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Clayton Opera House, TIPAF director rediscovers his artistic stride


CLAYTON — Joseph M. Gleason has found his stride again as theater manager.

You could see it in the swift way he moved from his third floor office to the first floor stage of the Clayton Opera House on the morning of March 8 as he and a crew prepared for the first show of the spring season. Questions were answered and directions given. Within the hour, students in grades 3 to 5 from three schools were to burst through the doors for Garry Krinsky’s “Toying With Science” matinee.

But Mr. Gleason excused himself to his co-workers on stage to talk about his one-year anniversary as executive director of the Thousand Islands Performing Arts Fund, which runs the 109-year-old opera house. The building has always harbored a sense of community spirit. When it was built, the local Masonic lodge agreed to pay for the roof, provided the Masons could use the third floor for their meetings.

In his office, abandoned by Masons in 1993 before the opera house’s $3.2 million renovation project was completed in 2007, Mr. Gleason noted that last year at this time, he was just starting his job.

“I had been out of the theater business for a long time,” he said. “Part of the routine was getting back into the business and getting my head out of IT work.”

Mr. Gleason, 52, resigned his job as an information services manager at Monadnock Paper Mills in Bennington, N.H., to take the job in Clayton. He liked the community and the opera house upon sight, despite the drab January weather that greeted him for his job interview last year.

“I like the sense of the town, and the building facility is a gem,” he said.

Mr. Gleason has extensive theater management and technical director experience, as facilities manager for Capitol Center for the Arts, Concord, N.H., director of operations for the Lowell (Mass.) Memorial Auditorium and technical director for the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, Fort Myers, Fla.

He said he took a job in information technology to help provide for his growing family at the time. He and his wife, Charlene, have two sons, Aric, 28, and Ian, 16, and a daughter, Alyssa, 23. It’s no secret, he noted, that IT pays a lot more than the arts. His wife is a special-education teacher in New Hampshire and plans to move here permanently in two years when she retires, Mr. Gleason said.

“Doing theater is really the first love I’ve ever had,” Mr. Gleason said. “It changes so much. Every production is new.”

New things are also happening at the Clayton Opera House.

“I’ve been making some changes,” Mr. Gleason said. “Hopefully, for the better.”

This year will be the busiest ever at the opera house. The season includes 11 summmer-season shows, which range from a concert by Jefferson Starship to a talk by Watertown native and heart surgeon Dr. Toby Cosgrove, president and chief executive of the Cleveland Clinic.

Officials at the opera house have updated its seating layout and ticket-purchasing procedures. Tickets are now available for member patrons first. Also, reserved seating is now available. There will be no need to line up an hour or more in advance to get the best seats.

Patrons also can purchase add-ons to tickets, such as dinner from a TIPAF restaurant sponsor.

“The programming committee has been strong and helpful in getting me situated with the local community and getting to learn the tastes of the community,” Mr. Gleason said.

That word — “community” — gets thrown around a lot, Mr. Gleason said.

“But Clayton is a nice little village and a welcoming place,” he said. “From all strata of socioeconomics, we try to make everybody welcome here at the opera house.”

One of his challenges last year was stepping into a season that was booked by someone else. Mr. Gleason replaced Lisa P. Reiss, who resigned in the fall of 2011 after six months on the job to move back to her native Connecticut. Mr. Gleason booked only two shows last year.

Mr. Gleason made a smooth, successful transition, but he said his first year’s greatest success was the budgetary bottom line.

“I’m big on numbers,” he said. “At the end of the year, we ran a very small surplus. That’s allowed us some flexibility in the coming year. We’re essentially starting even and not having to make up for a huge loss.”

Ticket sales, he noted, make up for 52 percent of the opera house’s costs. About 28 percent is from individual donations — “anywhere from $100 up to over $5,000” — with support from corporations and foundations making up the rest of operating costs.

Mr. Gleason said it’s important to host shows year-round. He said he noticed that most of last year’s programming was scheduled during the summer months.

“I was determined that we should have events here every month of the year,” Mr. Gleason said. “That way, I could honestly say, ‘Yes, we are open year-round.’”

Many of those winter-month events are “alternative” ones, Mr. Gleason said, such as the live broadcast of the 12.12.12. concert for Hurricane Sandy relief, a digital cinema series and teen karaoke nights.

“Doing those types of things seem to bring the people out in cold months,” Mr. Gleason said.

The mission in those alternative events, he said, is not to make money.

“Our goal is our mission statement: ‘To foster the appreciation of the arts in the Thousand Islands region,’” he said. “Karaoke qualifies as arts in people singing and having a good time.”

harboring opportunities

In a strong-armed stone’s throw northeast from the sidewalk in front of the opera house, an empty lot that once housed Frink America will soon come to life when ground is broken for the Clayton Harbor Hotel project. It will be a luxury hotel and conference center. Developers hope to have the four-story facility open by Memorial Day 2014.

It’s one of the reasons Mr. Gleason sees some “interesting” years ahead for the opera house.

“That’s going to change the dynamic a little bit,” he said.

He said the project will likely mean more visitors in the summer.

“I also see a lot of opportunity in the off-season in having a motel right next to us,” he said.

He envisions the opera house cooperating with hotel-sponsored corporate retreats or working in tandem to provide entertainment.

But TIPAF and the opera house, Mr. Gleason said, will continue its mission of being a center for the entire community while hosting a wide range of shows.

“There’s lots of opportunities out there,” he said. “It’s nice to have.”

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