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Nestled snuggly in Pulaski County in south-central Kentucky, the picturesque town of Somerset is home to a non-profit theater company founded by a CCM alumna determined to engage the community with art.
When Sommer Renae Schoch (MBA/MA Arts Administration, 2014) started the Flashback Theater Co. (FbTc) in her hometown, she was keenly aware of the challenges that lay ahead. Using her experiences with Cincinnati's vast number of arts organizations and the comprehensive training she received from CCM's very selective joint MA/MBA Arts Administration program co-hosted with UC's Lindner College of Business, she wanted to inspire a passion for theatre in a community that didn’t have a history of supporting the arts.
Somerset, a town with a population around 11,000, mostly thrives on tourism from nearby natural wonders like Cumberland Falls and the Big South Fork National River, as well as the man-made Lake Cumberland. However, portions of the town are economically poor, with more than 20% of the adult population living below the poverty line, according to the US Census Bureau.
For six years running, 100% of graduates from CCM's Arts Administration program have found jobs in the field. For Schoch, that job meant a return to her hometown. “Somerset is like any other city – there are highly successful people as well as those struggling to make ends meet,” says Schoch.
“The challenge isn’t that there aren’t people that can afford to donate; it is that the community members here are not used to donating to arts and culture.”
It is a challenge that Schoch and her associates used to shape the mission of The Flashback Theater Co. Founded in November 2014, the company’s name refers to looking at Somerset’s past and how it has evolved into the community it is today, Schoch said.
With its focus on community engagement, FbTc has quickly developed a positive reputation and garnered much support from longtime locals and newcomers who have decided to call Somerset home.
A large part of this outpouring of support comes from FbTC’s mission “to explore the world through the lens of our past interactions as a community through the passionate pursuit of theatre that speaks to the soul.”
Schoch and company attempt to reach that “soul” by choosing material that hits close to the heart for Pulaski County’s residents.
“Audiences want to hear stories about themselves so they can share our history with their children or hear the history from the elder generation,” Schoch relates. “I look for plays that are set in our region, or similar settings, and tell stories that reflect what has happened in our region. I like to program one play each year that incorporates community history directly. If we do that, I consider our mission well maintained.”
This poignant approach proved successful from the very beginning. The company saw the most success with its second production, And the Tide Shall Cover the Earth by Norma Cole. The story was about the creation of Lake Cumberland and that “really drew people in,” Schoch said.
“I feel that is my justification that our mission is exactly right. That show started a lot of conversation about what happened to the families displaced by the lake.”
FbTc’s next production opens in August and is titled Hazard County, written by Allison Moore. Again set in Kentucky, the show is based on a true story that happened in Todd County.
“It sparks an important conversation about racism in rural areas,” Schoch said. “Although the story it is based on occurred over a decade ago, recent events across the country clearly indicate the discussion isn’t over.”
However, Schoch realizes — for both practical and educational reasons — that FbTc also needs to present productions that represent the larger world of theater.
The company will mount its first musical Nightmare on Backstreet: A Boy Band Parody, for a limited two-night run at the end of October. The show was created and adapted by Ricky W. Glore, who graduated with Schoch from Northern Kentucky University’s theatre department.
“Its a parody of Nightmare on Elm Street told with the music of Backstreet Boys, and has already had three successful runs in Chicago,” she said of the musical. “I’m excited to tackle our first musical because it’s what everyone has been asking for since they learned about Flashback Theater Co. I expect a lot of talent will show up for this opportunity.”
The potential outpouring of talent is not only due to the product presented on the stage. FbTC has launched numerous initiatives meant to engage citizens and help them feel more connected to the non-profit organization. According to Schoch, some of the most productive means are workshops that allow locals to actively participate in the dramatic process.
The Let’s Play! free educational series gives local theater talent regular opportunities to develop their skills and interact with audience members. It has a company of volunteer actors who bring the educational series to the community. They will soon take a storytelling workshop to Somerset’s local library for a children’s reading program, Schoch said. The company also hosts free workshops on the second Saturday of almost every month.
“We’ve had nights of improvisation, storytelling, a cabaret style performance and whatever else I can think of that actors might benefit from,” Schoch said. “In June, the second Saturday workshop will be working with props. We have a stage combat demonstration planned, and will play several improvised games to help actors get comfortable working with props in a natural way onstage.”
The educational workshops schedule is listed through July on FbTc’s website. The next event on July 9 is the first reading of Dancing in the Dark, a new work by playwright Stephanie Porter of Russell Springs, Kentucky. The audience is invited to a feedback session after the reading so they can participate in the development of the script.
This interactive experience is not limited to the on-stage product. The company is working to help community members understand the behind-the-scenes aspects that are vital to running such an organization. Schoch feels the need to be “very open about how we spend money, how decisions are made, and what our vision for the future of Flashback Theater Co. is.”
FbTc relies on sponsorships and donations to fund its shows, which can cost more than $5,000 to produce, according to the GuideStar non-profit database. Ticket sales are used to cover regular operating expenses but Schoch also allocates funds so the company can compensate performers.
“Most theatre in this region is volunteer based so I make it clear we compensate our performers for their work and we are on our way to becoming a professional theater,” Schoch said. “Audiences take us more seriously because of that expectation, and I think it will translate to donations and sponsorships as we become more established in the community.”
In order to be transparent about FbTc’s operations, the company has a public profile on GuideStar's website, which provides program, financial and operations details. Additionally, the public is welcome to attend FbTc’s board meetings and Schoch said she will happily share the company’s financial statements with anyone who asks. She also sends current donors a newsletter that details production costs and income for each show, as well as direct audience feedback from anonymous surveys.
The company encourages the public to help in any way they can to help FbTC grow and flourish…and the public has been more than willing to oblige. Thanks to the outpouring of support from the community, FbTc received more than $19,000 in contributions, grants and gifts in 2015, according to the GuideStar account.
“The audiences members we have accrued so far have been very supportive,” Schoch said. “I have been told numerous times they are so glad FbTc is in Somerset and they love everything we do. They are making it possible for Flashback to get established, so I am very grateful for them.”
Story by CCM graduate Kevin Norton (DMA Saxophone, 2015)
All photos provided.