New leadership, strategic partners reinvigorating RAPA
05:00 AM, Nov 17, 2013
On a recent weeknight, Alana Silber, a 15-year-old from Brighton, is where she spends most of her time: RAPA.
“I know it sounds cliché, but this is my other home,” says Silber, as young actors and the music of The Nutcracker filtered through the bustling lobby in the East Main Street headquarters of the performing arts group. “I live here. I love it here.”
The 35-year-old RAPA, formally the Rochester Association for the Performing Arts, almost went dark in 2009 amid mounting debts, unpaid bills and decreasing enrollment. But with a new group of motivated and experienced leaders, a plan that drew in other arts groups and sheer determination, the organization has moved forward in a big way.
“There is a new RAPA,” says James Vollertsen, a longtime RAPA board member who became CEO in 2011. “We’ve had a rebirth.”
Now, the organization is focused even more on students like Silber, who study singing, dancing and action and want to either study arts in college or perform on Broadway. Enrollment has tripled from 50 to 142 students.
Now it’s poised to grow even more, having entered a long-term lease with Eastman Kodak Co. to run the old Theater on the Ridge, which earlier this month was renamed the Kodak Center for the Performing Arts.
The move also deepens RAPA’s relationship with the Hillside Family of Agencies, which purchased the East Main Street building in 2010 and leased it back to the arts group in hopes of developing a way for the groups to work together. Hillside will be providing work-study experiences and jobs at the Kodak center for its clients.
One of the first big boosts to the new RAPA was hiring Judith Ranaletta as artistic director. Ranaletta known for her development of show choirs like those featured on Glee had retired in 2011 as vocal music director at Greece Athena High School.
“For RAPA to take a new direction I knew we needed to take on the best people and Judith is the best,” says Vollertsen, whose resume includes such credits as being a former voting member for the Tony Awards and producer for the fifth national tour of Annie.
Ranaletta wasn’t new to RAPA. Her relationship dates back to the 1980s when she directed several musicals from the organization’s original 1,300-square-foot building in Webster.
But she also knew RAPA, which once had a great reputation for developing teenagers for Broadway careers, was struggling. What finally sold her on Vollertsen’s offer were the other people he was recruiting for the board and teaching positions.
“We all had a shared vision of continuing to educate youth and trying to provide a quality theater experience for audiences and the students involved,” Ranaletta says. “It was a unifying thing.”
Among Ranaletta’s successes since starting is the development of an all-area show choir called the Roc City Singers.
The singing group is one partner that is part of RAPA’s vision of actively recruiting other arts organizations to share its space and teach its students through partnerships or residencies. The leaders in these groups then help run RAPA. Among them is the Greater Rochester Repertory Companies, a group of veteran Rochester actors currently producing Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap at RAPA’s East End Theatre.
“We play well in the sandbox,” says Bill Griffin, a new RAPA board member and general manager at the Kodak Center for Performing Arts. “The new board is collaborative. We don’t see competition between groups, we see partnerships.”
Artists Unlimited, a group that gives developmentally disabled children opportunities to perform in large theater productions, is an emerging partner. It recently staged Peter Pan at the Kodak Center for the Performing Arts, the first RAPA-associated group to perform there since RAPA-Kodak partnership was finalized.
RAPA also teamed with the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival to bring productions to the new Kodak Center. The two-year-old festival, which grew out of the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, has had a successful start in Auburn and next spring and summer will start its productions there and finish their theatrical runs in Rochester. The season includes Mary Poppins, Damn Yankees and On the Town.
One way the RAPA board has facilitated new partnerships is by embracing the annual First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival, which had its second year in September. RAPA’s 20,000-square-foot building on East Main, which includes a 240-seat theater that was renovated a few years ago, is one of the top venues in terms of attendance for the Fringe.
“The Fringe created a real energy surge here from within and without,” Ranaletta says. “It started bringing people in who said, ‘I’ve heard of RAPA, but I’ve never been here.’ The outside exposure planted a seed for growth.”
RAPA partners also include The Mystery Company, which puts on interactive whodunits, and OFC Creations, a theater company of younger local thespians who have written and produced original plays. The organization also rented space to other groups.
When Ballet Prestige performed at Fringe, it was the first time Rochester native Katie Polaski had been to the RAPA facility.
She was impressed with the space and organization. The RAPA board was so impressed by Polaski’s group and resume which includes graduating from the prestigious Royal Winnipeg Ballet School in Canada members asked Ballet Prestige to be a new partner.
The dance company now operates out of RAPA and is getting ready to stage its version of The Nutcracker in December. Polaski plans to stage Swan Lake at the Kodak Center this spring and eventually hopes to form a classical ballet company.
“I absolutely love it here,” Polaski says. “RAPA has such a great energy. It’s nice to have an infusion of artists in one place.”
It was that energy that drew Kevin Greene, 29, of Rochester, back to RAPA.
He was a RAPA student for many years and also worked with Ranaletta at Greece Athena before going on to Ithaca College before heading to Broadway and scoring some roles both in New York City and in national tours.
“I did what I wanted to do in New York, and I wanted to help others achieve their goals,” says Greene, now a teacher and program director at the school. “Everyone involved in the new RAPA has a deep passion, and their energy is contagious.”
Putnam is a Brockport-based freelance writer.
Upcoming RAPA events
Upcoming RAPA events
More information, ticketing and prices for all shows listed can be found at rapatheatre.org.
Through next Sunday:
Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, presented by Greater Rochester Repertory Companies, RAPA East End Theatre, 727 E. Main St.
7:30 p.m. Nov. 29: Circle of Friends Concert, Roc City Singers, East End Theatre.
Dec. 21 and 22:
The Nutcracker, Ballet Prestige, Webster Schroeder High School, 875 Ridge Road, Webster.
Dec. 20 to 31:
Another Christmas with the Calamari Sisters: Feast of the Seven Fishes!, East End Theatre.
Jan. to 11:
Bare: A Pop Opera, OFC Creations, East End Theatre.