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Show must go on for Theater Works

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Posted: Friday, January 13, 2012 3:00 am

This time, Jack Lytle really means it when he says he is retiring. At 63, he said he is ready to enjoy spending more time with his wife, children and grandchildren.

It is not like he was born with greasepaint in his blood. Live theater came later in life.

Lytle is leaving as executive director of Theater Works as soon as the board of directors finds a suitable replacement. The non-profit community theater hired Lytle in 2002, "for 90 days, max," he said. Now, almost 10 years later, he is still with the theater, but under far different circumstances.

Lytle has always been in sales, marketing and customer support. He worked 30 years for a manufacturing company headquartered in Minneapolis, but spent the last 20 years of his 30-year career in Southern California as a regional operations director. With a nice retirement package, Lytle and his wife were empty nesters who had a daughter living in Arizona, so they settled in the Valley.

With his background in strategic planning and leadership development, Lytle joined the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, where he met local residents, Bob and Nancy Root, long-time supporters of Theater Works. They asked him if he would be interested in serving on the theater board of directors, he attended a board meeting, and got his first taste of how a nonprofit measures success.

He said the artistic director told the board the theater had just experienced its most successful run ever; a thousand people attended the show, "Meet Me in St. Louis," which was performed at the Sundome. The cast received three standing ovations at every performance.

"But they lost $27,000," Lytle said.

Two weeks after that, the Peoria Fire Marshal shut down Theater Works, which was operating out of a site in a strip mall at 99th and Peoria avenues. There was no money in the bank, no place to go. A meeting at the Fox & Hound resulted in Lytle being hired, against his wife's advice. Since that time, the theater company produced shows four to five years at The Lakes in Sun City.

Then, Lytle said, former Mayor John Keegan and former Peoria City Manager Terry Ellis "had the vision to pass a bond issue for 1 percent for the arts. They knew downtown was in desperate need of a makeover."

The 1 percent for the arts requires the city place 1 percent of its development impact fees into a special fund for art projects.

Lytle said the city wanted to create an arts and culture destination, build a theater, but it needed an arts group for a foundation. Talks ensued, Theater Works supporters raised $200,000 to help toward a building fund, ground was broken in fall 2005, and the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts was dedicated in winter 2006. The first production opened in February 2007.

A lot has happened since that time, Lytle said, "the vast majority of it good."

The theater went from a negative net worth to $1.3 million a year. There are seven full-time, 20 part-time employees, "dozens of contractors and 1,099 employees," Lytle said.

"We bring 80,000 through our doors every year," he said. "We've done our part to bring the downtown alive."

Now, with five grandchildren and another on the way, Lytle said he and his wife decided it was time to break the cycle and enjoy "what's important in life."

Before the first half of 2012 ends, Lytle said he hopes Theater Works hires his replacement. He expects his successor to be selected within the next month or so. It could be a lengthy process; however, as Lytle said there are not a lot of theater people around with business management skills. And, nonprofits do not pay higher salaries. Still, 22 candidates applied for the job.

Even with a new executive director hired, Lytle does not plan to leave the theater company entirely, and said he might stick around on a consultant basis. His services may be needed if the theater manages to start talks with the city concerning utility costs.

What was expected to be a monthly utility bill between $2,500 and $3,000 turned out to be more than $8,000.

Then, "the economy went to heck," Lytle said.

A future city council study session could open discussion on a new lease arrangement that would offer some relief for the theater.

Another challenge facing Theater Works is the creation of an atmosphere similar to that found at Herberger Theater and Gammage at Arizona State University. Lytle believes downtown needs to offer a restaurant or wine bar nearby so once couples leave a performance, they can walk across the street to a microbrewery, jazz club, or coffee shop.

"Right now, the only thing is Theater Works," he said.

A Jan. 4 council subcommittee has taken the first step toward recommending an ordinance change that might help. The subcommittee, chaired by Councilmember Cathy Carlat, recommended for council consideration an entertainment district designation for Old Town Peoria. This would bypass a state law that forbids any establishment that sells alcoholic beverages from locating within 300 feet of a church or school.

Lytle said the new owner of the old Edwards Hotel across from Theater Works has hinted he would like to open a wine bar or coffee shop on the first floor and offer executive office suites upstairs.

While its youth program remains robust, Lytle said the theater intends to offer a mix of shows in its adult six-show season that appeals to most people: two or three musicals, one drama and one or two comedies.

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