“Will you still need me when I’m 64?”
A 24-year-old Paul McCartney may have asked that question whimsically on Sgt. Pepper, but it’s a legitimate query for Long Island’s Lantern Theatre Company. The community troupe that was founded when Truman was president continues to persevere more than a half-century later. But executive producer Anne Bass admits the struggle tilts further uphill each year.
“It’s very tough. We get very little PR for our organization, grants have started to dry up.” Bass noted that other local community theaters have been struggling, too. “Look at Township Theatre Guild. They used to get 250 people; now they get about 50. The audience is aging.”
Nevertheless, Lantern carries on. In November, it opened its new season with a production of Nicky Silver’s dark comedy, The Lyons. Howie Lewengrub staged the Drama Desk-nominated tale of a dysfunctional family losing its patriarch at Lantern’s latest home, Congregation B’nai Israel in North Freeport. “Howie directed the first play I was in for Lantern, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, back in 2005. I had been doing shows out in Brooklyn for a [now defunct] group called The Paper Mill Players, but when I came here, I knew I found a home.”
As executive producer for the past five years, Bass supervises all aspects of the three productions Lantern performs annually—each show having a budget of about $6,000. “It’s wonderful if we can break even,” Bass chuckled. Recent plays have included Other Desert Cities, Broadway Bound, Steel Magnolias, Don’t Dress for Dinner and the easy-to-stage Love, Loss and What I Wore, which the company has brought to local libraries and community centers.
Lantern’s ongoing challenge—which echoes that of so many small playhouses—is to do interesting work that won’t alienate its older subscriber base. Other companies stay afloat by going the education route, offering acting classes to pre-teens and putting the tykes in Annie or High School Musical. Bass, a retired teacher, hasn’t ruled that out but she’d rather that Lantern, which began by doing Chekhov, O’Casey and Tennessee Williams, keep to its mission of finding diverse plays and staying “fresh and evolving.”
“We have some people on Lantern’s board who have been dedicated to this theater for more than 60 years,” Bass said. “They’re still using their talents and energies for the group, which speaks to the commitment we have here, even as we’re trying to broaden our horizons and try new things.” She noted that the company is in negotiations with a “very well-known local director” to stage a world premiere in the spring. “We’re still standing,” she proclaimed. “Reeling a little bit, but still standing.”
David Lefkowitz hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio, co-publishes Performing Arts Insider, and founded TotalTheater.com. His award-winning solo comedy, The Miracle of Long Johns (miracleoflongjohns.com), has played engagements in Colorado and New York City.