The beige South Bend Civic Theatre stands stoutly on the corner of Madison and N. Main Street downtown. Six grand pillars support the large stone awning above the theater’s entrance, and a dome roof provides the main auditorium with tall ceilings and plenty of space for playgoers.
This dignified structure is often overshadowed by the Scottish Rite building to its left and the First United Methodist Church to its right, but the SBCT is still a monument to both South Bend’s rich history and its present renaissance, as the century-old and repurposed building originally was the home to Church of Christ Scientist.
Previously, the 62-year-old nonprofit organization utilized an old brick fire station on Portage Avenue that seated roughly 60 people. About 16 years ago, the SBCT moved to its current location, with significantly more space and clout, and the organization has been trying to find its direction and ultimate purpose within the community ever since.
Today, the person tasked with taking the organization into the future is Executive Director Aaron Nichols.
“There’s kind of a sea change, a paradigm shift if you will, in who we need to be,” Aaron says. “And I think we’ve been kind of stretching to figure out who we are in our current space, going from an old firehouse — an intimate theater — to a little more substantial downtown anchor. You have to re-envision yourself, and I think that re-envisioning has been going on for the last 10 years.”
A Goshen and Bristol native, the enthusiastic theater buff became the executive director in January 2018 and brought decades of experience to the position. Previously, he worked as the audience development manager for Shakespeare at Notre Dame and recently graduated from an executive program at the University of Pennsylvania in Arts and Culture Strategy with National Arts Strategies. He has also been involved with a number of local theater organizations as both an actor and director.
His experiences and connections allowed him to hit the ground running as soon as he became director. He quickly began diversifying the type of shows that are performed at the SBCT by booking local musical acts such as Frances Luke Accord. But he doesn’t intend to stop there.
This month, Aaron announced a 10-year commitment to the Pittsburgh Cycle, which is a 10-play cycle written by the great African American playwright August Wilson. One of his plays, “Fence” was further popularized when it was turned into an Academy Award winning film, starring Viola Davis and Denzel Washington.
“It’s considered one of the most monumental accomplishments, this singular achievement of playwriting,” Aaron says. “Often it’s theaters like the Goodman in Chicago and big regional professional theaters that take things like this on. It’s kind of something that they do knowing the importance of these works, but very rarely is a civic theater going to tackle something this big, but I believe again, to reflect our community, that bringing to light the importance of this author is incredibly important.”
This focus on community development is reflective of a larger shift to connect the greater South Bend area and contribute to the forward momentum the city has experienced in recent years. During the government shutdown, for example, the Civic provided two free tickets to any Civic show for all furloughed employees in the Michiana area.
In November, the Civic partnered with Downtown South Bend, Inc. to emphasize the two organizations’ common missions. Executive director Milt Lee described the impact of the hard work of the staff and volunteers at SBCT, reminding those in attendance at a press conference that the work being done is crucial for the continued growth of the city.
“[South Bend Civic Theatre] not only brings great entertainment to downtown South Bend, but they bring social infrastructure to our great city that’s vital to the growth of the vitality of any city,” Milt said. “We’re excited about all the incredible work that they do and all the great things that they’re going to do for our city. We want to celebrate that and we want to recognize them as well.”
DTSB hosted a fundraiser in line with SBCT’s production of “The Christmas Schooner,” in which the organization donated $10 for every photo posted with a downtown Christmas tree to the theater.
Also late last year, the Civic partnered with the South Bend Community Re-Entry Center in order to assist inmates in creating new relationships in the community. A group of men meet regularly at the theater to work on projects, including building sets for plays.
With families and budgets in mind, SBCT also rolled out two new programs in January: Showtime Childcare will allow parents to see productions without having to worry about getting a babysitter. This service is available during Wednesday evening performances, with a limit of 12 total children per show. Music Together teacher Amber Goddard supervises the children for free while parents watch the shows. Parents interested in taking advantage of the opportunity are asked to call the box office at (574) 234-1112.
Those interested in seeing shows, but can’t afford to pay full ticket price, can now see shows on a budget during what this Civic is calling “pay-what-you-can previews.” Previews are hosted the Thursday nights before Friday premieres, and are test runs for the show with full sets, lights and costumes. Patrons should visit the box office one hour before showtime on preview night to get in line to reserve their tickets, and pay whatever they are able.
With a full season of events planned for the coming year, South Bend residents can look for continued partnerships and changes as the South Bend Civic Theatre continues to create connections within the community.
Another highlight of SBCT’s new vision is the already-under-construction Foegley Plaza, an outdoor event space that will be located on an exterior wall of the Madison Street side of the theater. The additional space will include a brick performance area, significant landscaping and beautification and a ledge and grassy space where spectators can sit and enjoy a show.
Nichols expects the project to be completed during the summer — he hopes in time for 2019’s Best Week Ever.
“We’re kind of putting a line in the sand for whenever Best Week Ever starts,” he said. “Then, hopefully, the plaza can be programmed for that week, and the downtown experience will expand a block north.”
The roughly $100,000 project was paid for through a grant from Visit South Bend-Mishawaka and private donations. The small nonprofit also replace a portion of its roof in 2018 — another six-figure expense — yet Nichols said the SBCT financial margins remained in the black. This is a feat the organization first achieved under previous executive director Rebecca Bonham, who Nichols credits with drastically improving SBCT’s financial well-being.
Foegley Plaza will also offer additional opportunities for students in the organization’s youth education program to participate. The goal of the program is to promote lifelong learning to students in South Bend’s diverse community by teaching and exposing them to the world of local theater. With that said, the program does a lot more than to help students put on a school play.
“We’re moving into more of a conservatory style, which is we want to prepare you to do shows,” Aaron says. “We want to prepare you to get better and be ready for either an undergraduate theater program or the professional theater world. So if a student signs up to be a part of our civic academy, they’re getting a broad base of knowledge so that they’re fully prepared to thrive and not just thrive as artists, but thrive as citizens.”
Aaron and other SBCT leaders are leading by example, using their artistic talents to help South Bend continue to grow and thrive.