“The theater is one of the few places left in the bright and noisy world where we sit in the quiet dark together, to be awake.” – Sarah Ruhl
These words embody the missions of local theaters and playhouses across the country and Gainesville is fortunate enough to have two of these types of destinations: the Gainesville Community Playhouse and the Hippodrome Theatre, more affectionately termed “the Hipp” by locals. Both theaters are different in location, style and offerings, but what they have in common is local dedication and passion for the arts.
The Gainesville Community Playhouse is one of the oldest community theaters in the state of Florida. Almost all of its work is done by volunteer staff with two part-time paid staff members filling in the rest. The non-profit theater is run by a Board of Directors which sets policy and protocol and an executive committee which is comprised of a managing director and volunteer staff member. The Playhouse has been producing plays and musicals since 1927.
They are currently housed in the Vam York Theater, a 210-seat house with facilities to stage the most demanding musicals and plays. The Playhouse is truly a community theatre and encourages volunteerism at all levels, said David Twombley, a GCP managing director who also works in IT support at UF.
“I have been involved with GCP since 1995, and it’s truly been a labor of love,” Twombley said. “We have several hundred volunteers who work on membership, set design, and other jobs. We have several hundred volunteers who help us fulfill our mission to bring accessible, live theater to the community.”
Eighty percent of the GCP’s revenue are from ticket sales from the six shows that they offer per year. They welcome auditions from local community members at all experience levels.
The Hippodrome was founded in 1972 and seven years later moved into the historic Federal Building, located in the heart of downtown Gainesville. The Hipp is now designated as a State Theatre of Florida with the primary goal of providing the best season of theater for audiences throughout the state. The Hipp has become a major cultural resource to the community and the State of Florida, staging mainstage productions for more than 60,000 people annually.
The Hippodrome is funded by earned income from ticket sales, concessions and events, donations from corporate and individual donors, and grants.
“The Hippodrome is the artistic and cultural gem of downtown. As one of the top destinations in Alachua County, the Hippodrome attracts a significant audience from outside a 100-mile radius,” said Jessica Hurov, managing director at the Hippodrome. “The theatre is a well-noted popular tourist and cultural destination for the area, and during its 45-year history, it has served over 4.7 million theatre, cinema, and art enthusiasts.”
At the Hipp, ticket sales cover less than 45% of their operating expenses. However, the Hippodrome is committed to keeping ticket prices affordable—including popular discounted previews and $10 Tuesdays, discounts to veterans, teachers, seniors and students—and continuing to donate hundreds of free tickets to local non-profits for silent auctions and raffles.
Both the Hipp and GCP are also very committed to theater education for local students. For the GCP, education is offered as a result of volunteerism. Since so much of their work is performed by volunteers, both onstage and off, they welcome people of all experience levels to take their turn at volunteering, which then often serves as a form of education.
“When I began volunteering, I had never picked up a tool, but I learned to build a set by working with others,” Twombley said. “I learned from my experiences and was then able to mentor others. Gainesville is a unique town dedicated to supporting the arts mission. Our theater community is very giving. We could not exist if it were not for the generosity and support of time and funding.”
The Hipp provides quality arts education for students of all ages. Experienced teachers lead their camps and classes in a non-competitive, enriching environment through a spirit of inclusion, acceptance, and positivity. One prime example is the Hippodrome Improvisational Teen Theatre (HITT) program—an issues-based theatre program taught in local middle and high schools by Hippodrome Education staff. This program has worked with over 20 schools in Alachua County for over 30 years, positively impacting the lives of thousands of students around the topics of substance abuse, healthy choices, conflict resolution, self-esteem, confidence, collaboration and respect for differing opinions.
“Throughout its history, the Hippodrome has been steadfast in its commitment to inclusion, diversity and acceptance. Exploring shared humanity and tackling tough questions through the arts has been at the core of its mission, and it has never been more important than now,” Hurov said. “Support from our community is vital to our strength and continued operations. Our patrons, donors and partners are at the core of our organization, and we continually strive to create a place of inspiration and creativity when they walk through our doors.”
If all the world is a stage, Gainesville is fortunate to have two exceptional community theaters dedicated to serving its arts mission.
By Tracy Wright