a special peek behind the curtain...
Last Thursday, May 11th, our Lead Producer, Tome Wilson, had the opportunity to be interviewed by The Burlington County Times to discuss the ongoing legal battle between the Mount Holly Land Use Board and the renovation company working on our warehouse location. While pieces of the interview were published in the May 17th edition of the BCT (available here), we would like to share the full, unedited interview that goes into more depth on what's happening with The Mill Race Theatrical Company in Mount Holly.
How long has the company occupied the building?
The Mill Race Theatrical Company has been renovating a section of the industrial complex at 30 Church Street since 2014. During the renovation, we volunteered our time to beautify the location and its surrounding. For example, we started by cleaning the broken glass, trash, and weeds from the parking lot. We then painted the interior, improved the lighting to cut down on crime, and volunteered our design skills to help at Land Use Board presentations. We also volunteered our time cleaning and organizing the other storage areas within the complex. Our goal was to help transform a dilapidated industrial wasteland into a thriving extension of Mill Race Village.
When were productions shut down?
The Mill Race Theatrical Company voluntarily ceased all activity at the 30 Church Street location before an official notice was needed. We completely support the redevelopment of the property and we didn’t want our actions to jeopardize any progress being made between the 30 Church Street Development Group and the Mount Holly Land Use Board.
Was anything scheduled to be performed that won't be because of this? Or any classes?
Yes. As our Lead Producer and as a member of our Executive Board, I can report that the board recently approved a 1/3/5 year plan for the organization. This document contains our roadmap for what we plan to accomplish up to the year 2022.
The goal of our The Mill Race Theatrical Company is to be the rising tide that lifts the community. We build our talent pool by offering free performing arts classes. Those classes translate into real world careers. This gives Mount Holly residents free access to education in fields such as technology, public speaking, lighting/sound production, carpentry, electronics, accounting, marketing, and graphic design.
When most people think “theater,” they think of bad high school plays. What they don’t see is the blue collar talent that goes into a production. For every actor on stage, there are at least five - ten people behind the scenes who created the production.
We teach these skills, give our volunteers a safe place to practice under the guidance of a mentor, help our students network with other professionals, and prepare them for jobs in the real world. This is why we have the blessing of national organizations like The United Way, The Nation of Makers, and The National Endowment for the Arts, not to mention local groups like the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State.
Outside the theater, our ensemble volunteers a lot of time and resources towards the seasonal productions we all love in Mount Holly.
For example, did you know that “Moana the Witch,” the 18’ tall mascot of The Mount Holly Witches Ball, was created by The Mill Race Theatrical Company? Every year, we build Moana and revise her display so she can stand as a landmark for the Mill Race Village. And in 2016, we started a new show called “The Holiday Thingy” as a kick-off to the Mount Holly House Tour. This multi-act cabaret full of holiday songs and stories invites people of all faiths to celebrate the winter season in Mount Holly. We also created the Santa float that arrives in Mill Race Village every year for the tree lighting parade. This ensures that Santa has the time to meet all our neighborhood children during his busy season. And to dress up the town a little more during the season, we rebuilt all of the giant holiday wreaths that adorn the lamp posts.
The most troubling outlook places our entire non-profit at risk.
We rely on ticket sales, grants, and donations to stay alive. Without a home to produce our shows, that eliminates our ticket sales. Without a home to run our classes, that slashes the number of people willing to donate. And without the capability to run classes or productions, we are ineligible to receive grants.
Even if we can receive grants, most are 1:1, meaning we must match every grant dollar. So, if we apply for a grant that will award us $1,000, we must also supply $1,000 of our own money to be eligible for the grant. And, without ticket sales, finding that matching $1,000 becomes difficult, if not impossible.
Even if we do come back online, most grant organizations work 10—18 months in advance. This means our non-profit needs to submit budgets and production details almost a year ahead of time. And if we fail to provide the services promised in the grant application, then that means the grant—and any future grants—will be denied. In the non-profit world, this is like having a bankruptcy mark on your credit report.
There’s also the problem of timing. Most grants have very small windows of opportunity. If we hypothetically come back online in July, but all the grants were due in June, that means we have to wait until next year plus 10—18 months before we can receive funding for our next class or production.
What do you think the town is losing by having this go on?
When I met our group’s founder, Tom Greenfield, I was impressed by his devotion to Mount Holly.
I remember driving over an hour to visit Tom’s Haunted Mansion-esque production of “Miss Lilly’s Seance Parlor” when it was located in Mill Race Village. Standing in line, I met others who had driven 2—3 hours, and some came in from across the country just to experience what Tom and his crew had built. A year later, Tom was planting the roots of The Mill Race Theatrical Company and working on the 501c3 non-profit application. Shortly after, I knew that a 70 mile commute was a small sacrifice, because I wanted to be a part of this mission. Now, I pack up my car and commute into Mount Holly, because I know I'm making a difference. My wife and I were also looking for homes in the area so I would be closer to my work.
If the goal of a township is to grow through education, service, and business, then I think our non-profit makes that possible. In the few short years since joining, I’ve seen a dirty warehouse turned into a dream factory. Inside, real people are inspired to learn and to give back to their community.
We’ve paid into the community and based on the support I’m seeing online and in the town, it's a fact that Mount Holly loves having us here. This love has placed us in reach of new town-wide grants provided by Etsy, The National Endowment for the Arts, and The Nation of Makers. We are aggressively pursuing these opportunities, because they provide hundreds of thousands of dollars towards revitalizing areas like 30 Church Street as long as we meet three criteria:
- We are an established non-profit in good standing.
- We use the arts as a means of education to uplift our town.
- We have the support of our local government.
We currently meet these criteria, but without a headquarters in town to continue our work, we’re in trouble of losing these opportunities. And, with budgets for the arts being cut, now is the most vital time to make these strides before the opportunities go away.
We are doing our best to recover, but this might be a blow we can’t recover from.
In the meantime, let’s give our support to both 30 Church Street Development Group and The Land Use Board. They’re pouring through a lot of details and they both want what’s best for the town.
If you are interested in supporting our theater, we are going to be hosting a fundraiser and collecting donations to keep the theater alive.
Our last non-profit grant for 2017 requires us to produce our Fall show, Theater of Fear, to remain in good standing. However, our investment of $10,000 in Lady Dunsworth's Dilemma saw zero return. We were forced to cancel the show before tickets could be sold. This means, we invested the money to produce a play, but had no opportunity to recoup the costs of building the sets and creating the costumes. Even if we are allowed to open our doors again by Autumn, this blow left us with no money to build Theater of Fear.
All we can say is, spread the word, share this news with your friends, and keep your spirits high.
To all our fans and students, we love you. We can't thank you enough for your support over these past few weeks. With your help, we'll be back with a bang.
Lead Producer, Mill Race Theatrical Company