Plaza celebrates 10 years

Waves of flux swirl through Plaza Theatre Co., organized chaos that fazes Director of Operations Aaron Siler and Artistic Director JaceSon Barrus not one bit. They’ve been here and done this many times and seem well in their element. Remnants of the just wrapped run of “Man With the Pointed Toes” have largely disappeared from the auditorium and the walls await a fresh painting of new scenery. A boat, day-glo pieces of mock coral reef and other props from the upcoming production of “The Little Mermaid” crowd the theater’s lobby and spill out onto the sidewalk.

“I think Cleburne will be very different 10 years from now than what it is today,” Siler muses.

The day catches both in contemplative moods reminiscing over Plaza’s past while thinking ahead to their hopes for its future. It’s been quite a ride, both said, one that’s exceeded expectations and, in some symbolic sense, traveled full circle though in other ways the ride is just beginning. The aforementioned “Man With the Pointed Toes” introduced Plaza to Cleburne in November 2006. That was a preview weekend event held near Hulen Park, a taste of what was to come. Barrus, Siler and company mark Plaza’s true beginning as its April 2007 staging of “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown” in the original theater space up the block and across the street from the current location. Ten years and 103 productions have passed since, a decade during which Plaza became downtown Cleburne’s premiere draw and hope for revival.

The troupe arrived during a time of optimism for growth and change a decade ago.

“Cleburne was beginning new growth 10 years ago,” Siler said. “The gas well activity was going. There were talks of a toll road coming through. It’s come slower than some people thought but Cleburne has changed quite a bit.”

Not that Cleburne, or the idea of Plaza Theatre, was on either Barrus or Siler’s radars much before that.

“One day Aaron came to me and said, ‘Dude, we should start our own place.’” Barrus said. “And I said, ‘You’re crazy. I’m not doing that.’ But he wasn’t crazy. He was right. And so that’s where it started.”

That the two reconnected at all seems in retrospect an act of fate.

Barrus grew up in Salt Lake City. Siler in Arkansas and El Paso.

“We met in college,” Siler said. “Went to an arts college in Idaho of all places and became buds there then lost contact for many years.”

Barrus, after college, worked seven years for Hale Center Theatre in Salt Lake and was later approached by the owners of Artisan Center Theater in Hurst.

“They had heard about and wanted to employ the Hale model of semi-professional theater, which was very successful,” Barrus said. “So they brought out hoping to use some of those approaches and techniques and I worked there as artistic director for 2 1/2 years.”

One day, the producing director recommended reaching out to someone who has done professional sound for the Dallas Cowboys and other big names.

“I said, ‘Great. What’s his name?’ She told me it’s Aaron Siler. I was like, ‘I went to college with that guy!’”

Siler and his wife, Millette Siler, who serves as Plaza’s director of marketing, went on to perform in several Artisan shows after which the idea for Plaza hatched though it took three years of “crazy” to come to fruition.

The original thought involved finding a location far enough removed so as not to encroach Artisan’s sphere.

“We were responsible for getting entertainment for Springfest,” Cleburne resident and then Downtown Cleburne Association Vice President Jackie Vinson said. “Previous years had been good with bands and so forth but we still didn’t draw all that well.”

Vinson has also been involved in the Main Street Program, a program under the Texas Historical Commission.

“They sent a research team to look at downtown years ago,” Vinson said. “That’s why the old post office was later turned into city hall. The other thing they recommended was we should hang our hat on entertainment because there’s too many lawyer’s offices downtown.

“Anyway, I’d been going to shows at Artisan for a while and I got the idea to call them up and ask if they’d ever been to Cleburne.”

The first thought, to stage Artisan shows in Cleburne after their Hurst run, didn’t fly.

“They weren’t really interested in doing that but JaceSon and I really wanted to start our own place and Jackie kind of recruited us,” Aaron Siler said. “He’s the one who set up a lot of the groundwork for Plaza to get started. In fact, there would be no Plaza without Jackie Vinson.”

The four — Tina Barrus, Barrus’ wife, serves as director of education — kicked the idea of setting up shop in Cleburne around.

“We’d take trips to Cleburne, the four of us,” JaceSon Barrus said. “Some days one or two of us would feel really good about it and one or two others wouldn’t. Then a few days later that person would feel good about it and the others wouldn’t. So it kind of went around.”

Cleburne’s charms won all four over eventually, and it was far enough removed so as not to compete with Artisan.

“Also, we knew Cleburne had an open mind toward community theater because of the long term success of [The Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players],” Barrus said. “Instead of feeling like that was going to be a negative, that we were going to be competing with Carnegie, we felt we would be able to help each other. The rising tide lifts all boats, right?”

Others, however, warned them against Cleburne, Barrus and Siler said, arguing that the town was too remote and small.

“Many told us the type of theater we wanted to do wouldn’t work here,” Barrus said. “That playing every weekend and doing as many productions as we were talking about wouldn’t be viable.

“But the bottom line is I had come from a theater where I knew the model worked. I saw it work at Hale and at Artisan. I knew that if we applied the principles of that model it was going to work anywhere. So, once we felt good about the community, we knew this was it.”

With the exception of the seven show inaugural year, Plaza has staged 10 productions per year, more when junior productions are counted.

“Last year 44 percent of our patrons were from outside Johnson County,” Siler said. “That number’s actually decreased because people of Johnson County are now beating the outsiders to buy tickets. We’re basically at a ceiling giving capacity of 158 seats and selling as much as we possibly can.

“We had 37,000 customers last year and that’s grown over the years but we really can’t increase anymore because we’re at capacity now.”

Plaza moved from its original location to its current larger space in 2008 thanks to a building owned by Cleburne businessman Howard Dudley. The move allowed them to retain their favored theater in the round presentation model.

As if that’s not enough, Plaza partnered with the Cleburne Chamber of Commerce three years ago to bring Shakespeare in the Park to Cleburne, a weekend event held each summer at Winston Patrick McGregor Park.

The productions drew more than 1,000 each of the first two years, way more than expected.

“We were shocked, pleasantly so,” Barrus said. “That’s unheard of for a city Cleburne’s size and really any city except for something like Dallas or New York where they have an established Shakespeare in the Park. It’s more work. But we’re creative people at heart and it gives us the chance to do things we can’t do in Plaza.”

Family affair

Plaza is family friendly in all ways, the most obvious being its ownership and operation by two married couples who also happen to be friends.

“That was another plus to me,” Vinson said. “I’ve been to lots of theaters over the years. But this bunch were kind of unique in that they were long-time friends and two families. And now you’ve seen their kids getting involved over the years. And, through productions and theater classes, you see area families and kids who have gotten involved.”

While Plaza’s four principles have a great love for theater of all stripes from the G-rated to edgier fare, they make no bones about keeping Plaza family appropriate.

Or, as Siler joked, “Madea” and “Equus” are great, but they’ll never play Plaza.

“We believe a community theater should serve the community,” Siler said. “And Cleburne is a community with over 70 churches and it’s a community that appreciates family friendly entertainment. So family friendly is not something we’re ashamed of.

“Some have disparaged us saying, ‘Oh, you’re censoring shows’ or doing this or that.

“That’s not it at all. We’re doing shows our patrons will enjoy. Shows they can bring their kids to, bring grandmom or their pastor to and not be embarrassed.”

Barrus agreed.

“Being families of faith ourselves that certainly is a part of it,” Barrus said. “But our beliefs really have nothing to do with what our shows are except for the idea that what we’re offering is something anybody can come to.”

And it’s paid off. Plaza productions have garnered numerous awards, including several Column Awards, a North Texas area annual awards event in which about 60 area theaters compete. The goal, something Barrus said he learned from Hale, is to sell the Plaza experience more than just the individual shows and, from their return and new customer business, it’s obviously working.

Plaza has also caught the attention of residents and actors from outside Johnson County, which has been good for Plaza and downtown Cleburne.

“I think they’ve been a huge benefit to downtown Cleburne,” said Brian Peterson, owner of Heroes Cafe. “And we’ll stay open later than usual on their show nights because people come in wanting something to eat before the show. And I know other businesses in the area will stay open later for the same reason. It helps their business.”

Pass it on

Plaza often assists other area theaters by loaning set props and, at times, costumes as do other theaters in return. Plaza several years ago acquired a massive cache of costumes, which are now stored in a secret off-site location somewhere in Johnson County.

More than that, however, Plaza’s legacy rests on Plaza Academy, which offers classes for those vaguely interested in theater to those seeking a career in the field.

Although adult classes are offered occasionally, the main classes cater to children 3 to 18.

Several of those young performers recently traveled to Georgia to participate in the annual junior theater festival. Out of 110 competing schools, Plaza performers walked away with two major awards.

“Which was great cause there were a lot of schools that didn’t win awards,” Siler said. “And this was our first year to go so that was very exciting. Then they have a group called Broadway Junior Scouts, talent scouts that look at kids.”

Eight Plaza Academy performers auditioned and seven received call backs of which four were called back for the final round.

“They’ll find out in March which, if any, of those kids get to go to New York for a nine day video shoot,” Barrus said.

Plaza Academy, Barrus said, grew out of loosely organized, occasional classes as Tina Barrus worked out what worked and what didn’t. Classes are now held in a building a block away from Plaza Theatre.

Classes include tap, ballet, hip hop and musical theater with additional classes available in learning musical instruments, acting and, occasionally, technical classes. The hope is to add more, and possibly classes for adults, in time. The main point, Tina Barrus said, is for the kids to have fun and gain confidence.

“We’re not trying to train Broadway stars,” Tina Barrus said. “If any of our kids do end up on Broadway, yay! But first of all we’re trying to give them an outlet. Something to do. And this gives them a sense of family. The students become very close in those classes. And study after study proves that kids who have the arts are more confident and do better in school. We’ve had kids take ballet because it helps them with football. We’ve seen kids come out of their shell over time. So it’s not just for kids who want to be actors though we have a lot of those too and a lot have moved on to bigger things. Actually, about 90 percent end up doing shows with us and quite a few have gone on to do shows elsewhere.”

Cleburne resident Anna Looney, a college student majoring in history who hopes to be a teacher, participated in Plaza Academy classes when she was younger and performed in several Plaza shows. Looney said she loved the experience but called it more a hobby than a career goal.

“But I gained a lot of confidence through it, got a lot more comfortable with my self and a lot more sociable,” Looney said. “Some of my best friends in the world were people I met through Plaza.

“It’s a great resource for the kids and it’s important. Theater programs in schools tend to be underfunded and this gives kids a chance to dance, sing and have fun and brings a great asset to the community.”

Tara Patrick, mother of Hunter Patrick, 12, said her daughter, on the other hand, hopes to pursue a career in theater.

“She’s already looking into which universities are best suited,” Tara Patrick said.

Patrick said she began taking her daughter to Plaza shows when she was 2 and it was love at first sight.

“It’s her true passion and Plaza Academy has been a godsend for Hunter,” Patrick said. “Even when she’s not in shows we go just because we enjoy them so much. And Hunter likes to watch and learn. The other huge plus is that Plaza brings people to Cleburne and downtown who otherwise wouldn’t normally ever come here.”

Looking forward

The revitalization of downtown Cleburne remains a work in progress, progress slower than many hoped for but progress nonetheless. Since Plaza debuted, a number of restaurants have opened downtown as have Apos Western Wear, Apos Boot Outlet, the Liberty Events Center and Songbird Live, which offers live music on a weekly basis.

“We’re huge fans of what [Songbird owner Tom Burkett] is doing out there and he’s bringing incredible music to Cleburne,” Barrus said. “We promote them and he promotes us.”

Plaza came in under hopes of a toll road connecting Cleburne to Fort Worth, which has since become reality. Plaza’s 10th anniversary comes on the heels of The Depot, a soon-to-open minor league baseball stadium, which will also host concerts and community events and plans to construct an adjacent shopping center. The Depot sits outside of downtown, near the entrance of the Chisholm Trail Parkway toll road into Cleburne.

“That’s not in downtown but it’s a plus for us and Cleburne,” Siler said. “The more activities and synergy the better. Branson, Missouri, out in the middle of nowhere, started with two theaters and look at them now.”

“The show we’re doing right now,” Barrus and Siler joke when asked to name their favorite production.

“That’s our mantra,” Siler said. “We always say our favorite show is the one we’re doing right now.”

Siler and Barrus said they’ve received overtures from other towns but remain firmly committed to Cleburne. It’s been challenging at times, both said, but always worthwhile.

“No, it’s work,” Barrus said. “But it’s a dream job of work. My worst day here is better than my best day at many other jobs I’ve had because this is what I love doing.

“I don’t love sweeping popcorn after shows and it sucks having to clean toilets so there are aspects like that. But my gosh. We had a show last night where the roof was almost literally lifted up by the laughter. What kind of people get that kind of payback from what they do?

“It’s a true honor to see the audience smiling and laughing as they leave. That’s what we do this for. It really is enjoyable.”

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