One of the country’s oldest continuously operating community theaters has a new leader. Charles Phaneuf took over as Raleigh Little Theatre’s executive director last month.
The theater, which began in 1936, offers community and entertainment programs year-round. Phaneuf comes to the theater from the Washington, D.C. area, where he worked as managing director of Joe’s Movement Emporium, a multidisciplinary community performing arts center. Phaneuf also worked as managing director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.
We spoke with Phaneuf about his Triangle roots and about his vision for the future of Raleigh Little Theatre.
Transcript of Video Interview
Raleigh Public Record: Hello. I’m Jennifer Wig with the Raleigh Public Record. Welcome to this edition of Oak City Voices. Today I’m standing in the amphitheater of Raleigh Little Theatre here in Raleigh. I’m joined by the new executive director, Charles Phaneuf, and he’s going to tell us today a little bit about his new job.
Record: So Charles, tell me, why did you apply for this job?
Charles Phaneuf: Well, Jennifer, I actually grew up in Raleigh and I went to high school here in North Carolina and college, and I grew up coming to this theater. I’ve been in D.C. for most of the last 10 years and when I saw this opportunity I was really excited because this theater means a lot to me. And the opportunity to come back to the area when there’s such exciting things happening here, I couldn’t say no to that.
Record: So I understand, this is the — let me see if I get this right — this is the longest, excuse me, oldest continuously operating community theater in the country, is that right?
CP: That’s right. We’ve been around since 1936. The theater actually celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2011 and yes, so we’re actually at a really exciting time right now because we’re looking at starting a strategic plan. We’re actually going to be unveiling a strategic planning process in the next few months and really looking at how we can continue to grow and serve this community and what we can really accomplish over the next five years.
Record: Well that sort of leads me to my next question, which is what are your goals for this theater?
CP: Right. Well … actually we’re standing right now in the amphitheater. The amphitheater is a big part of our history. It was built at the same time as the theater and in the last couple of years we haven’t been doing as much in terms of performing in this space so that’s part of it. Really, we’re looking to just continue to grow our audience and reach lots of people so that’s a lot of our focus, is really going to be reaching out to people in the community to make sure they know what we’re doing. The fact that we’re here and we have wonderful productions that are offered throughout the year — actually 11 plays this year; it’s a mixture of straight plays, musicals, programs for kids — and really just making sure that people know we’re here and making sure they see us as a resource.
It’s also about the education programs; we serve about 1,000 young people a year with summer camps, after school classes, track-out camps. We serve adults as well with acting classes. So much of what we do is also about the volunteer experience.
And that’s part of what’s really exciting about Raleigh Little Theatre is that we’re an accessible place for both people to come and see shows, because we provide a high-quality theater experience at a reasonable ticket price. Tickets are generally $20 if not cheaper. And at the same time, if you’re somebody that’s always wanted to have the opportunity to act in a play or to see how, to learn how things work backstage, whether it’s building costumes, running lights, running props, all those kinds of things, you have those opportunities to do those things at Raleigh Little Theatre and we really just want to make sure that everybody, that more people know about us and know about the opportunity they have to be part of that.
Record: Now as I said, it’s one of the oldest community theaters in the country, so no pressure there, right? Are you nervous at all about taking such an important role?
CP: No. You know, there’s certainly a lot of work to do and it’s a big job, but it’s also really exciting. The wonderful thing about this theater, because I think it means so much to so many people and it’s such an important part of Raleigh’s history, is that it’s just such a really amazing organization. Everyone from the board to the staff to the volunteers to the donors. There’s so many people who care deeply about this theater. I’ve been actually really surprised. This is the end of my second week on the job and just literally every day I get five phone calls at least from people that are like, “What can I do to help you? Let’s go out to lunch. I’d really like tell you about this idea and this thing I can do to help the theater out.” And so it’s been amazing. It’s been this incredible outpouring of support so far, and I’ve just been here two weeks. So, it certainly is a big job, but this is such an wonderful theater and I think people really understand how important it is to the community.
Record: What are some of the big challenges you face in reaching your goals?
CP: I think one of the things that — Raleigh has to a certain extent changed, and the whole Triangle has. And I think that we need to understand how the community continues to change and evolve, you know, what it is people want from us in the community and also how do we communicate with them. It’s about understanding that we have audiences that have been with us for a long time and what it is that they want to see. And then we’ve got a lot of people who are new to this community. And the demographics of the community are changing. So how do we really respect history and the people that have been fans and audience members for a really long time while also understanding what’s new and different in this community. Really, as Raleigh’s oldest community theater, the kind of theater that started this amazing theater movement in Raleigh, what is our role in all that and how do we both serve the organization ourselves but also support the rest of the theater community and talk about the impact of the theater in the Triangle. You know there’s 32 theater companies in the Triangle and I don’t think a lot people realize how much excellent theater this is in this community. And I see a task really for all of us in the theater community is making sure people are aware of that and continuing to build that audience and our relationship with them.
Record: And, final question, what’s your favorite part of the job so far? Two whole weeks now.
CP: It’s a number of things. I talked about how much I really enjoy getting to meet a lot of people so far and how exciting it’s been that so many people are reaching out and saying hello. So I’ll pick something different, which is that, actually, really, I had a meeting with somebody yesterday in the Rose Garden and it was beautiful … and I realized that we just have this amazing space all around us. When it’s such beautiful weather, I’m so excited to be back here, in the depths of winter and yet we have amazing, beautiful weather. And we’ve got this rose garden right outside. And every now and then I can move a business meeting outside and we can get a lot of work done but we get to be in beautiful environment, just surrounded by all this natural beauty in the heart of downtown Raleigh.
Record: Thanks so much for joining us for this edition of Oak City Voices.