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Updated: October 21, 2019 Community Excellence & Nonprofit Awards 2019

At 10 years old, Playhouse Theatre Group celebrates many milestones

Photo | HBJ File (From left to right) West Hartford's Playhouse on Park was co-founded by Sean Harris, Tracy Flater and Darlene Zoller. The nonprofit theater company has expanded and rebranded its education program, which teaches kids (top photo) about theater. The two photos above show various plays in action.
Photo | Contributed
Photo | Meredith Longo
Photo | Curt Henderson


Playhouse Theatre Group Inc.

Tracy Flater, co-founder and executive director of Playhouse Theatre Group Inc., said there were many times over the last 10 years when she and her two co-founders would say: “This is just too hard.”

But Flater said she and Artistic Directors Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller kept on going.

“No matter how hard the struggle, we stood firm on our mission to produce professional theater at affordable pricing that would challenge, educate and/or entertain audiences,” Flater said, of Playhouse Theatre Group Inc., the parent company of Playhouse on Park, stop/time dance theatre and Playhouse Theatre Academy in West Hartford.

Harris said one key quality the trio shared was they understood each other’s strengths.

“We trust each other, and we’ve never given up on each other,” Harris said. “It took us awhile to figure out our identity and now we’re unstoppable.”

Flater said that Playhouse, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, had many challenges to overcome, in part because it’s a nonprofit organization, and an arts nonprofit on top of that. Plus, their first year was in 2009, which was a difficult economic time in general.

“We had a lot of hurdles,” Flater said. “Certainly, getting to 10 years was a huge milestone.”

They’ve been very busy this past year.

In June, they celebrated their 10th anniversary with their first gala, raising over $100,000.

“We were nervous at attempting to run our own gala for years,” Flater said, adding they were worried about competing with other galas and also concerned they weren’t well-known enough. “Now we know we can.”

This year, they expanded and re-branded their education program as Playhouse Theatre Academy and moved the program to The 224 EcoSpace in Hartford.

“Education can generate earned income and with limited space at the theatre, we were unable to grow,” Flater said. “We always have to be creative in the ways we raise money.”

They also won numerous awards. In 2018, Playhouse won three CT Critic Circle Awards — a significant statewide honor — for “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and in 2019 the theater won a CT Critic Circle Award for “The Revolutionists.” This year, Playhouse was awarded the “Seal of Approval” from the CT League of Women in Theatre.

“We are only the third theater to receive this honor,” Flater said, adding the other two theaters are Hartford Stage and Yale Repertory.

They have also established an endowment and are beginning strategic-planning this fall to develop a long-term sustainability plan.

“We have fought, we have cried, yet whenever one of us felt ready to give up, another would motivate us to keep going,” Flater said. “While the fighting between us has been minimal — it has happened and our relationship is stronger for it. We have truly fought like hell for the theater to survive.”

Tough start

Playhouse’s early days weren’t easy.

When first starting out, they thought they had a secure business plan. They were promised a rent abatement for the first six months, and they secured a $25,000 grant to market the first season.

The day they moved in, they discovered more than 60 lighting elements were gone, forcing them to rent $3,000 in lighting equipment for each production, an unexpected budget strain, Flater said.

Then, the company that committed to the $25,000 took back the offer. Because they started spending that money, they were in debt and had no money for marketing.

“We had a mountain to climb, and it seemed that mountain kept growing any time we made progress,” Flater said.

They tried to spread the word for free. They invested time in community organizations, spoke in front of anyone they could about the theater, and sent performers out to entertain people in public spaces.

In their first season, they did not have any subscribers. In their second season, they had 33. Now, going into their 11th season, they have more than 800.

Revenue has also grown. In their first season they earned $258,283. This past season revenue was $1.2 million, about half earned through either subscriptions, individual tickets, or education tuition, while the rest was raised through either individual donations, sponsorships, advertising, grants or fundraising events.

Now, the future is about sustainability and growing their newly launched $17,500 endowment.

“It’s been the hardest work you can possibly imagine, but when people are moved by what is on the stage, it’s all worth it,” Flater said.

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October 22, 2019

Playhouse on Park is a treasure for West Hartford and Connecticut. No doubt. They have managed the incredibly challenging juggling act of mixing a wide array of entertainment options for a variety of audiences. It's possible to laugh, cry, be challenged, feel affirmed, and learn something new at POP. The summer 2019 production of The Scottsboro Boys was one of the most interesting, engaging, creative, and heart-wrenchingly painful experiences I've ever had - and worth every moment. POP's deep dive into what it means to experience a performance inspires. Long may they last.

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