Hippo Manchester
November 24, 2005

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Theater: Robert Dionne, The man behind the Majestic 

By Robert Greene    rgreene@hippopress.com

Rob Dionne’s had the theater bug since his days at West High School. He studied flute and conducting at University of Maine at Orono. Returning to the stage as a pit musician, he couldn’t resist the call of the spotlight. He climbed out of the pit, onto the stage — and eventually ended up in an office. Now he’s executive director at the Majestic Theatre in Manchester.

When did you get wrapped up in the Majestic Theatre?

I actually started at the Majestic. That was back in ’90 — our first season was in 1991. We started off with just, you know, one-show, one-night type thing. A bunch of us from high school getting together ... one summer. And it, just over the years, grew..... And now we have a full season and a repertory company....We’re looking ahead to a couple years from now, after some planning and capital campaigning, to moving the Majestic into a permanent space.

You rent now?

Yes. The space we are in now was always intended to be temporary. So we are looking into now ... creating a venue of our own. We’d also use the space for rentals to other groups and sort of a community center for anyone interested in music and theater. We have an open lease, and we’re not being pushed out of there. But also we both [the theater and the landlord] ... realize that it’s a temporary space but we’ve been there for 10 years. ... We’re definitely going to stay in Manchester, but once we raise a certain amount of capital we’ll start to seriously look at where we want to go.

What form is the fundraising going to take?

The first year is going to be shows. We’re going to start off doing what we do best. We’re meeting as a board in the next couple of months to decide how we want to conduct a capital campaign. ... Majestic is a nonprofit. ... I look it as a business. It’s a nonprofit but you’ve got to make the ends meet and be responsible financially.

But so much of the money raised in the shows goes to pay for the shows. It seems like it would take a really long time to fill the coffers.

There’s not a lot of extra in there. That’s why the capital fund needs to be its own thing. We’ll need to put some money aside from each show. We’re not talking about skimping and reducing the quality of our shows, of course. We’ll need to run special events.

What’s it cost to put on a show? Do the royalties kill you?

It costs us about $8,000 to put on a show. The fee for the royalties alone is $3,000 to $5,000. It’s funny, but the royalties for musicals, whether it’s a known or an unknown, are about the same. ... you’re spending the same money on an unknown as you would on My Fair Lady, but you know you are not going to break even on the unknown. Or you may break even, but that’s about it. .... And another funny thing is that the royalties for plays are much less than the royalties for musicals. It’s only a couple hundred dollars. So you are paying less, but more people come to mucicals.

There are a lot of theaters and companies in this area but I keep seeing advertisements for the same shows. Everyone does Grease, everyone does Annie .... Am I wrong?

The thing is with, say, the classic musicals is that you are almost guaranteed a full house. As much as I’d love to put in all unknowns — we [would] end up losing money at the end of the year. People around here are more apt to go to the well-knowns. And I think, while the market for the unknowns is growing and people are more willing to do that, you still have to keep the basic well-known plays in place to keep the bills paid.

Can this area support so much theater?

I am a huge supporter of every company out there and I think it is great that there are so many. But I also think it hinders us a little bit, because we are all vying for the same actors, the same patrons and all that. ... But like I said, I think a lot of people are doing a good job reinventing the wheel a little bit. Two of the companies at Merrimack [Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Mass.] just merged into one. I think ... people are going to find out that they can be much stronger as a co-op than standing alone.

What do you have in the hopper for the 2006 season?

One thing we’re doing, it’s a great show and we’re the first theater in New England to get it, is Hot Tuna. We’ll show that in May. We have Forever Plaid, which is a murder mystery. In the summer we will have West Side Story, with a full orchestra. I’m going to be conducting that one. We also have Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap. And then in the fall we have Light Up the Sky, Fiddler on the Roof, as well as a musical version of Narnia.