EAST HADDAM — Michael Gennaro closed out a six-year run as executive director of the Goodspeed Opera House, with a season of outdoor musical acts and a dark stage, rethinking how the 57-year-old regional theater will reach audiences.
“I think one of the things we’ve learned is that it’s possible for us to do additional or complementary programming outdoors, even when we’re able to get back into the theater,” said Gennaro, 70, who announced a year ago that he will retire on Dec. 31. The theater was forced to cancel its regular season due to the pandemic.
“This may give us another opportunity to introduce a lot of new artists, people, new writers, which we have a long history of doing,” he added.
Gennaro said the theater has lost at least $5 million in ticket revenue and has had to furlough about 40 staff, not counting the performers, artists and designers that would have participated in the shows.
“In our case we started the season ready to produce six shows and we ended up producing zero,” he said. “We went down to a very small group of people running the theater and everybody’s been being paid basically half their pay.”
The Goodspeed qualified for $750,000 and received $532,100 in federal CARES funding, which provided $9 million in grants to 154 arts organizations in the state.
Even with tremendous setbacks, Gennaro said the organization has weathered the crisis better than most. Only one third of ticket holders for the 2020 season asked for refunds. Gennaro said a virtual gala called “Shakin’ the Blues Away” was a success.
“I think that we’re well-positioned for 2021, even though, at this minute, it’s impossible to know if we can do anything based on the state guidelines as they currently exist,” he said. “The next three to six months, not only for us but for the country, will be telling in terms of what can get back to at least some form of what existed before the COVID came upon all of us.”
The company started “Greatspeed,” a new online program showing clips of older shows that brought back some of the directors and actors. The “Home Office” program continues to introduce audiences to new artists, new composers and writers.
Two shows are currently scheduled for the 2021 season — “South Pacific” beginning in June and “Anne of Green Gables” in September.
“The earliest week we heard anybody was thinking of going back to performing was probably in June,” he said.
Gennaro grew up in the theater in a family of professional dancers. His father was Peter Gennaro, a 1977 Tony Award winner for best choreography in “Annie.”
“My mother was a professional dancer, my sister is a professional dancer, my wife is a professional dancer, my mother-in-law was a professional dancer, and I am not,” he laughed. “But it was kind of in my blood, if you will, from as far back as I can remember.”
He pursued acting for 10 years. At age 30, he went to law school and practiced law for six years first as a litigator and then as an entertainment lawyer in New York.
“Somewhere along that line, I decided I didn’t go to law school to be a lawyer, I went to be a producer and that kind of led me into the operations and to the business end of theater,” he said.
Genarro went on to work as a producer and executive director at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey, Ford’s Theater in Washington, the Philadelphia Ballet Company, Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.
In his six seasons with Goodspeed, Genarro worked to expand the theater’s education programs, including the Max Showalter Center for Education in Musical Theatre, the Goodspeed Musical Theatre Institute, the Festival of New Musicals, and the Arts Education Collaboration, and the Johnny Mercer Foundation Writers Colony, among others.
Gennaro said the organization has $2.9 million in bonding funds, secured during the administration of then-Gov. Dannel Malloy, to renovate the 1877 structure set above the east bank of the Connecticut River in East Haddam.
“The goal has been to basically open up the opera house so that when you come into the [building], you see that great staircase,” he said.
Centerbrook Architects have drawn up plans to relocate staff offices and create a large space with a bar for people to gather. Other changes include new bathrooms, new seating and raking the flat theatre floor at an angle to improve sightlines for the audience.
Gennaro said he always had the idea to work at the Goodspeed and it was the natural choice given his long friendship with former executive director Michael Price, who ran the organization from its inception in 1963. Like Price, Gennaro has served as both artistic director and managing director, two positions the opera house will fill in 2021 to replace him.
“I think that I’m probably more in the mold of the way that Mike operated — someone who worked not as a director per se, but worked as a producer of putting all of the elements together on the show, running both the business side and the artistic side,” he said. “But more than anything, it was hiring really great people to do the jobs of directing and lighting, design and set and costumes, and then the casting — that was always something I felt would be better served by the people who do that for their career.”
After 50 years in the business, he said he was ready for rest, relaxation and time with family, especially his two-year-old granddaughter.
“There’s just a lot of things that I’ve had to give up and sacrifice over the years. I spend a lot of time fishing, which I love to do and I haven’t done as much as I like. And I just want to actually spend time with my wife and my family … I am ready to go.”