The Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle St. has been home to Big Dawg Productions for 9 years. But the building is up for sale, and Big Dawg needs to find a new space. The first fundraiser toward this effort is Thursday, May 24 at 7:00 at Ironclad Brewery.
No tickets are required for this fundraiser, called 90s Night, and entry is free. There will be various opportunities to support Big Dawg at Ironclad, including a 50/50 raffle and silent auction, and plenty of dancing and 90s-themed photography. Donations are also accepted online, and Artistic Director Steve Vernon and Board VP Shawn Sproatt say they'll take support anytime and anywhere, including during a curtain speech at the theater.
Big Dawg's goal is to raise enough funds to move by the end of the year before the start of the 2019 season.
Listen to Steve and Shawn above, and see our extended conversation below.
Gina: Tell me about this fundraiser you have organized.
Shawn: It will be at Ironclad Brewery. It is a 90s Night theme - because every good party needs a theme. I chose the nineties because Big Dawg was founded in 1995. So, I thought we could party like it's 1995-or any year from that decade. So, people are encouraged to dress up in costume, wear your best 90s outfits. If you have the best 90s outfit, then you will win two free tickets to a Big Dawg show. There will be a 50/50 raffle, plenty of opportunities to make donations, and a silent auction.
Gina: And how much is it to get in?
Shawn: It's absolutely free. I'm so glad you asked because that's very important to note - it is free. One hundred percent.
We will be on the ground floor. So, you'll walk in. You'll see the bar. Stop, get yourself a drink if you want, and then just keep walking forward, and you'll see the party. We'll be there. We'll have a volunteer ready to accept donations if you choose to donate or participate in the 50/50 raffle. We will have a little photo station with 90s photo props to take pictures with. Hopefully, people will maybe drink a little bit and do some fun dancing. Maybe we'll get "The Electric Slide" or the "Macarena" going.
Gina: "The Electric Slide" and the "Macarena"? Okay, I totally remember this. Or, I don't really. But I think I will. If the music came on, I would totally be able to. How does the "Macarena" go?
Steve: You put your left foot in, left foot out.
Gina: No, actually that's "The Hokey Pokey."
Steve: You know the guy who wrote that song? God, his funeral took days.
Gina: I've heard that theater companies can't run off ticket sales.
Steve: You know, there is some truth to it oddly enough. [laughter] I think most people who come to see plays are blissfully unaware of the expenses that accrue trying to put on one show - let alone a season of shows, let alone a season of shows in a specific venue. It is very expensive. There are people that have to be paid in their rights, that have to be paid in royalties. The person who definitely needs to be paid is the person who holds your lease for the building that you're in. The rent for a property downtown and utilities and things like that - it adds up. So, it would be nice if we could subsist merely off of ticket sales, but it's just not a reality.
Most of our tickets sales are used to do more programming. When we sell tickets to a show, that money goes towards the next show. It's kind of a hand-to-mouth existence. So, like most nonprofits, theater companies rely on other sources of revenue to keep afloat.
Gina: So, Big Dawg's been going for 23 years. It's as popular as that ever as ever, wouldn't you say? It looks like a lot of people come to the theater and a lot of people see the shows.
Steve: Well, we have a very passionate audience. It's gotten to the point where people stop me on the street or come up to me in restaurants and tell me how much they enjoy our shows and how much they love coming to see shows at our space. People have told me how important Big Dawg is to them. That's nice to hear when you realize there are people in the audience that are not theater people - are not actors or directors themselves - and they feel a sense of kinship with us. They enjoy our programming, and they enjoy the quality of our shows and that's very lovely to find out when you're not asking for it.
Gina: Big Dawg does fill a niche in the theater community of Wilmington. What niche is that?
Steve: I think one of the reasons that Big Dawg has lasted as long as it has is because we are - well, especially now - one of the few companies that concentrate solely on what's known as "straight theater." We don't do musical theater - or if we do, it's like one show every six, seven years. I think the variety of shows that we put on the appeal to a variety of different people. As far as our place in the theater community now with so many companies that have folded in the last 5 to 10 years, we are one of the few remaining "straight theater" companies - one that has a season of programming.
Of course, TheaterNow exists, and they have their season, but Red Barn is no longer with us. The Thalian Association doesn't do a mini season of straight plays. Opera House doesn't do straight plays anymore. Willis Richardson, who only did one or two shows a year, I understand, is not really producing anything right now. Along with that, part of our mission has evolved to take some of the voices that used to have outlets - like Willis Richardson and Brawdeville and other groups. Not just individuals, but voices finding a home with us where they can explore their craft. That's an important thing that our existence has kind of evolved into. I think it's a lot of opportunity for Big Dawg to kind of further that - if we can find a space that will house us for the next x amount of years.
Speaking of which, our building, which we've been in for eight or nine years now, is for sale. Obviously, we're in no position to purchase the building ourselves. Because of that, we don't know who's going to buy it or when they might buy it. If someone buys it, whether they'll even want a theater company in their space. So, we are actively looking for a new home just to make sure that we don't have to take a year off or two years off. We'd like to be able to move from where we are now into a new space. So, right now with this fundraiser - which Shawn's putting together - a lot of what we'll be relying on those funds to go to as, or what we'll be channeling those funds towards, is searching for a new home. A place where we can hang our hat and keep programming going.
Gina: You know, I hear about a lot of fundraisers that nonprofits do in this town. Theater companies are always raising money because ticket sales are not enough to support a theater company. But Big Dawg is not known for its fundraising events. What's going on?
Shawn: In the time that I've been involved with Big Dawg, I think there was just one years ago. A golf tournament that went on, and I heard it was successful. So, at board meetings we talk about possibly fundraising. But, I think the problem is, because we put on so much programming and we have rentals that come in, a lot of time hasn't been allowed to be focused on fundraising. I actually went to Ironclad about a year ago for a friend's wedding, and I thought that it would be a great space. Especially the fact that they're letting us use this space for free because it’s a free event, I thought, Well, we have to do something to try and bring in money. So, the timing just kind of was right with this. I was able to focus on that, and hopefully it will be the first of more fundraising opportunity opportunities that we can have.
Steve: We've done a kind of stealth fundraising which is not a smart way to raise funds. We appeal to our audience members during curtain speeches when it's a captive audience, make an appeal to them about making donations - explaining specifically what money would be going towards it at different times. We've done some online fundraisers that have worked really nicely, but the scope of the amount of money that we need to raise to find a new home, and to keep going, is a significantly larger amount than what we've asked for in the past. So, that's a big reason why we're kind of expanding the fundraising concepts beyond what we've done in the past.
Shawn: If, for any reason, you are unable to make the fundraiser this Thursday night, but you would still like to support Big Dawg and make a contribution, there are a few ways you can do that. You can go to the Big Dawg website. It's bigdawgproductions.org. On our homepage, if you scroll down towards the bottom right corner, there will be a "Donate" button. You can donate through PayPal. If you don't want to pay with a credit card, you can always mail a check to the theater. The theater's address is 613 Castle Street. If you don't want to provide a check and you have cash, just email Big Dawg. I'll meet you somewhere, and I'll take your money.
Steve: Or bring a large sum of money to one of our shows. And, if you want to interrupt the curtain speech and hand it to whoever's doing the curtain speech for the audience so you can impress your date, that's an excellent idea.
Shawn: Because we are a not-for-profit, 501(c)(3), we will be more than happy to give a receipt saying that you donated money to us. Here's our tax ID number. You can write it off. We will have plenty of those to dole out throughout the evening for the fundraiser as well.