Baltimore City

Young Vic at a crossroads as its audiences skew older

Singers Melissa Mino and Daniel Andrews are a lot younger than their material.

Mino, 29, and Andrews, 23, were rehearsing their "love duet" last week as Casilda and Luiz in "The Gondoliers," this year's Gilbert and Sullivan operetta being staged by the Young Victorian Theatre Company and opening July 12 at Roland Park Country School.


Gilbert and Sullivan may have been the Beatles of their day at the turn of the last century, but they are a blip in today's rock, rap and pop music scene. Brian Goodman, general manager of the 44-year-old company known as Young Vic, is worried audiences are skewing older and older, potentially rendering his company obsolete in the years to come unless it can draw in younger theater goers.

Goodman is not the only one concerned. There are 12-15 theater companies around the country that also specialize in Gilbert and Sullivan — and one of the biggest, Lamplighters Music Theatre in San Francisco, is organizing a summit on the subject in August.


"It occurs to us that there are many G&S companies throughout the country (and world!) who must be facing the same questions," Lamplighters Managing Director Sarah Vardigans stated in an email inviting Goodman to the symposium. "Maybe none of us have the answers, but we would love to find a way to build a closer G&S community with the goal of brainstorming, sharing ideas, sharing calendars, and maybe sharing resources," such as stage sets or costumes.

Goodman, who couldn't afford to send someone from Baltimore to the summit, has asked former Young Vic singer Steve Goodman (no relation), who lives in San Francisco, to attend the confab, in hopes of learning how to effectively use social media and share resources with other Gilbert and Sullivan theater companies.

Steve Goodman, 59, associate dean of clinical research at Stanford University and a former professor of oncology, pediatrics, biostatistics and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, is glad to help. The former Mount Washingtonian said that when he starred in Young Vic productions from 1987 to 2008, "You did literally see the graying of the audience."

Brian Goodman has also tapped Mino to serve as Young Vic's social media maven this season. She is already tweeting and posting on Facebook photos from rehearsals and cast get-togethers.

"Brian wants me to post that the Maryland State Arts Council increased (Young Vic's) funding by nine percent for next year," said Mino, of Arlington, Va.

Brian Goodman also said that after this season, he will hire someone whose sole purpose will be to market Young Vic to young people.

"The challenge for us is how to bring it to the next generation of theater goers," said Brian Goodman, who calls his company, started in 1971, the longest tenured, strictly musical theater company in Baltimore. He said Young Vic, with an annual budget of $175,000, is facing the same problems as theater companies in general.

"If kids today want to see 'My Fair Lady,' they get a five-minute video on YouTube," he said.


But he said Gilbert and Sullivan companies have the problem even more, because their source material is older and Gilbert and Sullivan is not a duo young people know much about, unless their parents were fans and passed down the tradition.

Steve Goodman said that with classical music and opera of any kind not taught much in schools, and with young people listening to music mostly through earbuds rather than speakers, such music has trouble getting noticed, which he thinks contributed the demise of the longtime Baltimore Opera Company in 2009. He could see the same happening to Young Vic.

"I do think it's under pressure and under threat," he said.

Limited canon

Even with an annual budget of $1 million and a year-round staff, the 60-year Lamplighters board and staff "have been spending a lot of time discussing business models and the long-term sustainability of a company dedicated mostly to the works of Gilbert & Sullivan," Vardigans said.

Much of the problem is due to a limited canon, she said, because Gilbert and Sullivan only collaborated on 13 operettas and are best known for their "Big Three" — "The Mikado," "Pirates of Penzance" and "H.M.S. Pinafore."


Plus, she said, there is a lack of education in schools about musical theater in general and Gilbert and Sullivan in particular.

"It's not easy to grow your audience," she warned. "It's hard to get funding. Funders want brand new stuff. Funders are not really interested in dead white guys."

Mino is optimistic.

"Today, I think you can modernize Gilbert and Sullivan and make it relevant," she said, citing their penchant for social commentary in their era. Young Vic has long injected modern-day political jokes and Baltimore references into their shows. Cast members have also been known to whip out their cellphones during shows.

"I think social media is a wonderful way to reach a new set of audience members," emailed last year's social media coordinator, Jenni Bank, a graduate of Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and a New York-based veteran of four Young Vic shows.

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Bank, who once pretended to sell crab cakes to sailors in a Young Vic production of Pinafore, said she often posts photos or videos of the rehearsal process, or the cast hanging out when not working, as they did while watching the World Cup on TV at Alonso's restaurant on West Cold Spring Lane.


Blank stares

Some of the biggest Gilbert and Sullivan fans are young singers in "The Gondoliers."

"As a musician, I've found that every type of music has a time and place," said Andrews, who plays Luiz.

At 18, Elizabeth Wiley, of York, Pa., is five years younger than Andrews, but a veteran of Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Her father ran the short-lived Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, in Gettysburg, Pa., and she has also performed in a Gilbert and Sullivan festival in England.

Wiley, who will be attending the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in the fall, has a small role in "The Gondoliers." She said she loves Gilbert and Sullivan, but when she mentions them to friends, "Usually, I get a blank stare."

"It's the YouTube generation," said Brian Goodman, who has run Young Vic for 37 years. "We're kind of at a crossroads. It's an interesting problem to have."