Rock Valley College Starlight Theatre begins its 51st season Wednesday night with the musical “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.” The production is the company’s first under a new director in more than three decades.
Christopher Brady was named director of the Rock Valley College theater program in December -- including overseeing Starlight Theatre, which has been presenting musicals in community productions every summer for half a century. Brady replaced Mike Webb, who retired after 32 years at the helm.
Brady himself served as associate producer and stage manager under Webb from 2003 to 2013. He was involved with Starlight before that, performing in Starlight productions out of high school and while a student at Rock Valley College and Rockford University. With all that, accepting the top spot at Starlight would seem like a no-brainer. Not so, said Brady.
“When they offered it to me, I wasn’t exactly sure I was going to take it,” Brady said. “It’s a big job. I asked RVC if I could have a night or two so I could talk it over with my wife and children to see what was best for our family.”
Brady’s apprehension grew out of his previous experience at Starlight. He knew what the job entails.
“Starting from, at the latest, March,” he said, "you’re putting in almost 60 hours a week. And then, once you actually get into it in April, it’s more like 90."
Plus, at the time, he was involved in the college’s Studio Theatre as well. Brady says that was a big factor in his leaving in 2013. He remembers thinking about his situation during his last year as Webb’s assistant.
“I have a family that I absolutely adore," he said. "I never see them in the summer. And then I never got to see them often when school started. That was terrible. You know, the idea of that is terrible.”
Brady went on to teach theater in the Creative and Performing Arts Program at Rockford’s West Middle School. That gave him the time with his family he craved. He also found a way to satisfy some of his artistic cravings by founding the local theater company (usual) Suspects.
Still, Brady says, in the end, he and his family decided the Starlight post was worth it. This time around, Brady says, he has more flexibility to have his family near him. And they get to do art.
“We get to explore four shows a year and bring these kinds of stories -- these really beautiful stories -- to our community and really try and bring some value into people’s lives,” he said.
Brady says he hopes to use some of the ideas he developed over his career, most recently with (usual) Suspects, along with the experience he gained with the troupe.
“We basically, between the seven of us in the ‘Suspects,’ currently operate all the facets of our theater company,” Brady said, “from direction to acting to marketing, and that has proved to be extraordinary. So I hope bring those talents over here [to Starlight].”
At the same time, in the midst of the state’s continuing budget crisis, host institution Rock Valley College has asked for a zero-based budget, matching revenue with expenses.
“That obviously sounds way easier than it is,” he laughs. “But we just need to be creative in our storytelling, to keep costs low, but still have a great production. And then after that of course we need to keep bringing in people, so we still have to make productions that are meaningful to people.”
Brady believes that theater, including popular musicals, can be more than just entertainment when done well.
”Theater’s role is to make people think, to make them question, to make them live a little bit,” he said.
And in live theater, Brady said, with people on stage as well as in the audience, if you can establish a connection between the two and have audience members internalize that connection with the actors and story; it makes for a powerful and compelling experience.
He has his own thoughts on how to achieve that. But putting his own artistic stamp on Starlight isn’t going to happen this year -- at least not completely. Theatrical seasons often are planned and prepared for years in advance. Brady got a few months, with a season already picked out by his predecessor.
“We need to see what works for the shows right now,” Brady said. “I’ve never done four shows at the same time. I mean, I stage-managed them, but I never been responsible for producing them, directing them, and that kind of stuff. So we need to see how that goes first.”
Brady credits an experienced team with helping him get up to speed. He says he asked more from them, and they’ve given – in time and expertise. And that’s helped keep him going.
“The expectations for this position are a bit immense,” he said, "but because of the staff around me currently, I’m not insane and things are working out. And the shows are going to be fantastic."
Brady says the end of the season, when the dust settles, will be the time to take a breath and do a post-mortem on what worked and what didn’t. Then, almost immediately, it’s on to figuring out how to put his ideas for Starlight into practice for the next season, and ones after that.
The Starlight production of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” runs June 7-10 and repeats in July. The other shows in the 2017 season are “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “Sister Act,” and “Godspell.”