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Lancaster Opera House cuts ties with community theaters

The Lancaster Opera House started spring cleaning early this year, cutting ties in March with its two remaining production partners, Rocking Horse Productions and Lancaster Regional Players.

The actions by director David Bondrow mark the shift from a community-based theater model to a professional in-house production company, a change he confirmed in a fundraising letter to supporters of the Opera House on March 25.

“The Lancaster Opera House is in a transformational period as we execute our Strategic Plan 2020,” Bondrow stated in the letter. “For almost a decade now, we committed to producing musicals as they were meant to be heard: with attention to musical detail and a complete orchestration. We have transformed the in-house company into a professional producing company with big plans … ”

Bondrow did not return calls seeking comment.

The news sparked numerous phone calls to Town of Lancaster Trustee Matthew Walter, former executive director of the Opera House.

“As a town councilman, I’ve gotten 15 to 20 phone calls from residents. I was amazed I had gotten so many complaints,” said Walter, who served as executive director during the 2013-14 season. “It’s an incredibly unique community place.”

The mission statement of the Opera House, as stated on its website, is “to provide a venue for shared community involvement and to produce and present quality entertainment opportunities for artists and patrons.”

Walter declined to comment further on the future of the Opera House as a theater and entertainment venue. But sources in town hall confirmed the town had recently entered into a 10-year lease agreement to again rent its 350-seat theater space in the Town Hall at 21 Central Ave. to the Opera House.

Town Supervisor Johanna Coleman offered no further information. James Allein, vice president of the Opera House Board of Trustees, did not return a call seeking comment.

Historically, the Opera House theater served as a community playhouse with as many as a dozen production partners staging performances during a season. The entertainment varied and included musicals, dramas, chamber music and youth productions, with ticket prices averaging $25. But during recent years, the number of partnering companies decreased to Rocking Horse, Regional Players and the occasional concert performed by a tribute band.

Douglas Kern, founder of Rocking Horse, said he was notified in mid-March that his company would not be offered a place in the 2019-20 season at the Opera House. The partnership that started in 2007 will officially end April 12-13 with the production of “The Adventures of Peter Rabbit and His Friends.”

Kern on Friday declined to comment, but referred to a statement posted on his Facebook page in which he told supporters to “stay tuned” for an announcement regarding next season.

Lancaster Regional Players began its partnership with the Opera House as Lancaster Depew Community Theater in September 1981 when it produced the first play in the newly renovated facility. Regional Players was notified on March 4 to find a different stage.

“[The Opera House] is an incredibly unique community space,” said Walter. “I have no doubt that other theaters will step forward and take these groups in.”

Bondrow, 37, is a graduate of North Tonawanda High School and New York University. He has appeared as a singer, musician and actor in various roles and venues since returning from New York.

In 2010, Bondrow teamed with David Fillenwarth to form a new management team at the Opera House. Some 200 performances were staged during the 2010-11 season with more than a dozen plays and musicals in addition to concerts, films and special events.

"We are not turning the Lancaster Opera House into Studio Arena," Bondrow told a reporter in 2010. "We're proud of the fact that this is the first experience a lot of people have with the theater."

In May 2011, Bondrow was promoted to artistic director. In 2015, he staged an ambitious production of “Singin' in the Rain” that mixed film with live performance and an intricate sprinkling system that simulated rain.

“As an artistic director, he’s done a terrific job,” said Walter. “He’s organized, driven and he has gained the respect of people who were significantly older than him.”

An announcement on the upcoming season is expected from Bondrow on April 26.

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