If you’re looking for signs of optimism, you can find them on midtown’s Carlen Street. That’s where the state’s oldest community theater troupe is making room for fresh leadership.
“I’ve already been up there cleaning out the office, where we’ve got accounting books and things going back for a long time. We just haven’t had the manpower, haven’t had anybody there to sort of streamline things, and I think having someone there day to day is going to make a huge difference,” said Jason McKenzie, the new executive director of the Joe Jefferson Players.
The 39-year-old already has an established background with the company. Most recently cast as the one of the stars of “The Producers,” McKenzie has been in roughly 10 JJP plays and served on their board of directors since 2012.
His day job was as a client relationship manager for software firm Televox, a change from a previous career in banking. This latest change of employers was facilitated by some hard work on the board’s part.
“We worked on a business plan for the last 18 months or so and changed our bylaws for the first time since 1988. I actually went out and presented the business plan to several folks and was able to garner some funding that way, some initial funding, and that kind of got this ball rolling,” McKenzie said.
He explained previous JJP directors were as much involved with the artistic decisions as business ones. His function is the latter, with daily office duties and variations when nightly performances require his attention.
Play selection will still be a board responsibility with most of it delegated to a committee. Likewise, production teams will be in charge of the individual shows.
“Yeah, the board sort of established a three-, six- and 12-month plan. Most of it involves getting out and visiting other community theaters and folks who run their businesses like this. We’re members of the Chamber of Commerce and I’ve been personally active with the chamber,” McKenzie said.
He sees this move as a “game changer” for JJP’s community presence and their ability to approach area businesses for support. The troupe celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.
“During the planning phase and the business plan development we talked to community theaters all over the country and got ideas, so this wasn’t a shot-in-the-dark, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants kind of thing. We did our research to determine if this would work and this is how most successful theaters in cities besides Mobile, larger than Mobile, are run,” McKenzie said.
One of the prime consultants was Pensacola Little Theater. Oak Ridge Playhouse in Knoxville, Tennessee, provided an attractive template.
The new executive director wants to marry marketplace perspectives with technology to open possibilities.
“We’re looking to use more data as far as what kind of patrons are coming to the shows. We have ways of doing that with our ticketing system, ways to kind of tell and kind of target our marketing more. You know, run it more like a business,” McKenzie said.
One early idea is something more attention grabbing.
“I’m going to be kind of in charge of coming up with a signature event for the year, something that could kind of become JJP’s ‘Little Black Dress’ or JJP’s Azalea Trail Run or whatever. Something that’s ours,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie told the board they would have to be careful about the calendar timing, that Mobile’s noted cultural logjam would be a big factor. JJP used to have an annual December event named “Christmas on Carlen” that featured a free show but the new director wants to “go bigger.”
“Part of the plan is that we get more involved in the community to give back to, and part of that is going to be with schools. We’re looking for ways to connect with some schools and bring some arts to them, whether we go out and teach a class about playwriting or teach a class about Shakespeare or whatever,” McKenzie said.
They will bring school kids into JJP for a daytime performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” on March 23.
Before the June 2 premiere of “Rock of Ages” — a first in Mobile — McKenzie is thinking about 1980s-themed nights at a downtown location to drum up interest. Dust off the spandex and shoulder pads.
Holding the fate of the area’s oldest theatrical unit in your hands?
“It’s still kind of up in the air as to how this is going to work and I’m going to have a lot to prove I guess. No pressure,” McKenzie laughed.