Fueled solely by volunteers, Gretna’s nearly 11-year-old community theatre group has sought to fill a hole by providing performance-based entertainment and education opportunities.
Founded by Janina Shoemaker and her husband, Hal, the pair heavily invested in growing Gretna Little Theatre for about eight years. Members of the theatre’s board of directors say Janina was the key to encouraging participation in the organization and events as well as garnering funding through grants.
“This little town, being a small southern town, didn’t know about and, honestly, didn’t really care about theatre a lot,” said longtime volunteer and board member Jeff Bailess. “Over time, we got more and more people. The participation started to increase.”
Aside from doing more shows, Gretna Little Theatre expanded to include musical performances and youth productions in its own building off of Main Street.
But then, the Shoemakers moved to Florida in 2016, taking their expertise — and grant-writing abilities — with them.
Bailess explained that Janina had a background in organizing and understood how to generate interest and funding.
“She’d walk up to anybody, it doesn’t matter who it is, and say, ‘Will you contribute?’” said Bailess, with a laugh.
With the Shoemakers gone, Bailess and fellow board member Jim Nordquist said the learning curve has been steep.
“Because there were so many things that they did that we didn’t know about,” said Bailess.
The last grant the community group received came in 2016, before the Shoemakers left. Since then, they haven’t applied to any grants because they haven’t had anyone with that kind of knowledge. Therefore, finding the funding to grow further hasn’t come easily.
Without a “generous” donation by a private citizen, Bailess and Nordquist said the Gretna Little Theatre almost ran out of funding over the past couple years.
Without grants, Nordquist said they rely on donations and revenue from ticket sales and concessions.
“Usually, gate sales are enough for us to at least break even on a show,” he said. “Most of the time.”
But, Nordquist said they’re trying to be creative with new initiatives like hosting coffee houses with performances from local talent, holding meet and greets and showing family films.
Despite a financial lull, Bailess and Nordquist said the Gretna Little Theatre continues to fulfill a need in the community and provide a creative outlet for people of all ages.
“We give the opportunity for people to use their talents in the area, a venue for it,” said Nordquist. “There isn’t a lot of places for something like that to be done.”
He added, “It’s not the same thing you do in church.”
Their summer youth production remains popular, ranging from a dozen to 25 children participants depending on the show.
“Theater does not require a high level of academic ability. It doesn’t require a high level of athletic ability. So it provides a creative outlet, especially for those who don’t have that,” said Nordquist.
Both Nordquist and Bailess had been involved with the theatre group since its start. Nordquist starred in its first production with Bailess’ wife.
After watching his wife and daughter participate, Bailess said he looked for a way to get involved and ultimately found a place with the crew controlling sound and lighting during shows.
“It makes me feel good to know that I’m helping the actors and actresses look as good as they could possibly look,” he said.
Plus, he finds the role challenging. It changes with each production.
Finding the right sound cues, lighting design and set design excites him.
“That’s where the challenge and interest comes,” said Bailess.
Nordquist has done it all. Actor, director, stage manager, light designer, stage designer — the list went on.
Both of them said there’s a role for anyone interested in volunteering with the group — particularly if someone’s interested in behind-the-scenes work.
“We’re not going to turn anybody down,” said Bailess. “We’re always going to find a skill that we can use somewhere.”
Looking ahead, Nordquist said if he had an objective, it would be overcoming the learning curve and return to “a building phase.”
“That’s where we’re getting grants, getting a stable financial foundation, so that we can expand our opportunities to the community,” he said.
They want to see more shows with more variety and have more volunteers to cover specific positions like a musical director or community engagement coordinator.
“And always to have a financially successful year,” noted Bailess.
For the 2019 season, the Gretna Little Theatre already put on a successful production of “Driving Miss Daisy” across two weekends.
Coming up, they plan to do a production of “Steel Magnolias,” “Four Weddings” and an “Elvis, Ghosts of Greater Gretna and Everybody has Music Inside.”