Bringing top-notch performing arts to rural Michigan communitiesQ&A with Kathleen Vertin: Nonprofit Journal Project

Kathleen Vertin is founder and director of the Riverbank Theatre in Marine City. Her organization, which is dedicated to providing high-quality affordable performing arts productions to the local community, also oversees the nearby Snug Theatre and will soon open its third location, the Boardwalk Theatre in St. Clair.

How would you describe the mission of your theater?

Primarily, it was to bring professional style theater to a rural area at an affordable rate, so that we could be a catalyst for economic impact and tourism. Then we wanted to have an educational element as well with the academy. We found that there was a void in K-8 music theater education. So we thought if we can get those kids hooked when they're young, enjoying it and discovering their talents and skills, by the time they hit middle school and high school there are some really good programs in the schools out here they'll be ready for them. It will help develop an affinity for the arts. And, quite frankly, we're creating our bench so we can invite them back to the stage. Now that we've been doing this for ten years, we do have quite a few kids who are in our main stage productions and they're in college now and performing with us. So it's great to see that.

How did the theater get started?

My husband and I had [a company called] Visioneering that we sold in 2007. We retired and I said, "I think we should open a little theater in the Marine City area." So we started with our little 98-seat Snug Theatre. We just drove up and down the riverfront through these towns looking for the spot. And we found this walkable little downtown storefront in Marine City that was available. We began running the theater in 2013. It was small, 98 seats, but it was selling out. Then we saw a bank building down the street for sale. So we thought, "Let's do a second one." We put a 180-seat theater there and thought, "We'll do small plays at the Snug and musicals down at Riverbank. There'll always be something on stage, so we don't ever have to go dark, which will drive more economic impact." And it worked. There were 14 new storefronts built in town in the two years after we opened, and the restaurants were saying, "We're doing better business than before." So we kept it going for those years. We had our full-time staff, Aaron and Brittany Smith, who both had performing arts degrees. Aaron started the Riverbank Performing Arts Academy, and Brittany was our artistic director. We were going to aspire to what you see at the Fox Theatre [in Detroit] on a very small intimate scale. And in 2019, right before COVID, Detroit Metro Times named us the "Best Place for Live Local Theatre" in Metro Detroit.  

What can you tell me about your educational programming curriculum?

We try to do it all. In the past, it's mostly been singing and acting. We have had some tech elements. There aren't a lot of kids who want to do the behind-the-scenes stage-making tech, but when they do, we really want to get them trained because that's always an asset to the theater. We've done some set-building. Each year we do a show that's called Youth for Youth. Kids that have been through our program and auditioned to be in the production are in every element of the program. We assist to some extent to train, but the costuming, tech, set-build, even the putting the playbill together and marketing of the production is done by participants. We get them involved in every element of that production, because we want them to understand that theater is more than what happens on the stage.

You've already talked about your two currently operating theaters, what can you tell me about the new one, the Boardwalk Theatre?

The new venue is six miles upriver from the [others]. The two existing ones are in Marine City. This one will be in St. Clair, and it's a 12,000-square-foot 370-seat venue. It's got a fly system [a mechanical rigging system that is used to lift scenery via hoists]. The stage is larger. We will have it equipped with more high-tech projection, so we can really up our product. That's the goal, to continue along this path of high quality affordable theater in a rural area. We want to drive economic impact. And we're finding that we're running out of seats [at the Riverbank Theatre], especially for the large musicals. "Sound of Music" was performed 37 times, and we closed with a full house. So when you're doing a musical of that nature, we think we'll be able to fill those 370 seats. That said, for the lesser known productions, we're going to have to put a lot of marketing dollars into it in order to cast our net wider. And were doing that. So that's the goal: bring more people out, introduce them to the county. I don't think most people realize it's about 35 minutes from Metro Detroit.

What will programming look like at the Boardwalk Theatre?

The programming is going to be very similar. The difference is we used to do our smaller plays at the Snug and our larger musicals at Riverbank. We're turning the Snug primarily into the academy. Because we always have to work the academy around the production schedule. Now we can run academy programs year-round, not just summer camps and occasional off-season programming. We can do private lessons. We're even expanding that to offer seniors an opportunity for readers theater [a dramatic presentation where participant's read from a script]. Riverbank can take the smaller plays and smaller musicals and then the large productions  "Sound of Music", "West Side Story"  shows like that [will happen at the Boardwalk]. This year we're opening August 4th with "Hello Dolly" which was the first musical we ever did. It's our 10 year anniversary. And yours truly is playing Hello Dolly. We've got a lot of the original cast back. This will be our 75th production.

You mentioned the other theaters really had an impact on Marine City's downtown. How do you think the new Boardwalk Theatre will fit into St. Clair's downtown?

Honestly, we already tested it. This came out of COVID really. We raised the money in 2020. We just said, "We're under the Shuttered Venues Act, and we're closed. Let's look at our mission, [which] was to drive economic impact." So we took our theater to Palmer Park in St. Clair. The county put a stage there, and we did outdoor productions. We did Wednesday through Sundays. After our show closed, they put a band in the plaza until 11 o'clock at night. And people just flocked during COVID to the area. Some of the restaurants did better business that summer than previous summers. So that made our largest donor say to us: "This needs to be right downtown to have the impact you want." And that's where the idea came to put this right in the downtown of St. Clair. Because we already saw the impact just from having outdoor theater on a minimal level. So that drove a million dollar donation from Franklin and Nancy Moore. Franklin actually passed, but his wife said this is something that he would absolutely want to see happen here. They gave the first million dollars, and then we set about to collect the next three million. And we did it with about 220 donations, largely from the community. That's pretty incredible. It shows that they were really behind this and they really wanted this to happen.

Do you have any idea when the Boardwalk Theatre will be ready to open?

Yes. It's almost complete now. We've probably got another month at the most. Then we are in rehearsal in July for "Hello Dolly," and we open on August 4 and we're going to run it for the month of August.

Are there any other upcoming plans or productions that you want our readers to know about?

On June 24, we're opening one of the funniest shows we have ever produced called "The Great American Trailer Park Musical." It's a little bit naughty. It's definitely for an adult audience. But It's not what I would call filthy. It's really funny. That's going to run June 24 through the end of July at Riverbank Theatre in Marine City, so that'll be on stage while we're getting ready to do Hello Dolly [at the Boardwalk Theatre].

Oh, and we have our summer youth camp coming up. Our academy is now run by Stephanie Graham. She's credentialed. She's been doing youth education and theater, and she's running three consecutive weeks of camp in August. They're one-week camps. It's amazing. These kids meet for a half a day and they meet Monday through Friday and put on a show on Saturday. It's just amazing that they can do this. But they do a fabulous production, so those are coming up as well.

Anything else you want our readers to know?

Visit us. We've got great restaurants in the town. Each city has its own hotel. We've got the Inn on Water Street in Marine City and the St. Clair Inn in St. Clair. Come out [to see some theater], have dinner, stay the night, and take a little mini vacation.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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