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West End Theatre District new beginnings: Civic Theatre weathered the pandemic

When Diane D. Donaher left her job as executive director of the Iron Pigs Charities to become managing director of Civic Theatre of Allentown, it was May 2020, two months after state-mandated coronavirus (COVID-19) shutdowns of indoor public gatherings, and “stay at home” orders issued by the governor.

By the time Donaher reported for work, the Civic board members and staff had already announced their decision:

“After the announcement by the Broadway League, following the lead of other community organizations, and heeding the guidance of Governor Wolf, we have made the difficult decision to postpone all performances and put our film series on hiatus. The health and well-being of our actors, students, musicians, stage hands, production teams, staff and, of course, our patrons are of utmost importance to us. The performances are now postponed to a future date.”

In assessing the challenges that she faced, Donaher says she realized that there were three legs to the Civic stool: the public theater, the cinema series and the acting school.

“I have overall responsibility for all three, and each needs its own plan,” Donaher recalls during a phone interview in spring 2021.

At the same time that the theater closed in March 2020, the Civic Theatre School for students kindergarten through 12th grade went from in-person classes to online. For the oldest continually-operating theater education program in the Lehigh Valley, enrollments dropped from 130 to 30.

Despite this, Donaher remembers, the students really enjoyed the experience. “We keep them connected, and the parents tell us the school is a blessing,” says Donaher.

Because Civic would be closed for what was thought to be an undetermined period of time, Donaher says trying to project revenues was the most challenging because 60 percent of the theater’s $1-million annual budget comes from ticket sales.

“When I started, I knew what the finances were,” Donaher says, “so I began by contacting a number of foundations that generously came forward with grants to help us keep going. Our foundation also gave us a grant, and we are very blessed to have the support of our sponsors.”

Despite the grants and other funding sources, Donaher says, “We are not out of the woods yet.”

Ironically, Civic was completing a successful $5.5-million capital campaign to restore and renovate the theater and its facilities when the pandemic hit. “We met our goal,” Donaher says, “but we found things behind the walls that were unexpected and that construction money didn’t cover. We still have Phase Three to fund, and we need to finish work on the children’s rehearsal space.”

During the theater’s approximate 15-month hiatus, Donaher was able to work on marketing and development plans, and offer virtual concerts of music from shows that had to be canceled and virtual streaming of films.

As 2020 was coming to an end, the Civic administration took a chance in reopening the Main Stage in the Nineteenth Street Theatre with the one-person play, “Who’s Holiday,” based on the character of Cindy Lou Who from Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The play premiered to rave reviews at Civic’s 80-seat Theatre514 in 2019. When “A Christmas Carol” had to be canceled for Christmas 2020 because of its large cast, the main stage and a portion of the 500 audience seats were available.

“’Who’ performed for two nights,” Donaher says, “but when some of the tech staff were exposed to the virus, we closed.”

Donaher is very excited because the final restoration work is now progressing and the theater has applied for historic designation because the façade is decorated with unique glazed terracotta art work.

Despite the positives, Donaher is concerned about the negative impact the closings had on the theater’s artistic staff.

“It’s their life, and it has been very hard on them,” she says.

Editor’s Note: Carole Gorney, a contributor to Lehigh Valley Press, including theater reviews and The Family Project column for the Focus section and features articles for Bethlehem Press, received first place in the Features beat category for her theater reviews in the 2018 and 2019 Keystone Media Awards. Carole Gorney died June 5.

PRESS PHOTO BY CAROLE GORNEY Diane D. Donaher, Civic Theatre of Allentown Managing Director, in 19th Street Theatre reception area.