After the last two years, Jen Moore is ready for the theater to offer some much-needed fun.
“There are a lot of important, good shows now about social justice. But, after COVID and how hard that all was, sometimes I just want to go have fun. I want to go out and laugh and have a fun time,” Moore says.
“We’re all about having fun, right?” She directs with a laugh at her husband, Keith Moore.
“Hey, they say that laughing releases serotonin, which makes you happier. Happier people make better decisions,” he agrees, adding in a long list of prior fun job experiences that include set designer, actor, Fringe Festival participant, rock-climbing instructor and Zamboni driver.
Now, both can add community theater owners to that list. The Moores run Mooreland Productions, an entertainment company that operates the Fast Break Sports gym space and the Rochester Razorbacks basketball team, which they bought in 2019. The planned first performances from their latest endeavor, Playhouse on Park, are interactive dessert theater murder mysteries.
The humorous shows fit with the their guiding principles of “the four W’s”: wisecracking, whimsy, wit, and welcoming. That last principle is important to the playhouse as accessible and affordable theater experiences can be hard to come by.
“The student deal at Geva or ‘pay what you can’ nights were great for us as young parents, because you think, it’s not just the ticket, it’s the babysitter, it’s the gas, maybe a meal,” Jen Moore says, recalling their own struggles with affording theater. “It’s not really accessible or affordable for someone without disposable income.”
A 2017 Theatre Communications Group report found that the average price for a single ticket to a production for general audiences was $39.43. Seat prices for Geva’s upcoming show, “Sister Act,” run from $25 to $75. General audience tickets for Blackfriars Theater’s summer musical, “Seussical,” are $35. Playhouse on Park tickets are set at $25 and include a dessert and a drink along with the performance.
The theater industry was hit hard by the pandemic and false starts prior to surges of the Delta and Omicron variants did little to help. Even bigger cities like Los Angeles have suffered. A recent report found that operating capacity, audience attendance, and ticket revenue in the Los Angeles area are all down compared to pre-pandemic levels and that many theaters are facing a “financial cliff.”
Crafting a strategy out of their own research and past experiences, Playhouse on Park plans to hold monthly “pay what you can” performance nights to open the audience to anyone, regardless of income level.
That philosophy extends to behind the scenes as well. Community acting troupes without permanent stages will be invited to use the space. Actors, who are already welcome for auditions regardless of experience level, will be paid for their performances.
“The first time it happened for me, it was like, ‘I’m officially a paid actress now,’” Jen Moore says with a dramatic gasp. “It’s silly and it wasn’t much (money), but it’s also so important and really significant for someone who wants to act.”
Playhouse on Park, located at 1241 Park Ave., is also working to extend opportunities to young people in the city. In total, Mooreland Productions has over 20 middle school and high school students from the Summer of Opportunity program helping at their different businesses. Keith Moore says the students will learn applicable skills beyond the theater experience such as business management, marketing, sales, and customer service.
“It’s a way for them to find out what they want to do,” he adds. “And I like to think there’s more applicable skills too than just working at McDonald’s.”
In addition, the Moores see great value in youth theater as a way of expanding creativity and determination. A 2020 study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that youth participating in theater programs had higher levels of confidence in their ability to graduate high school when compared with the control group. In order to expand that type of access, Jen Moore wants to make it so families will not have to be charged for participating in youth shows at Playhouse on Park.
“We have never and will never in our business endeavors turn anyone away because they can’t afford it. We will find a way and we will make it work. What else can you help do for the show?” says Moore, who notes parents at a spring production of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” at Fast Break Sports helped out behind the scenes and with props.
The first youth show for Playhouse on Park will be a trial of Goldilocks, which shares elements with the interactivity of adult murder mystery shows, something the Moores are familiar with from experience with a troupe in Buffalo.
“It’s like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book, there are multiple endings to these shows. It’s really dependent on the audience and their participation with it,” says Jen Moore, who wants to focus on dessert fare as a treat with the performance. “We’re not trying to compete with the rest of Park Ave for dinner. For one, that’d be crazy to attempt. But we really want to complement the Park Ave experience for people.”
All those involved in opening the playhouse say they have already seen hopeful signs for the new business in the Park Avenue neighborhood.
“The foot traffic here (compared to Fast Break Sports) is like madness. People are stopping their cars, poking their heads in saying, ‘What’s going on here? What’s opening?’” Jen Moore says. “It’s so nice to feel that energy and to be validated that this neighborhood, this community, is so excited about it.”
Playhouse on Park expects to open officially at the end of July.