Known for decades simply as the Wagon Wheel Theatre, the Warsaw venue now has a new name, new logo and a change in leadership.
“Our idea for the rebrand really goes hand-in-hand with what we’ve done at the theater over the past three years. We’re saying a new name, a new look and a new vision,” said Will Dawson, who became the executive director for Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts effective Saturday.
In January 2012, the Center became a non-profit.
“Essentially, it was just the theater operation and the concert series that we were taking over,” Dawson said.
Wagon Wheel Board of Directors President John Hand said, “When we started out as a non-profit, we wanted to actually see what can we do to develop a partnership with the community. And that has expanded from January 2012 to now, less than three years, into quite an undertaking.”
He said the big thing is Dawson serving as Wagon Wheel’s executive director. “Prior to that, it was Bruce Shaffner as part-time because he runs his hotel,” Hand said. “Will has a lot on his shoulders. The board has been very aggressive in undertaking many things.”
Hand said those things include the Wagon Wheel professional theater with eight performances a year, directed by Scott Michaels; Wagon Wheel Junior, four performances, directed by Michaels; Symphony of the Lakes, eight performances, conducted by Tom Stirling; Center Street Community Theatre, with two to four performances a year; the Wagon Wheel Art Gallery; Wagon Wheel Art Museum; the Wagon Wheel Youth Art Appreciation Program that buses students in from a five-county area for the annual Christmas show; and the Wagon Wheel School/Training program.
Dawson said the art gallery will showcase local artists. Hand said they have an advisory group working with the Wagon Wheel.
In the school/training, Hand said they have dance classes at the theater after children get out of school, and at the Baker Youth Club, taught by Michaels. Wagon Wheel is scheduling violin classes for students who want to go beyond the classroom, taught by Stirling. The Tykes Class is for children 6 to 8 years old who want to dance and act. The Art Award Competition is for all grades in the Warsaw School Corp., while the Destination Imagination plays are for children to write and perform a play in a nationwide competition.
“That will start next school year. It’s a big undertaking, which is why we couldn’t do it this school year. It takes a bit of planning,” Hand said of DI.
“We also have the concerts that come in,” he added. “Will has a major job scheduling all this.”
“Yes, it’s gotten busy with just the master calendar,” Dawson agreed.
“That’s the reason we need to expand. We don’t have the space for it,” Hand said, looking back over all the programs the Center now offers.
“It’s rehearsal space. It’s symphony space – we want a home for the Symphony of the Lakes,” Dawson said.
When the Center Street Community Theatre put on its first show in early October, “You Can’t Take It With You,” Hand said they had to do a lot of the work in a church. During the summer season, actors rehearse on stage, in the lobby and in the back area.
“It used to be they would perform the summer season and then close the doors. They would have the occasional concert. There were more concerts during that time, but now it’s a 24/7 operation,” Dawson said.
“That’s the reason we have to expand, if we’re going to do all these things for the community,” Hand said.
As the theater continues to expand, Hand said they also have a new mission: “to serve the greater community by providing premier arts and cultural experiences that inspire and empower creativity, learning and achievement for generations to come.”
Rachel Mondragon was hired in June as the new marketing director. Dawson also hired an assistant who will take over the bookkeeping in-house, which Hand said will save the Wagon Wheel time and money.
“As far as responsibilities go, the past three years have really been a learning experience for me under Bruce,” Dawson said. “He was allowing me to assume that responsibility over the last three years. Now the bulk of the responsibility is actually officially on my shoulders. But we have a fantastic board of directors who are there and will continue to make sure the theater thrives.”
Hand also praised Shaffner and all he’s done for the Wagon Wheel and community over the years.
“Over the years, there’s been, ever since the beginning, about five owners. Bruce has been one of them for a long time now. Somewhere along 1995, everyone except Bruce … wanted to sell that property. It was a theater losing money, they couldn’t sell it. So what happened was, the other four were voting and wanted to tear it down. The property was worth a lot of money so it wouldn’t take much to bulldoze it down. They were honestly discussing that. And Bruce said, ‘No way.’ Bruce bought the other four out,” Hand recalled.
Shaffner kept the Wagon Wheel running until turning it over as a non-profit organization.
“I can truthfully say that without Bruce, we wouldn’t be here and be doing the things we’re doing today,” Hand said. “It’s something we want to be sure is here for generations to come.”
Dawson said the theater business is not a money-making business and Shaffner would subsidize the theater with money from the hotel.
“So becoming a non-profit for us was an avenue we knew would keep the theater going for generations to come,” Dawson said. He later added, “There’s some exciting things to come that I think the community will be really excited about and will be able to get behind once the details come out.”
(Story By The Times Union)