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Theater reorganizes, then raises curtain on success

Situated in a rustic setting along the Conodoguinet Creek in Cumberland County, the Oyster Mill Playhouse provides a respite from the hustle and bustle that dominates much of nearby Camp Hill.

Situated in a rustic setting along the Conodoguinet Creek in Cumberland County, the Oyster Mill Playhouse provides a respite from the hustle and bustle that dominates much of nearby Camp Hill.

But don’t mistake the quiet for inactivity.

Business at the East Pennsboro Township playhouse is booming. A couple of years ago, the theater started making changes to its programming, marketing and strategic plan. Those changes have paid off: Season subscriptions have almost doubled in two years, and many productions at the 91-seat theater are sold out prior to opening.

Oyster Mill is one of a growing string of nonprofit arts organizations that have pursued new, nontraditional avenues to growth.

“Competition for entertainment dollars is great,” said Patrick Wallen, Oyster Mill’s public-relations director. “It took a lot of foresight and faith for us to take the leap.”

Oyster Mill started as Metropolitan Repertory Company Inc. in 1976. The organization did not have a permanent home until a dozen years later, when it moved into a historic grist mill. The group is an all-volunteer operation, with about 250 volunteers on its roster.

A few years ago, people involved in the playhouse’s operations realized changes had to be made to maintain the organization’s vitality, Wallen said. Many performances

ran at a little more than half full, and it was difficult to make ends meet.

Although many organizations cut down on marketing when times are tough, Oyster Mill took the opposite approach. The playhouse poured thousands of dollars into enhanced marketing materials, including full-color brochures, a new Web site and more visible advertising.

The playhouse focused on selling season subscriptions, too. This approach allowed the theater to increase attendance without having to woo potential audience members each time a new production debuted, Wallen said. The organization is also unveiling a system that will allow people to purchase tickets online without paying additional service fees.

Oyster Mill’s annual budget is $85,000, Wallen said. He did not know how much the organization has spent on its new marketing efforts.

Arts organizations are increasingly looking for ways to stand out to compete with the video games, movies and other outlets that lure consumers, said Philip Horn, executive director of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. The Harrisburg-based council provides grants to artists and arts organizations. “It’s about getting people’s attention,” Horn said. “With so much

direct mail, e-mail and phone solicitation out there, it’s hard to stand out.”

Arts groups have used a variety of tactics to attract new members, including offering shorter subscription periods, performing in different venues and adding features that make theatergoing more convenient.

Other groups have added greeters at their venues in an attempt to boost customer service, Horn said.

The Cultural Alliance of York County has spent months trying to figure out how to best serve potential audiences. Last year, the alliance hired an arts consultant from Montana. The consultant is helping to give alliance members and other arts-related organizations better tools and information to market themselves. The alliance is surveying people about where they go to see productions, what motivates their trips to the theater and what types of productions they enjoy.

“We have noticed that the traditional methods of marketing do not seem to be as effective as they once were,” said Joanne Riley, president of the alliance, which includes arts groups throughout York County. “It’s a new day and a new way.”

Oyster Mill’s newfound success has not come without hiccups. Its shows sell out so often that the playhouse must establish waiting lists, something Wallen said he knows is frustrating for theatergoers. Increased business also means greater pressure for more volunteers, he said.

Despite the challenges, the playhouse continues to look for ways to grow. The formula for success is a simple one, Wallen said.

“Invest in your organization wisely, and it can work,” he said. “It’s not rocket science.”

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