The Comeback Kids

CityStage Celebrates 10 Years of Theater in Downtown Springfield
Tina D’Agostino and Cindy Anzalotti

Tina D’Agostino, left, and Cindy Anzalotti of CityStage are celebrating 10 years of presenting shows at the theater, and gearing up for new challenges ahead.

It’s been 10 years since CityStage entered the Western Mass. landscape, and the theater’s management has coined a new, informal catch phrase: “let them eat cake.”

At every performance this season, that is, as well as at a kickoff celebration this month and an end-of-season gala, all part of a seven-month-long anniversary celebration.

CityStage, a private, non-profit theater company based in downtown Springfield, presents a wide variety of performances ranging from full-blown musical productions to stand-up comedians to community events. It stages those performances at either Springfield’s Symphony Hall, which CityStage manages, or at one of its two theaters on Columbus Street, the 487-seat Blake Theatre and the 70-seat Winifred Arms Theatre.

CityStage was conceived in 1997 during Mayor Michael Albano’s administration; a request for proposals was issued to identify an entertainment venue that could fill both the space and the void left by the departure of StageWest, the company that once housed the theater space at Columbus Center in downtown Springfield, where CityStage now operates.

Submitted under the name Springfield Performing Arts Development Corp. by the Springfield Business Development Corp., the CityStage model was accepted, and a board of directors made up of 18 local business and community leaders was formed to serve as a volunteer overseeing body, which still remains today.

Unlike StageWest, CityStage does not produce any of the shows it presents, but instead books touring shows and performers from across the country. Dozens of national acts have poured into Springfield as a result of its creation in 1997, including Jackson Browne, Bill Cosby, David Copperfield, and George Carlin, to name a few.

That is one reason, in addition to the many hurdles this entertainment group has cleared in the last 10 years, why CityStage management is feeling festive. There are still challenges to be met, but this year’s schedule of performances marks not only a milestone, but a new plateau, from which greater success can be achieved.

The Dark (and Damp) Years

Cynthia Anzalotti, CityStage’s president since 2003, has been with the theater since its inception. She began as its director of Development and box office manager, and later became general manager, leading a trend among CityStage staff, she says, of wearing many hats.

Anzalotti said the early years were filled with promise and possibility, but those qualities were not always evident from the outside — and sometimes, not so evident on the inside, either.

“I came on in October, we opened in December, and it was a nightmare,” she said succinctly before reciting a laundry list of problems that awaited the small arts organization from the start. Among them were rotting food left in refrigerators, and gas and electric bills that had gone unpaid, leaving bad debt.

“We needed to get loans and pay huge cash deposits to get the utilities turned back on,” she said, “and that meant asking for help when people had no idea who we were.”

Not long after that, a sewage pipe broke, filling areas of the theater with more than a foot of waste, and later, a winter freeze caused a water main to burst, flooding the lobby.

Changing demographics in the city and a lack of understanding of what, exactly, CityStage was also posed problems. Anzalotti said many people believed, and still do, that CityStage was a permutation of StageWest, which it isn’t. Conversely, she said the majority of StageWest supporters didn’t return to bolster the new endeavor.

Early on, an outside firm was hired to book shows at the new venue, but the choices weren’t pulling in crowds. The cards noticeably stacked against the theater, Anzalotti made the decision to take matters into her own hands, choosing shows internally.

That first year was a struggle, and by year two, CityStage had a cumulative debt of $531,500. The new line-up of shows was creating a buzz, however, and in its third year, the organization turned its first small profit. It has remained debt-free since its sixth year in business.

Mixing and Matching

This year, the 10th anniversary season includes a wide range of offerings for audiences of all age groups. Beginning in October, CityStage and Symphony Hall will present nine musicals, three comedians, a team of illusionists, a tribute band (Rusty Evans and Ring of Fire, a homage to Johnny Cash) and a holiday performance — Sister’s Christmas Catechism, a spin-off of Sister’s Late Night Catechism, which has appeared to rave reviews in the past.

Other productions are making return trips to Springfield, such as Capitol Steps, a political satire, and some are brand-new, including Shout!, a coming-of-age tale set in the 1960s. The mix is intentional, said Anzalotti.

“We try to do a little bit of everything,” she said, noting that diversity is one of the best ways to combat a wide array of challenges that routinely face theaters, especially those with sizes and markets similar to CityStage.

Anzalotti said a keen understanding of the market she serves is integral to presenting successful shows. She and her staff of seven strive to present acts that reflect the cultural diversity of the region, and that are affordable. The $35 ticket price hasn’t budged in recent years, and is not expected to any time soon.

But understanding which shows, and price points, best serve the community at large also helps the theater overcome another barrier, created by a near-fortress of performance venues in Massachusetts and Connecticut that surround CityStage.

“Boston, the Bushnell (in Hartford), and the casinos all block us out,” she said. “Every show we consider, we have to first see if it’s even coming this way, and if so, where else it might be showing. We don’t want to show the same shows as nearby theaters, and a promoter isn’t going to book a performance here just because it will be in the area, either. It takes time to build a reputation.”

She and members of her staff view performances of nearly every show they book, to judge if the subject matter will attract Pioneer Valley crowds, but also to discern whether it is viable for CityStage’s or Symphony Hall’s infrastructure.

“People say, why don’t you show Wicked? Why not Miss Saigon? And we have to explain that we’re just not built for Broadway shows. A show has to fit the market, but it also has to be feasible for our spaces.”

This has led to some trial and error; Anzalotti was sure The Will Rogers Follies would be a hit, but it didn’t fare as well as she’d hoped. Lord of the Dance with Irish step dancer Michael Flatley, however, was expected to have steady but unremarkable returns, and it was a smash.

A lot comes down to a gut feeling, but one that is strengthened by a few constants Anzalotti has noticed in the marketplace.

“Women are the decision makers,” she offered as an example, “and as such, women’s plays like Shout! are a huge hit.”

But so are others, including classics that are seeing a resurgence thanks to Hollywood adaptations (Chicago and Hairspray are both on this year’s roster) and surprises like the Pink Floyd Experience, which just two years ago sold out and welcomed a crowd ranging in age from 12 to 65.

“We never really know what’s going to be a big success, or what might be a surprise bomb,” she said, noting that the biggest caution she heeds is to avoid choosing shows based on her own record collection.

“It can be hard not to want to pick only the things we like,” she said, “but we have to remain mindful that different people enjoy different things. I’m not an Evita person myself, but audiences generally love the show and we think it will do well here.

“That’s not to say I wouldn’t love to have John Fogerty, though.”

The Supporting Cast

Tina D’Agostino, CityStage’s director of marketing, agreed that adding some bigger names to the company’s playbills would help in moving it further as the next 10 years unfold.

More important, however, is continuously branding CityStage in an effort to keep it in the minds of residents across the region as a viable, invigorating entertainment option.

“We try to get out there to be ‘top of mind,’” said D’Agostino. “Our base is women, but we don’t try to cater to one specific demographic through marketing. We do a lot of outreach with many different groups — we try to be at just about every event we’re invited to.”

That outreach includes connecting with the area’s colleges to promote the theater’s reasonable student ticket prices — $15 per ticket — and community collaborations surrounding specific shows. During a showing of The Vagina Monologues, for instance, performers talked with battered women at the Springfield YWCA, and, similarly, Mark Lundholm, star of the original play Addicted, visited inmates at the Ludlow Correctional Facility during his stay.

And when Fosse, a tribute to the late choreography great was presented, dancers taught a master class at the Artist Dance Studio in East Longmeadow.

“We’re lucky to have these unique collaborations,” said D’Agostino. “There’s always something different happening, and it allows us to offer some very deep experiences that are tied directly to theater.”

A Slice of the Life

That strength, both on and off stage, is increasing CityStage’s visibility as the group continues to make behind-the-scenes improvements to its theater space, rented from the Springfield Parking Authority.

To date, CityStage has completed about $300,000 in repairs to the property, ranging from coats of paint to the creation of a new lounge for community and corporate events, and VIP receptions for subscribers. It funds such renovations from its operating budget, about $2 million; from its annual campaign, which is expected to receive a facelift this year; and from corporate sponsorships, individual donations, and season subscriptions, which are up from last year.

“It’s hard to get grant funding for capital improvements in a rented building,” said Anzalotti. “We’d like to build a stronger donor fund and annual plan, so we can continue making improvements, and those improvements are made with our constituents in mind.”

The fundraising efforts she’d like to see more of in coming years are also planned with CityStage patrons in mind. Many are event-based, such as shopping and casino nights held at the theater, to maintain a celebration of the theater year in and year out, not just on this, its 10-year anniversary.

“We tend to spend money on things we think will generate more revenue in the future,” said Anzalotti, “and events bring more people to the theater. Not to mention we believe in fun as part of our plan.”

That’s Entertainment

For a theater company that began in the dark and suffered flood and famine, stepping out as well as stepping up seems appropriate, but moreover, it’s a philosophy that may be lending some added strength to the repertoire; Anzalotti said CityStage shows are selling out more than ever before.

“We’ve gone from selling 50 seats to 100, to 200, 300, and now we’re at a point of saturation,” she said. “People shouldn’t assume there will always be tickets available for our shows anymore, and there is no better feeling than announcing that a show is sold out.”

The rest, she says, is icing on the cake.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]