Denton Yockey and Starlight Theatre

interview

{Header photo from the KC Starlight Theatre Flickr account.}

Note: I am studying for the GRE, scheduled for middle of January. So, I will continue posting older articles here since my time is limited. This article was previously published in the March 2009 issue of KC Stage Magazine.

“It was always about the theatre.” So says Denton Yockey, Starlight Theatre’s new president and executive producer. “I believe theatre has the power to transform people. It’s all about looking at ourselves on stage: the best and the worst of ourselves. It’s all about serving the people who are watching the shows and serving the public and taking them away.”

Sitting in a conference room on the grounds of Starlight, Yockey should know a little bit about the business of theatre: he’s had over 20 years experience, having overseen over 300 productions as a producer and having directed or acted in over 100 productions.

“I certainly had never set out to run a theatre,” Yockey says. “I set out to become a high school drama teacher.” His career is a series of people: in high school, he had decided to get a theatre degree, and the school suggested the high school drama teacher. In college, someone suggested that he didn’t want to be a high school teacher, but rather go get his MFA and teach college. So, after graduating with his bachelor’s at Indiana University, he went on to get his MFA at the University of Georgia. While he was there, he auditioned for summer stock in Atlanta and got his first professional acting job at an outdoor theatre in Galveston.

Denton Yockey, courtesy Starlight Theatre

“I said, ‘Well, this is what I really want to do: I want to act and get paid for it,'” Yockey says of this time in Galveston. “So, every time I made a move, it just redirected my career path.” After receiving his MFA, he became a professional actor. While acting, he got a call from that same outdoor theatre, asking him to direct a show. “Well, of course, what every actor really wants to do is direct,” Yockey says with a knowing chuckle. “But to supplement my income, they were also looking for a production manager and company manager.” The theatre had asked Yockey to keep an eye out for someone who might do the job, and he continues the story. “After a couple of weeks, I said, ‘Why couldn’t I do that job?’ So, I called them back and said, ‘I can do that job. How much does it pay?’ And that’s how I got into theatre administration.

“So, the first place where I’d ever gotten a professional acting job was the same place where I got my directing job, and I got into theatre administration,” Yockey says with a bit of disbelief. He got promoted to associate producer, and then after three years got promoted again. “So it was I was running the theatre where I’d gotten my professional acting debut.”

But Yockey feels his mission never changed. “Again, it was always about the theatre. What I found was is that whenever I cared about what was happening at the theatre, my passion about this always grew. If I saw something else happening that was outside my purview as an associate producer, if I saw that the house manager wasn’t doing his job, even though the guy didn’t work for me, I would report it to my boss.

“And you know, as you start to care more and more and more about what your company is doing, even though it’s outside your own purview, then your exposure to all those other elements grew. And I think that’s how I just gathered up experience and gathered up my desire to taken on more responsibility.”

Photo courtesy the KC Starlight Theatre Flickr account.

Yockey ran that theatre for nine years, and then moved to Casa Mañana and ran that organization for 11 years. Now that he’s at Starlight, he’s hoping to make the organization even better. “As I told the search committee, I said, ‘I don’t know that I’m your candidate if you want me to come up here and just keep everything going.’ I said, ‘Wherever I go, whatever I do, whatever theatre I run, I am an agent of change.’ So, what I’ve learned so far about Starlight is that whatever vision I have has to be a shared vision. It has to be a vision that’s shared by the stakeholders: by the board of directors and by the other people involved. Never anything is done single-handedly, and it’s never done by a single person.”

However, Yockey is able to give a little hint at one of his missions for Starlight. “A lot of our early drive will be for us to grow our education programs here. If you look at our vision statement, it says, ‘Where education shares center stage with entertainment.’ And I think that there is probably a little bit of a disconnect right there with that. We have many great education programs, but there are some challenges that we’re dealing with, with how our patrons and our students connect with us in our education programs. We have to meet those challenges in order for our education programs to be everything that they need to be. We’re going to try to eliminate those obstacles and try to build some bridges and to make our education programs more accessible to young artists.”

One of these bridges has already begun: a partnership with Park Hill’s education department, offering Starlight theatre classes through Park Hill’s community education program. “I met with a board member the other day,” Yockey says. “And she said, ‘Well, I still think the facility is underutilized.’ And I said, ‘One of the challenges I think Starlight has is that you still think [of it] as a facility and not as an organization.’ Everyone thinks of us as a venue, not as an organization. There are things we can do that don’t require us to be in this location.”

Starlight’s upcoming season includes one that Starlight will be producing, Anything Goes. “When we decided on what to produce for show #5,” Yockey says, “we said, ‘Let’s pick something that we want to do.’ It was something that we knew had not been produced here for a long, long time, and something that would not have been overdone.”

Photo courtesy the KC Starlight Theatre Flickr account.

The auditions for Anything Goes had a good turnout of local actors. “We were fairly aggressive in getting the word out,” Yockey says. “We had equity and non-equity, and we had 100 actors turn out, and it was apparently a higher number than what we were accustomed to in previous year. I thought the actors came in and did a pretty good job. We are very interested in using local talent and continuing to cultivate local talent in the future.”

Yockey’s not worried about the future of theatre or the economic situation. “I think there’s always going to be a desire to see live entertainment. I don’t know how we’ll continue to meet the challenge of making the budgets work so that it remains affordable for people: that continues to be a challenge for us. I think it’s one of the challenges that Starlight’s been able to meet fairly for over the past couple of decades. One of the things that impresses me about Starlight is that our average ticket price is so low. It’s $28 right now, which is about $20 less than average Broadway ticket prices nationwide. And that’s an incredible service for this community. I think that the big challenge is money, and continuing to make it affordable.”

Making it affordable is an issue for any theatre organization, Yockey says. When asked for theatre management tips, Yockey says, “It’s all the same. No matter whether you’re a $10 million a year organization or a $100,000 a year organization, the challenges are the same. It’s a board of directors, it’s budget, and it’s ticket sales. It’s just the amount of zeroes that change at the end of the budget line item.

“I do think the challenges are real and I think that theater does continue to reinvent itself. Some have suggested that theatre needs to become less linear stories in order to remain viable, but I don’t agree with that. I think that we have to continue to relate to the human experience, because I think that’s how we continue to relate to people.”