Melissa Merli: CUTC priorities: Raise funds, build community ties

Melissa Merli: CUTC priorities: Raise funds, build community ties

The Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company won't have to look far when it needs graphic design skills.

Its new interim executive director, Ella van Wyk, has a two-year diploma in graphic design, plus experience in arts administration.

She will take over the management of CUTC on Friday, succeeding Amy Stoch.

Stoch, who has a doctorate in theater history and experience as a stage and film actress, resigned to explore career options, likely outside C-U.

Unlike Stoch, van Wyk has little theater experience. But she is finishing a master's degree in arts administration from the Savannah College of Art and Design.

She will continue work on her master's degree via the Internet.

Her advising professors don't mind. In fact, they applaud her new CUTC job because it's paid. It will count as the internship for her degree.

"It's rare to find a paid internship," she said.

At CUTC, she will work 20 hours a week. The theater company hopes eventually to have both an administrative director and an artistic director — Stoch has been handling duties that fall under both positions.

While in Savannah, van Wyk worked for six years with a literary society, doing fund-raising and marketing and writing grant applications.

"That's what we need," said Prue Runkle, a CUTC co-founder who introduced me to van Wyk over coffee last week. "We already have so many people who know theater in our group."

It's no secret that CUTC has struggled financially over recent years. I asked van Wyk how the community theater is doing.

"I don't know if I'm going to comment on it," she said. "We're doing all right."

Added Runkle: "We need to keep going ahead with fundraising for the new season."

The Illinois Arts Council will renew its annual grant, and van Wyk will apply for more grants, including from local organizations.

Runkle said CUTC also wants to be more inclusive, both on stage and backstage. One thing it plans to do in that regard is seek more volunteers and build a volunteer database, which it never had before. Runkle is co-chair of volunteer development and chair of special events.

The theater company also is revising its Ginny Awards -  think Academy Awards for CUTC folks  - ceremony, calling it a Red Carpet Affair. It will take place Jan. 25 at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign and include dinner, entertainment and the awards ceremony.

CUTC is doing something a little different this time around with the voting for the awards. People who attend the Red Carpet Affair will vote on the nominees that night. In previous years, the names of the nominees were posted at the CUTC website, and people cast votes online before the ceremony.

The company also plans to continue its Seven Corpse Dinner Murder Mystery performances — they were the brainstorm of Kathy Murphy, a CUTC co-founder who died in 2009.

CUTC will continue its Singing Valentines program — anyone can hire an ensemble from the company to go to a workplace, or anywhere, on Valentine's Day to sing a love song to someone.

For the holiday season, CUTC's Dickensian Carolers are available for hire for parties, or, again, anywhere, to sing traditional Christmas songs and madrigals.

And CUTC will continue its Broadway Beginners, starting Jan. 9, for kids in fifth through eighth grades. They will attend classes, learning all aspects of theater, then put on "Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr." in early February.

CUTC has produced its shows at the Parkland Theatre in recent years, after having formed in 1991 as the resident company at the Virginia Theatre.

The company moved to the smaller Parkland Theatre after it was unable to afford the rent and other expenses at the much larger Virginia.

Van Wyk recently toured the beautifully renovated, vintage theater.

"Everybody in the company loves it," van Wyk said of the Virginia. "There's a huge emotional attachment to it."

CUTC is building its relationship with the Virginia but for now wants to get through the 2014 season and on a sound financial base before it thinks about returning to the Virginia, she said.

"Parkland has been fantastic," van Wyk said, adding that it has the fly space necessary for CUTC to stage "Mary Poppins" there this summer.

Other 2014 season offerings: "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" revised, "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "Ain't Misbehavin,'" a revue of Fats Waller music. Save me a ticket for that!

Van Wyk moved to Urbana in August with her husband, Chris Kienke, who taught art at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is now an assistant professor and chairman of the Foundations Curriculum at the University of Illinois School of Art + Design.

Kienke and van Wyk have three children, ages 12, 7 and 5. The two met at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. He was teaching art there, and she was working on a bachelor's degree in English literature. They spent six years there.

Bolcom here

Since becoming an arts writer about 15 years ago, one name that has kept popping up as I write about orchestra and other concerts is that of William Bolcom, an American composer and pianist who has won a Pulitzer Prize, two Grammy Awards, a National Medal of Arts and other honors.

He was at the UI this past week as a George A. Miller Visiting Scholar, and on Wednesday, he took part in "Rethinking American Opera: A Lecture and Panel Discussion Featuring Composer William Bolcom" at the Spurlock Museum.

After the 90-minute event, a few folks commented they thought Bolcom was "full of himself." I rather enjoyed his talk and anecdotes about his work, including with film director Robert Altman on the opera "A Wedding," which was based on the Altman film, released in 1978.

And I learned some things I didn't know from Bolcom, who is 75 and taught for 35 years at the University of Michigan, retiring from teaching in 2008.

For example, he told us that contracts for actors in musical theater have many pages, and those for opera singers are just a few pages: simple and straightforward, like those written a few centuries ago. Those would become null and void "upon the death of the king," he said.

Bolcom is not a big fan of Broadway musical theater, saying the music in some cases is ancillary, relegated to the same level as lighting and costumes and that the singers are overamplified.

As for opera, he said it will have to move to smaller venues and universities to survive.

Unlike musical theater, opera is not profitable despite its steep ticket prices and must rely on patrons, grants, foundations and other sources of funding to survive, he said.

Recently, the UI School of Music renamed its Opera Program "Lyric Theatre @ Illinois." It will focus on comprehensive training for "singing actors" — acting in opera has been emphasized more in recent decades.

Bolcom said he has been doing lyric theater in his operas all along — and that the French during the Baroque period called opera lyric theater.

The composer showed clips from his operas, including "McTeague," in which soprano Catherine Malfitano and tenor Ben Heppner really act. In fact, they almost chew the scenery — Heppner actually wrecks it.

Lyric Opera of Chicago commissioned Bolcom to write "McTeague." It debuted there in 1992 and was last performed in 1996 at Indiana University. It will be revived in 2016 in a new opera hall in Linz, Austria, Bolcom said.

The Lyric also commissioned Bolcom to write his two other major operas, "A View From the Bridge" (with libretto by Weinstein and playwright Arthur Miller) and "A Wedding," with the libretto by Altman and Arnstein.

Bolcom said besides Giuseppe Verdi, he is the only composer to have been commissioned by one opera house to write three operas.

Bolcom said he was once asked to name six great American operas. His reply: "'Porgy and Bess' — six times."

It, of course, was written by George Gershwin, who Bolcom said was able to mix the high and the low in his music.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

Topics (3):Art, Music, People