ITHACA, N.Y.—On a usual performance night, the Kitchen Theatre Company’s 98 seats hug the main stage, typically with only four or five people on it at most.
But as small as the venue may be, those people are “having an experience together in a community that’s created that night only because no performance is the same,” as the newly returning producing artistic director Rachel Lampert describes. It’s the type of phenomenon that all local theaters hope will attract more people to performances as the industry continues its COVID-19 recovery.
Lampert is a familiar face in Ithaca’s theater community from her 20-year run as artistic director of the Kitchen Theatre Company from 1997 to 2017. After retiring, she found herself “called back to duty” during Spring 2023 when the theater had a mid-season restructuring to help get them through their post-COVID recovery.
“The theater had a trifecta of things all coming together in one big confluence of difficulty and challenges,” Lampert said.
A mixture of leadership changes, financial struggles during COVID and a slow return to theaters has created a livelihood issue for the Kitchen Theatre Company. Lampert, alongside Stephen C. Nunley, Lesley Greene and Karl Gregory, a Kitchen alum who has gone on to a successful acting career, returned to volunteer as part of the Task Force for a Sustainable Future.
The Task Force was formed with the mission of helping the theater get back on its feet by successfully bringing audiences back over the 2023-24 season. Lampert created the Task Force after being contacted by Gregory, announcing that they were planning on closing the theater because they were running out of money. With the task force members’ previous involvement with the theater, they decided to interrupt their lives and come back to nurse Kitchen place back to health.
Local community theater took a severe hit during COVID, as did all industries based around live performances. But local theater has seemingly scuffled to regain its footing more than others, leading to creative efforts to revitalize theaters.
“For the next several years, I think sustainability for all live performances happening in these kinds of small venues is going to be a real issue,” Lampert said. “People are going to have to figure out ways of finding not just the models used in the past, but new ones for bringing audiences in.”
Nunley, former managing director at the Kitchen Theatre Company, is ecstatic to see subscribers coming back to the theater that he knew from his early years.
“It feels like my building, so I didn’t want it just to be sitting there empty, or heaven forbid it would go up for sale,” Nunley said. “We’re very welcomed to be returning, as difficult as it is for us.”
After Lampert and Nunley were able to raise money for the theater successfully, the Task Force began meeting with interested board members to figure out how to move forward. Through the support of everybody who works at the theater pitching in where they can and the Ithaca community, the theater has been able to stay open despite the obstacles.
“We’re all there for the same reason,” Nunley said. “When I walk in that building, I sometimes still can’t believe that we actually got it to where it is today.”
The theater has implemented some changes for its current season. The primary shift is that performance times have moved to 7 p.m, giving the theater an opportunity to host more post-show events like stand-up karaoke, piano karaoke and film screenings.
“The idea is to reinstate activities that have gotten lost during the pandemic times of sharing the building with more groups, which we used to do a lot,” Lampert said. “Giving the opportunity for other people to use the theater is also a way of us sustaining and surviving.”
Continuing with the theater’s trend of collaboration, last spring, the Kitchen Theatre Company collaborated with the Hangar Theatre for the very first time for a two-week run of “What the Constitution Means to Me” — one example of the local theater community in Ithaca coming closer to support each other.
“We’ve been doing a lot more cross-promotion with each other, agreeing to publish and market each other’s work,” Lampert said. “There’s been a total understanding that everybody has to be helpful and cooperative with everybody else because we’re all in this together. In my curtain speech every night, I encourage people to go to all theaters, not just this theater.”
Emily Jackson, associate producing artistic director at the Kitchen Theatre Company, mainly focuses her efforts on producing and marketing. In addition to working closely with other theaters in town, Jackson is hoping to find more local community partnerships to create a more integrated experience for attendees.
“I’m also thinking about the ways patrons are engaged with us,” Jackson said. “Our mission is to produce plays, that’s our core thing, and all the programming around ties back into those plays. So I’m hoping to see that this sort of surrounding programming grows but is still directly tied to the work we’re doing.”
Most recently, the theater wrapped up its performance of “Monsters of the American Cinema,” which Lampert said performed quite well, helping the theater reach its single ticket goal and receiving more support from the community. Currently, the theater is putting on their performance of “tick, tick…BOOM!” with just three actors in the show.
Since starting at the theater in 2012 as an artistic intern and getting to see the theater grow ever since, Jackson feels that the theater’s programming hasn’t changed much from their original vision.
“The Kitchen has always done really well-made plays, once in a while a musical, with character-driven narratives,” Jackson said. “Through the lives and experiences of characters, that’s where the important conversations start. In the past couple of seasons, those conversations have been more at the forefront of the work with increasingly diversified programming.”
Despite the theater cutting down to five plays a season rather than seven, Jackson feels that people being welcomed back to the theater will still be familiar with the theater’s atmosphere and vision. However, the biggest challenge they must remember is the audiences themselves.
“Audiences have a huge choice of entertainment these days,” Jackson said. “People got out of the habit of coming to live events and being asked to share spaces with others. I think what’s happening this season is that people generally feel safer from a health standpoint and are able to re-experience what it means to be in a shared space and the excitement that brings.”