You can read the original interview with Renegade Theater Company artistic director, Katy Helbacka, in June’s digital edition by clicking back to our home page and clicking on the June cover. Here are some questions and answers from the interview after the June edition was published:
Dennis Kempton: How difficult was it to come in and take a controversial situation such as Brian’s departure from Renegade and turn it around so that the company was able to rebrand itself? How did that challenge your leadership abilities?
Katy Helbacka: When I took over at Renegade, I was walking in completely blind. I didn’t know much about Renegade’s past. I knew that Renegade Comedy Theatre was something that was important to a lot of people, and that there was no point in trying to replicate who they were. I knew the only way to survive was to honor what Renegade had been, while moving in a completely new direction that made it clear to the community that we were doing something new and different. We needed to separate ourselves. Just because you saw a Renegade show five years ago that doesnt mean you know who Renegade is today. I pushed for re-branding right away. Our poor Board of Directors – I still have the huge document I created that I brought to the first meeting full of all the things I wanted to do and all the changes I wanted to make. I’m sure they thought, “Whoa, slow down girlie. First let’s just figure out where all the flats are being stored.” But I was supported every step of the way.
DK: If you had to make a clear delineation between what separates Renegade Theater Company from other theatre groups in the city, what would that be?
KH: I think that we are different in the types of shows we produce. We definately like to take risks. We’re not afraid of doing a show that might tick some people off. I am not afraid of getting crabby calls and letters about the content of the shows we put on our stage. And that’s a luxury. Our house size is small enough that if you are offended by all the blood in Lieutenant of Inishmore, then we’ll see you next time instead. Our smaller size allows us to do great, risky theater, which is something we think the community enjoys.
I also think that our company dynamic is special.I think the world of all the artists we work with. We work with the best. Our teams produce great shows with small budgets in a small theater. But they work hard. And they are talented. And fun to be around. And we get Little Caesars at every tech call.
DK: Why are you doing the type of theater you’re doing versus becoming involved in an established, “mainstream” operation like the Duluth Playhouse?
KH: Well, first of all we already have a Duluth Playhouse! There is no need to replicate their programming, as they do it so well. And it’s not that we don’t love the classics and big war-horse musicals – because we do. But we have places that produce that material extremely well, so we feel like we might as well take some risks. Theater inspires and excites us the most when it’s dangerous. When we look at a script and wonder how on earth we’ll pull it off. And personally, as an artist, I like pushing myself and challenging myself. And introducing audiences to things they wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to see. I’m really lucky to have the ability to do that and a community that supports so strongly.
DK: What do you think about the NorShor theatre situation? Is it worth the city pouring millions of dollars into a new venue for art’s sake?
KH: I honestly don’t know enough about the situation to make an intelligent comment. But I will say that if it happens we’ll be happy to welcome more arts and entertainment to our block of Superior Street.
DK: About the marketing challenges getting people to the theatre: what strategies have worked best as far as advertising or outreach?
KH: Our strongest strategy is online marketing – Facebook, Twitter, Constant Contact and YouTube. Plus we work with two brilliant Matts. Matt Olin, who does all our graphic design and Web work, and Matt Helbacka, who films trailers for us that we air on TV and on the big screen at the Zinema. And when it comes to marketing, we tend to look for unique opportunities. Fun ways to engage people beyond just telling them the what, when and where.
DK: How concerned are you about keeping ahead of the curve with programming and box office sales?
KH: Our box office sales are just growing and growing. I was so pleased with the box office turnout at Lieutenant of Inishmore. And Parade sold out nearly every night. I expect the same for Wild Party this summer. So for us, that is just getting better and better. I mean, it’s hard to complain when one of the first shows I did when taking over, The Pillowman, was performed for seven people one night. That killed me! And it was so good too! We really should re-stage it to show everyone what they missed.
As for programming…that remains one of the toughest and my favorite parts of the job. I am ashamed to say that I am very picky. I like what I like, so it can be hard to find an entire season of shows that I and the company are entirely excited and proud of. But so far, I’ve been very pleased. Except when it comes to comedies! It is rare that I find a play that I find very funny. Where are you comedies? I’m also picky about musicals. I love a good musical … but I feel there are a lot of bad musicals out there. I only want to put up the best of them. I suppose we’ll run out one day!
DK: What’s the relationship like with the Zeppa Foundation? How much of a hand does the Foundation have in operations at Renegade?
KH: The Zeppa Foundation is our greatest supporter and provides us with our home at the Teatro Zuccone. They helped Renegade through some pretty rough times, and they have been crucial in helping us secure solid footing. We are so proud to be the resident theater of the Teatro Zuccone – it is truly home to us. As for their involvement, we collaborate, but we are separate organizations. However, the relationship with Zeitgeist and Renegade is melding more and more into a team. We work together to provide fun entertainment and make sure that there is always something to do in our building.
DK: With such a tight knit and small community of actors, how can directors be fairier or more transparent in casting so people don’t get paranoid that they’re not getting a fair shot for roles?
KH: I think people do get a fair shot. At least at Renegade they do. We believe that the best person gets the role. But hey – attitude and reputation are a factor. If a director has had a bad experience with an actor, I think that it’s fair to factor that in. Nobody is getting rich on these shows. We do it because we love it. If a director doesn’t love the work environment created by an actor, I think it’s fair game to go with someone they enjoy working with instead. That said, I believe that if you come in with a good attitude, work hard, and show us that you deserve the role – you are going to get it. It has always been that way at Renegade.
Katy Helbacka is the artistic director at Renegade Theater Company. Dennis Kempton is the editor and publisher of Oeuvre Magazine. He has ten years experience interviewing on radio, on television, and in print.