Ushering in change at a York community theater

Cathy Hirko//May 12, 2016

Ushering in change at a York community theater

Cathy Hirko//May 12, 2016

It was the late 1990s and Davis wanted her two children to experience as much culture as possible. The kids were home-schooled and part of their learning path led them to community theater. 

The kids liked watching the plays until York Little Theatre’s  “The Hobbit” production, Davis said. From there the kids switched from observation to direct involvement. They auditioned.

“At the time, my husband and I thought, ‘Oh, we’ll just drop the kids off at the theater for practice,’” she said. “Yeah right, that doesn’t happen.”

Parents, a core volunteer base at community theater, are the reason community theater thrives. They help produce shows. They stage manage and raise funds, and sometimes take the stage themselves.

Davis admits that she had zero experience with anything related to theater. But she got involved and gave her time, lots of it. She learned from exceptional mentors in the process and she took risks, led change and committed to its success.

Evolve to thrive

Fast forward almost 20 years and Davis is leading DreamWrights, Center for the Community Arts in York. She’s the executive director, and she’s grateful for the help she has received. She’s also keenly aware of how a place like DreamWrights needs to evolve in order to thrive.

This year in particular is a pivotal year, a transforming year for Davis and DreamWrights:

– Its founder and creative director, Diane Crews, is retiring.

– The York facility launched a $2.5 million capital campaign that will address extensive physical changes, such as new uses for existing spaces, electrical and interior transformations.

And what can’t be physically seen are the internal changes: There’s apprehension, sometimes uncertainty in every area of the nonprofit – all byproducts of change.

“People are a little fearful of the change,” Davis admits.

Humble, growing beginnings

Davis followed Crews from York Little Theatre when Crews wanted to launch her own theater.

DreamWrights had humble, creative beginnings: It started in a church basement, and found a few other temporary spaces before it eventually landed at its current home on Carlisle and West Philadelphia streets in York. The building was built in 1902 to house a farmer’s market, but for most of its history it was the Bernstein Sewing Factory.

Davis was involved in DreamWrights’ first capital campaign, more than 10 years ago, which focused primarily on getting the building’s theater in operation and restoring the city landmark.

The nonprofit’s goal? $1.5 million. It raised almost $1.7 million.

“Ann Noll, a very dear friend of mine, hired me part time to step in at that point,” Davis said. “It was trial by fire. We had to do everything.”

Noll, one of the founding members, passed away in 2006. An annual DreamWrights scholarship continues in her honor.

That first successful fundraising campaign changed many aspects of the nonprofit. It made DreamWrights accountable as a business, Davis said.

Leaders had to make sure the books were balanced, all the policies and procedures were followed. DreamWrights was growing up, a tall step up from holding plays in a church basement.

“We were busy doing what we were doing before (2005) – not so aware of the community,” Davis said. “Now it’s a more outward, community-focused approach.”

The growth continued, its upward trajectory was promising until leadership noticed a slight dip in play attendance and camp attendance. It was 2013.

“What can we do?” Davis asked.

“We are about people”

When you walk into the DreamWrights building you are hit with old-building smell, the feel of it. The hardwood floors echo underfoot. Its infrastructure is reminiscent of its 100-year history. It’s full of character, but it needs serious upgrades.

It’s beautiful, spacious, but it’s not using that space as efficiently as it can, Davis said.

Right now 70 percent of the space is being used for storage. “We are about people,” Davis said.

The nonprofit looked at its relevancy, its marketing and its services. It recently ventured into more digital areas, such as online ticketing and better use of social media: Facebook, Instagram.

What about future programming? People like musicals, and the theater would like to produce more of them, Davis said.

The nonprofit is also changing up the topics for camps and classes.

And a second capital campaign launched this year.

Giving “all the time”

The transformation is forcing DreamWrights to look at its core values. It’s a constant process and people have a tendency to stay in the zone. But the nonprofit needs to look ahead, Davis said.

“That’s a big mind shift for people. There are some real learning curves,” she said. “Our style is very hands on and personal.”

But change has to happen to sustain growth, Davis said.

And just like Davis’ roots into theater, volunteers will continue to be the lifeblood of the organization, from the board members to the person running concessions at intermission.

“When you work for a nonprofit and with volunteers, there is a sense of gratitude,” Davis said. “People are giving of themselves all the time. There’s this huge bank of individuals and different talents. We are pretty good at pulling those talents out of people. It’s this whole kind of helping one another.”

A snapshot of the $2.5 million capital campaign:

  • Construction during first 6 months of 2017
  • Physical space changes: Reducing inventory
  • Creating a second black-box studio
  • Creating a second-floor multipurpose room
  • Replacing the elevator for public access
  • Electrical work
  • Replacing four of seven HVAC units

A note from the managing editor:

Time for some disclosure: I volunteer at DreamWrights, basically helping out the same way Ann Davis started. My son loves theater and our family got involved about three years ago. You will likely find me helping out in the costumes department, chatting happily with the costume crew and fiddling around with my favorite hobby: sewing.

— Cathy Hirko, managing editor