ShoeString Community Players, a St. Helens-based non-profit theater troupe, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary of having a permanent home, is now on the brink of losing it.
The ShoeBox Theater, located at 231 S. 1st Street in St. Helens, has been home to the ShoeString Players since September of last year, according to Shannon Vaerewyck, President of ShoeString Community Players. The home, which celebrated its grand opening in March of this year, provided permanent storage and rehearsal space for the theater group.
Before moving into their space last year, the ShoeString Players were homeless, moving from place to place to secure practice space. Sometimes that meant practicing in garages or driveways, or even in Vaerewyck’s store, Bertucci’s. The troupe was usually able to secure performance space, such as the Deer Island Manor or the Loo Wit Room at St. Helens High School. Sometimes, though, they would have to secure last-minute performance space, usually performing in Vaerewyck’s driveway.
The troupe has been part of St. Helens for a long time, having first formed in 1982. Vaerewyck was one of the charter members when the group was first founded, and she has been on the board of directors off and on since then. Over the years, the troupe has called many different places home.
First, they were in the old Episcopal Church on the corner of Plaza Square, where they stayed for many years before their landlord changed their requirements, and they had to move. Then they were established in the Pythian ballroom, on the upper floor of 2Cs Vendor Market. That building was then sold to different owners and the troupe had to move again. Since then, the troupe has been homeless, using storage units to store their props, but continuing to do productions and find rehearsal space wherever they can.
Vaerewyck, who had been on a leave of absence from the troupe last year, said the previous board did not anticipate the difficulty that their new space posed.
“We’re not architects, we’re not the building permitters or the building inspectors, or anything like that. So there’s a huge learning curve in a lot of that,” Vaerewyck said. “But we also felt, this board and the previous board, that we’ve been in a storage unit long enough that we either had to take this chance to try to be in a space and see if that was going to work.”
And there have been a number of difficulties with the space, which affect the cost.
The biggest difficulty has been the zoning of the space. When they moved in, the space was zoned retail. To be suitable for the actors and any potential audiences, the space needed to be zoned for assembly occupancy. The board has been meeting with the city ever since they moved in to change the zoning to assembly occupancy. Because that falls under “tenant improvement,” the expense for the facility falls on ShoeString.
There are a number of costs associated with the zoning change. The space had to be fitted with exit signs and exit doors at the back of the space. Another big expense would be installing a fire alarm system. Vaerewyck estimated that in order to stay in the space, the theater company would have to make close to $4,000 a month, which is nowhere near what they currently bring in.
ShoeString pays for their shows through sponsorships and ticket sales. While sponsors and sponsor amounts vary greatly, Vaerewyck estimated they have between 10 to 15 sponsors a year, of amounts that vary from $100 to $1,000. Each show also has ticket sales, which vary. Shows are paying for themselves, but the rent and utilities for the place have pushed them over the limit.
The city has granted the theater troupe a few extensions on their rent as they’ve been trying to get improvements done. Because of the busy fall season, the planning department gave the theater a shorter notice on their last extension. The theater company is now at an expiration of their temporary occupancy permit, which expires at the end of this month.
Another big problem with the space has been the design. There are poles all over the current place, making it necessary for the troupe to arrange seating around the poles, or set the stage in a certain direction.
In other words, all signs are pointing to the troupe leaving at the end of the month.
“We’re right now getting all of our paperwork in a row and notifying our landlord this week that we’re going to have to back out,” Vaerewyck said.
Their landlord will then make the final decision. He may be willing to negotiate with the troupe to stay longer, or may decide to accept their resignation.
Regardless of what happens, the troupe will continue on as an organization, with or without a home, Vaerewyck said.
Vaerewyck said she believes the theater troupe has had a positive impact in the community. She herself has seen what she describes as quiet, soft-spoken children bloom and grow when they have performed in a few plays.
Having a permanent space has been beneficial to the troupe itself, Vaerewyck said, mostly because they were able to perform more shows. ShoeString Players did four shows last year, in addition to hosting multiple workshops.
“We did a dinner theater in the summer, and I haven’t done a dinner theater in 10 years,” Vaerewyck said.
As of now, ShoeString Players does not have a plan for moving into a different permanent space. The troupe will focus on moving their props and other items into storage space, and rehearsing for their upcoming shows, Vaerewyck said.
“Right now we just have to step back and reevaluate and do some shows to put some more money in the same account and look for another home,” Vaerewyck said.