be,” Sump said. “I had
been driving home that we needed at least two seasons to remain dark,
to sell the building, find a new home for costume shop, then relaunch
the organization with a new volunteer base.”


During Sump’s previous term as board
president, LCP concentrated on what was called Lansing Civic Players
Underground, a series of modestly budgeted productions that Sump said
were about “using the entire buffalo: Let’s use what we have to put on
a scalable season we know we can do well.”


However, the board decided that
continuing the Underground program wouldn’t bring in the kind of
revenue the organization was looking for. They wanted a full season of
productions.


“I had objected, as had a couple of
people on the steering committee,” Sump said. “I said, ‘I don’t think
we have the stamina to put on a full season yet.’ And that turned out
to be true.”


In September, LCP opened Charles Busch’s
comedy “The Divine Sister,” its first show since the hiatus, at the
Hannah Community Center in East Lansing. The venue was a last-minute
choice after the Hill Center turned out to be unworkable due to what
Sump calls “roof issues and functional issues.”


LCP’s last production was a staging of “Arsenic and Old
Lace” in October, also at the Hannah Community Center. “There was not
much a turnout,” Sump said. “From what I understand, they were able to
break even, but as far as numbers and people in the seats they could
have done much better at the box office.”


The cost of renting out the community center also cut
into profits; “Checking Out” and “Vino Veritas” are scheduled to play
at the Curry Street Theatre in Lansing, a former community and senior
center LCP is leasing from the city.


As for the firehouse location on Michigan Avenue, which
was being eyed by an undisclosed buyer earlier this year, Sump said it
is back on the market, with an asking price of $329,000.


With a little time before “Checking Out” goes into
production, Sump said LCP will be “focusing on getting support and
volunteers,” including technical help from Web-savvy people who can
update the LCP website on a timely basis. Associations with other area
theaters are also being considered, as are more outreach activities
like LCP’s program at Everett High School to teach drama. 


“I think our goal is to do the right thing: to stand
behind our directors who are standing behind the organization and to
stand behind the actors appearing in these shows. We’re going back to
the fundamentals of why we’re here and why we’re doing theater.”


At least, Sump said, LCP has a nest egg. “There is money,
not a ton, but enough. Now it’s just using it wisely. But we’re in
pretty good shape.”


The most important factor, he said, is to ensure that LCP endures.


“I don’t want to see an organization that’s almost 83
years old fizzle out on my watch,” Sump said. “Even if it’s operating
in a different way, it’s still existing. It doesn’t have to be putting
on giant shows — if it’s three shows and a costume shop, that’s what it
is.”

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