ESSAY- Just playing (on!): Could a reality show pump local theater?

When it rains it pours,When it snows you sled,When nothing happens that's been predicted,You sit and scratch your head.-bh

On February 1, my event for Play On, Charlottesville's newest community theatre, was cancelled due to hazardous weather, which ironically never materialized. This was unfortunate. I had put together "an evening of wine, hors d'oeuvres and song" to introduce people to the theatre. Frankly, we need the exposure. And the support.

Last summer, when Alex Citron, Play On's executive director, asked me to take over as the unpaid (we are all volunteers) director of development, I had no idea what a challenge it would be. I like Alex. I toiled with him on a couple of past projects, and I respect his work. And since I now paint full time, I had no desk job sucking my time away. 

Plus, success had distinguished my previous careers in big city sales. I had sold expensive shirts and ties to Wall Street brokers (one of whom I married), computer training to the U.S. government, and temporary and permanent staffing to Washington D.C. law firms. I knew how to "close the sale" and "seal the deal." Really, I thought, how hard could it be for me to get people to donate money to a new nonprofit theater in such an artsy town?

So I put together a cheerful, informative letter about the theatre, our goals, and our need for financial support. I sent it to my husband's and my long time insurance agents (both life and auto), to our dentist, our accountant, a rep from the printing company I've used for the past two years, the guy who sold us our house, the guy who got us the mortgage on said house, a few people I know who are big arts supporters, and a woman in my neighborhood to whose pet charity auction I donated a painting last year, who sent me a letter this year, saying she hoped she could now "count on my financial support." All of which brought in nothing except a bill for postage, which I absorbed myself and chalked up to getting started.

Quickly, I discovered that building and growing a nonprofit theater from scratch (we literally built the theatre in the old Ix textile building) in a community that embraces the arts in such a wholehearted way is wonderful, but the competition for support can be brutal.

  After the phantom snowstorm aborted my event, I started to think. The Odd Couple opened on February 23. Camelot will soon be cast, and auditions for It's My Party, a musical retrospective of the '50s and '60s, will be held on March 5 and 6. How could I raise the money needed to pay off our $300,000 capital debt and, as they say in theatre-speak, "put butts in seats"?

So I asked myself: What would The Donald do? How about Paris and Nicole? My old boss, Bill Zanker, a master at the publicity game, once threw a thousand $1 dollar bills off the Empire State Building in the late 1980s to publicize his new business. We don't exactly have the cash for that sort of a splash right now, but we definitely need the attention. 

Current events and the newspaper offered up these ideas: I could drive 900 miles across the country in a diaper with a banner on my car saying "Support Play On!" but I really don't like to drive. Or, three men of varying good looks could come forward to say they are the father of my child, but I don't actually have any children. So here's what I came up with instead:

My first thought was a wet t-shirt contest. Board members and some unlucky Play On volunteers get drenched in water and embarrassment for our worthy cause. Press coverage includes a full page photo spread in the newspaper and short lifestyle segment on NBC29. Not a good idea, I realized. Most of us gals are at least in our mid 40's and on the down swing. 

 What about high stakes strip poker night? Not! Or a Stud Muffins of Play On calendar? Here's a good one, I thought. But is it possible that our studs have eaten too many muffins?

Then it occurred to me. A reality show featuring Play On executive director Alex Citron and his wife, Shelley Lee Cole, president of the board. The show would feature heavy local ad rotation and lots of product placement. We would see Alex and Shelley at home after a long day working at the theatre, zoom to a close-up of a cup of Mudhouse coffee on the table. The camera then pans to a bag of Bodo's bagels on the kitchen counter, a carton of Marco and Luca dumplings on the table. The camera zooms to Shelley's hand turning up the thermostat. Then the close-up– what does it say? Albemarle Heating and Air! 

The show becomes such a success that the station carrying it has to dump all regularly scheduled programming. Marathons of "The Alex and Shelley Reality Show" alternate with "America's Next Top Model," because ratings are so high.

That's my pick, but in case it doesn't fly, I'll have to go back to knocking on doors. If you have any ideas, want to produce the Alex and Shelley Reality Show, or would just like to help us get this wonderful theatre off the ground, please call Play On at 434.872-0184, or email me.

Beth Herman is an oil painter who also makes and sells cards. Her columns have appeared in the Washington Times, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, and The Legal Times. 

Would Shelley Cole and Alex Citron, shown here at Play On!s inaugural toga party, star in a reality show?