This is Don Alsedek’s second retirement. The Open Stage of Harrisburg founder and producing artistic director originally came up with the idea of starting a professional theatre company in Harrisburg, Pa., in 1983 as a way to step away from his teaching career.
He and his wife, Anne Alsedek, had been producing one-off shows in their small community (population: 48,500), and when they decided to start Open Stage, they did so carefully, taking two years to write a business plan, put together a board, and get everything in line so the company would have a chance of survival. Before they launched their first season in 1986, the Alsedeks started the Open Stage Studio/School, in 1985, and the school still functions today, with Anne as the educational director.
“This was my five-year plan to get out of teaching, and it took 15 years,” says Don, who eventually left the classroom in 1998. “When I’d fill out papers, I’d write ‘retired,’ and I thought, who was I kidding? So I wrote down ‘arts administrator.’”
Now Don and Anne can officially check off “retired,” as the two will step down from their posts at the company and school on June 30, at the end of the theatre’s 2016-17 season. Current associate artistic director Stuart Landon will step into the producing artistic director role, while David M. Glasgow will take over as education director.
“I’m going to be really scarce next year, because I think having a founder who was the artistic director there and a new person doing the artistic side—it’s like having Dad in the room,” says Don. “I want to give [Stuart] as much space as I can and as much help as I can. I told him two phone calls a month, and the offer is there if I want to direct, maybe in the second year—we’ll see. In year one, I want to step back for sure.”
American Theatre spoke with the Alsedeks about their legacy over the company’s 31 seasons and what’s next for them.
How did this leadership transition come about?
Don Alsedek: It is a question that we’ve been talking about for a number of years with the board: What is the succession plan? We had a strategic planning session last February, and we really hadn’t addressed it; it was one of those, “Oh yeah, one of these days I’ll step down.” And we realized in moving forward with the theatre that it’s a good time at this point for us to step aside and have Stuart [Landon] take the helm. He’s been with us for a number of years now and it always was the thought that Stuart would be the obvious person to step into the producing artistic director seat.
Why is this the time?
Don: We have a 30/30 campaign which is taking us into the future. The idea was 30 years of service to the community and now 30 more years. It’s a major fundraising repurposing to take us into the future. We both have our health. There’s just some other things we want to do besides doing theatre all the time.
Anne Alsedek: I will teach the adult classes and keep that going until I can’t do that anymore or would prefer to leave, and then I’ll just slip away. It’s really an amicable and well-planned parting.
Don: Open Stage was so much of a family thing. I also had a sister who worked there for a number of years until she retired, and Stuart’s family is also interested in theatre, and I think we’ll see some family members stepping up, which I think is healthy in an organization of this size. Open Stage has always been trying to reach that half-million-dollar mark, and because of location and possibly because the type of theatre we do is not always popular box office, we keep falling short of that. You need that family that’s going to pitch in and keep things going for you.
Prior to making this announcement, we had one final piece that we wanted, which was to help establish an African-American theatre incentive in Harrisburg. We have a lot of companies around, and they’re all white bread. We have been doing August Wilson; we’ve done six or seven of his pieces. We ensure that we have an African-American piece—the year before last we did A Raisin in the Sun. We’ve built a nice cadre of African-American actors, and the unfortunate thing is they have one show a year to look forward to.
We have a woman in the area who has worked with us and is really passionate about having theatre by and for African-Americans, and so we began an incentive, and with the aid of Open Stage, that’s going to be a project over the never few years. Open Stage will be the umbrella for Sankofa (the new African-American theatre company) until it gets its 501(c)(3) and we have a couple of great actors who have worked with us. We are ready to move forward with that and they’re going to begin an education arm over the summer and do a coproduction with Open Stage in February. That’ll be their first production.
Did you think when you founded the theatre in 1983 that you would still be producing today?
Anne: Oh my Lord! I think Don did—I really do. You can’t deny him. He’s not a pushy or an over-the-top kind of person, but he is very persistent. I remember when he and Marianne Fischer, who founded the theatre with us, started the theatre, you couldn’t deny them. They would simply go out and ask for money and wouldn’t get it, and I would say, “Are you going to quit?” And they said no. Neither one of them would give up. We chose to stay in Harrisburg because we saw a need. It’s a small community, there are not a lot of deep pockets. We’ve been grateful and happy to rely on the generosity of the community.
Don: We really had no idea what it took to run a theatre. We brought Marianne on as managing director; we didn’t lead with the artistic side of it. And when we built our board, we realized the board couldn’t be a bunch of actors; we had to go to the community. We really learned as we went along with this and had a lot of good mentors on the board over the years. Over time we really learned how to make the organization work, and we’ve been able to keep it in the black all this time and we’re still here. Oh boy, you’ll laugh when you know what our first budget was—our first budget was $25,000.
Anne: That was a lot of money then!
Don: We were getting $8 a ticket, and we had a 50-seat theatre that had been an architect’s office. We just went on from there and kept going. Anne and I both taught at that time, so I was doing this at night, and there was a point in the mid-to-late-’90s where we realized by bringing more people on board, we were able to grow and that’s when the growth really started for us.
What has been your artistic mission over the years?
Don: We’ve always tried to do the type of theatre that is more challenging. A number of years ago, we did Angels in America, parts one and two.
Anne: It is still our biggest seller.
Don: Well, that and the August Wilson plays. We started with Jitney. We had a president at the time, George Williams, who had grown up in the Pittsburgh area with August, and he said Jitney is probably the most accessible of the plays for a mixed audience. That’s when the guys that were working with me said, “Can we do more of this?” This was even new to them. So we did Piano Lesson the next year; we brought an actor in from New Jersey to play Boy Willie—now he comes in once a year to do a piece. This year we did Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home From the War, and to date I’ve been directing the pieces and I’m not African-American. Next year with Sankofa, we’re going to have an African-American director. They’re going to do Akeelah and the Bee; that’s a piece that Stuart feels is going to have some family appeal and we do have a studio school and they’re going to pull students from the area.
Anne: We do The Diary of Anne Frank every year; I guess it’s been 18 years that we’ve been doing the show for school matinees. We have a Holocaust survivor who’s been with us all the time and she speaks afterward. She was at Bergen-Belsen with Anne Frank, and there aren’t too many of those people left. She lives in the area. We had a couple of other survivors who are now gone, but we still have Hilda, and she now pretty much confines herself to our production. We’re moving to a bigger space next year and hopefully will involve more kids.
Can you talk about why training and education was so important to starting the theatre?
Anne: My brother was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. From that we got the idea that George Balanchine started a school—you always start by training people you want to work with. We started with adult classes in 1985 and that really gave us a financial start. We have been offering classes continuously since 1985. We start at the age of 8 because before that it’s really playfulness. There are not a ton of students—I know if we were in a larger market I think we’d have a pretty large school—but we do have people who do appreciate the process and have learned quite a bit from studying.
Don: We were also instrumental in starting a school for the arts in the area. There’d been an arts magnet school that was lagging that had been funded, but then it was sort of losing momentum in the school district and with a local intermediate unit, we were able to establish Capital Area School for the Arts (a full-day arts charter school).
As a couple, how did you balance your personal lives with running a theatre?
Anne: We don’t try at all. It just is. Sometimes, I’ll go, “How am I doing in rehearsals?” And he’ll go, “Let’s talk about baseball.” That’s it. It’s really not a problem. Because when he’s directing, he’s in charge.
Don: I grew up in a restaurant family and there again, the whole family worked together and it was all working for one end.
Anne: We never really thought about it. We just do it.
Do you have any plans for after you leave?
Anne: No. [Laughs]
Don: I have season tickets for the Baltimore Orioles and we have tickets for spring training, and that’s about as far ahead as I’ve thought. We want to see Pacific Overtures in New York [at Classic Stage Company], and Anne has a particular pieces she wants to see. So we’ll still go to theatre, but it’s going to be nice being in the audience. We still appreciate it. We won’t cast it off completely because it’s been so much of our life, but it’s going to be different. I guess our big plan to kick back and not be on call 24/7.