Friends of Towngate: Improving the Towngate Experience for Everyone

By Laura Jackson Roberts

In any organization, you’ll notice the centerpieces—the folks who are most visible, in charge of running the show. The organization is built around them; it doesn’t function without them. But they aren’t the only players. Off to the side, you’ll always find helpers, and the helpers are a vital part of any group.

Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theatre wouldn’t be a source of inspiration and creativity if not for its helpers. While the directors and actors take to the stage, there’s a quiet group of hard-working allies in the background. You may not notice them, but their devotion to Towngate shows up all over the theater.

The Best Kind of Friends

The Friends of Towngate was established in 2010 to support both the creative work of the theater and the preservation of the historic building. Many of them are former actors, while others are parents of young actors or stage crew members. They find themselves spending time at Towngate and inevitably become attached to the program, the building, and the people who make it such a vibrant place. It’s an easy transition from caregiver-of-a-theater-person to Friend of Towngate.

Dominique McAvoy is the chair, and that’s just how she found her place in the group.

“I got involved because my daughter is a techie [at Towngate],” McAvoy said. “She’s been doing the lights. She took a class in fourth grade, six years ago, and she never left.”

Helping Wherever They Can

The arts, both on a national level and here in West Virginia, need all the help they can get. Moreover, Towngate Theater doesn’t have an endowment, and so the Friends’ patronage is especially important to its mission and operations.

“There’s a limited budget right now, as with anything in the arts,” McAvoy said. “So we help make up for that a little bit.”

The group tackles many things, including cosmetic touches for the building, which requires constant upkeep as old buildings do. Recently, the Friends helped facilitate a facelift for the actors’ dressing rooms. Outdated tile was replaced, lighting was updated, and carpet was installed. The actors have expressed sincere appreciation, as a bright and comfortable dressing room makes for a successful performance.

Some of the touches are so tiny that they might seem insignificant. But anyone who has recently sampled the Starbucks coffee that Towngate now serves in place of the former, less-tasty brand can tell you that even small changes make a big difference. Everyone can appreciate good coffee, but it’s the kind of change that often goes unnoticed at first.

“We want to make it a good experience for everyone,” McAvoy said. The Friends of Towngate know that small touches can add up, no matter which side of the curtain you’re on.

“Little cosmetic touches give everybody pride,” she said. “We also supply pizza and things for the cast parties for [the summer youth program] Parcel Players and the children’s plays as well as refreshments for the holiday season productions.”

The group may also help with a guest director, or a new set for a performance, or live music. In addition, they often get down to the nuts and bolts of Towngate, quite literally. McAvoy talks about little touches, and they don’t get much littler than actual nails. When the building gets some work done, the tools don’t just magically appear. The Friends of Towngate makes sure the hardware gets from the store to the theater. One such project was the recent renovation of the back deck and steps. It’s an out-of-the-way spot, but the integrity of the structure—and solid footing—is important.

Everyone Is Welcome

The theater is traditionally an open and inclusive place. Theater kids come from all walks of life, and they often find their tribe in places like Towngate. Theater people come to stay. From actors to directors to self-described “lighting geeks,” Towngate becomes a second home. No matter what your talents are, there’s a place for you in the theater, and the same is true of the Friends of Towngate.

“It’s a wonderful group because it accepts everybody,” McAvoy said. “It doesn’t really matter, young and old, you know, whoever you are, you’re more than welcome to come. And we’ve got something for everybody.” Each member does what they’re good at.

Micah Underwood is the director of development at Oglebay Institute, and she sees the need for a variety of Towngate Friends.

“Because many of the Friends also perform as actors, volunteer as ushers, and are parents to students in OI’s theater classes, they see Towngate from a variety of perspectives. This range of experiences gives them a unique ability to identify needs that might otherwise go overlooked and to provide for those needs, whether that’s a new toilet in the ladies’ restroom, a better faucet in the kitchen, or a new floor in the box office. They also work closely with Towngate’s staff to make sure that their priorities are in alignment with the theater’s overarching goals.”

Fun Fundraisers

The Friends of Towngate holds fundraising events from time to time during the year. They recently hosted a St. Patrick’s Day dinner. In August, they’ll be offering a Season Preview event. After dinner, guests will hear excerpts from upcoming performances. It’s a great sneak peek of the fall 2019 season and a way to decide what shows you’d like to put on your calendar. The group also sells raffle baskets in the theater’s lobby for every show, and for one dollar, you can send a well-wish-gram—a friendly note of encouragement—to your favorite cast member.
If you don’t want to wait until August to help Friends of Towngate, you can catch A Towngate Cabaret! on Friday, May 31. The show will present some of Towngate’s well-known actors singing tunes from beloved musicals like Chicago and Hamilton.

The grateful folks at Oglebay Institute are excited by all the group has been able to accomplish.

“What the Friends of Towngate do exceptionally well is engage people in the art of the theater while throwing a great party,” Underwood said. “From the Season Preview in August to the upcoming Towngate Cabaret, they bring it all back to the mission. Over the years, they’ve been able to complete numerous building improvement projects that have heightened the experience of everyone who comes to Towngate—onstage, in the audience, and working daily in the building.”

Current Friends of Towngate members include: Andrea Allen, Dana Applegate, Mary Bandi, Carol Carroll, Dave DeVere, Rosemary DeVere, Linda Dunlap, Bonnie Ellis, Robert Gaudio, P.D. Gregg (Staff), Marianne Madzia, Dominique McAvoy, Clare McDonald, Cathie Spencer, Tim Thompson (Staff) and Micah Underwood (Staff)

If you’d like to learn more about how you can help the Friends of Towngate, you can find them in the theater lobby for every performance or call the theater at 304-233-0820 for contact information. However you want to contribute—be it your time or a gift—your presence and patronage is most welcome. The Friends of Towngate play a vital role in the life of the theater, and their hard work has paid off in so many ways. Come down and enjoy it.

 Join us for A Towngate Cabaret! on Friday, May 31. Tickets to are $30 per person and include hors d’oeuvres, desserts and the show. Seating is general admission. Doors will open at 6 PM for a pre-show reception (included). The show will begin at 7 PM. Purchase tickets online or at the door.

Proceeds benefit the Friends of Towngate, which supports the creative work of the theater, as well as projects to preserve the historic building.