Artistic director Bode 'optimistic' that this year won't be Pumpkin Theatre's last

Baltimore Messenger
Pumpkin Theatre is placing more emphasis on original productions, not the classics

Raine Bode has spent her career in theater production, not as an actress.

"I'm terrible," the Roland Park resident said with a smile.

When the proverbial curtain rises on Pumpkin Theatre's 48th season in October, Bode, 46, will be working behind the scenes to save the financially struggling children's theater company based at Har Sinai, an Owings Mills synagogue.

"We've been around too long to fall apart now," said Bode, the company's artistic director and head administrator.

With the help of her husband, business manager Dana Whipkey, Bode, whose first name is short for Lorraine, is overseeing everything from fundraising and selling subscriptions to rebranding the theater company with more of an emphasis on original, in-house productions. She doesn't want to have to depend on done-to-death classics such as "Cinderella."

"Nobody pays you to warm up Disney," she said.

The company's board of directors is looking to Bode, now in her second year, as a savior.

"There's a lot of expectations that have fallen on her shoulders," said her predecessor, Jimi Kinstle, a former colleague and theater department classmate of Bode, along with Whipkey, at Towson State University in the late 1980s. Kinstle now runs Roland Park Country School's upper school theater program, but he has also joined Pumpkin Theatre's board and last week was teaching a summer camp program on comedy in theater.

"She's been handed an organization that's totally struggling. It needs a caring and committed leader," said Ana Goldseker, president of Pumpkin Theatre's 12-member board.

"I do not want to close our doors," said Goldseker, who also serves on the board of her family's philanthropic Goldseker Foundation. "I don't want the organization to die out on my watch. It's too important to the children of Baltimore."

Fundraising strategies

If Bode is feeling any pressure, she isn't showing it.

"I am looking at things as a whole and working on some long-range fundraising strategies," she said.

Those strategies include educational programming, building relationships with area public and private schools, and working with the Baltimore County government to bring educational programs into county libraries.

The county helps subsidize Pumpkin Theatre's Pathways program, a matinee series of performances for school groups. Pumpkin Theatre is also negotiating to bring touring shows and workshops to far-flung event spaces like the Grand Piano Ballroom in Hagerstown.

Bode is changing Pumpkin Theatre's business model from its current dependence on ticket and subscription sales to a model that she said most theater companies use, in which fundraising would account for 60 percent of the annual budget of nearly $220,000.

Toward that end, she is writing a lot more grant applications and looking for long-term funding sources and more board members.

"You can't exist on ticket sales," she said.

Goldseker agreed, saying, "We had a few angels come forward, but we need some help over the hump. We can't do this without community support."

Donors include the Maryland State Arts Council and France-Merrick Foundation. Pumpkin Theatre also launched a recent campaign to raise $30,000 from mid-May to the end of June. The Pumpkin Kid Power Campaign raised $20,000.

"That's pretty good," Bode said. "I'm feeling better after this fundraiser."

Pumpkin Theatre also organizes two annual fundraisers, including a Halloween masquerade ball and haunted house built by children. And it sponsors several summer camps that generate revenue, including the comedy camp for older children and youths, and a Theatre Playground camp for younger children.

Pumpkin Theatre, which moved from St. Timothy's School in 2013, is also more efficient as a campus, with theater programs, offices and classrooms under one roof in Owings Mills for the first time in its history.

But Bode and Goldseker said the move had a downside, leading to a loss of subscribers and lingering confusion about where Pumpkin Theatre is located.

Even worse, said Goldseker, is that despite advertising and promotional efforts, "People are still saying, 'What's Pumpkin Theatre?'"

Veteran presence

Since earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater in 1992, Bode has worked in various behind-the-scenes roles, including as a stage and production manager, for theater groups ranging from La Mama, an experimental club in New York, to Center Stage in downtown Baltimore, Rep Stage in Columbia and the Hampden-based Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, which closed in 2011 after 17 seasons. Whipkey was managing director at Baltimore Shakespeare Festival and Kinstle was artistic director.

"That was great while it lasted," Bode said.

At La Mama, which toured all over Europe and as far away as Taiwan, she did everything from sweeping floors to operating light and sound boards.

"That was sort of my grad school," she said.

At Pumpkin Theatre, Bode and Whipkey are the only paid employees; everyone else, from production people to designers to professional actors, gets stipends.

"It's very much a partnership between Dana and I," Bode said.

Bode chooses the shows and manages production budgets. Each show runs 60 minutes and most cost about $9,000 to stage.

This year's lineup has a theme, "Running on Kid Power," and all five productions are about the adventures of children, animals "and other lovable creatures," according to a flier.

In the season's first show, "Go, Dog, Go!," opening Oct. 17, dogs drive cars, snorkel and howl at the moon, bringing the beloved 1961 P.D. Eastman children's book to life.

In November, "Rainbow Crow," an original production adapted from a Lenape Native American legend, follows a traveling troupe of songbirds beset by snow.

The season continues through May, with "Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr." in January, a "kids for kids" production done by and for children; "Winnie the Pooh" in April, based on the A.A. Milne stories; and "Girl With Diamonds In Her Eyes," an original "children's western" that runs from late April to early May.

Busy off-season

Summer camps were in full swing last week.

In the comedy camp, Kinstle was making uncannily accurate noises of heavy machinery and ringing telephones as he talked about the importance of sound in theater.

In a camp called Theatre Playground, director Erin Confair suggested that children make up their own story to perform.

"Can we be different people?" asked Callie Lien, 6, of Nottingham in Baltimore County.

Sitting in the Har Sinai school lobby, working on a laptop computer, was Callie's ride — her grandmother, Calvert Necker, of Govans.

Necker said Pumpkin Theatre has been a part of her family's lives for years, and now it's a part of Callie's life, too.

"She told me on the way over that she wants to take karate and acting (in school) this year. She's really fixated on this."

Callie has even become a donor to Pumpkin Theatre. Necker said her Asian son-in-law, Callie's father, gave Callie money for the Chinese New Year — and Callie insisted on spending some of it to help pay for the $250 summer camp.

For Bode, such reactions are heartening as she works to secure Pumpkin Theatre's future.

"I'm optimistic," she said. "It's nice to have something to fight for."

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