Jill Jeffrey, Executive Director, Gemini Theater Company
Q&A with Jill Jeffrey
By Carmen J. Lee
Endowments Communications Officer
With enthusiasm and creativity, Gemini Theater produces plays designed to delight children and adults who are young at heart. Executive Director Jill Jeffrey explains how the Pittsburgh nonprofit also is trying to be equally creative in finding the support needed to provide performances for families and schools that are having difficulty affording them because of today’s economic crisis.
Q: What has been your organization’s biggest triumph of the past year?
A: For us, it’s all the new patrons and having people recognize us away from the theater because of something like wearing a T-shirt with our name. It seems as if all of a sudden people are going, “I know Gemini Theater. My mom takes my children there. I’ve been there.” It’s a really good feeling to know that our reputation is just growing more and more.
Q: What has been the biggest trial?
A: You know, we’re so affordable, but with so many people still going through layoffs or not finding work again in months, ticket sales have been lower. When we have a show that has a bad run financially, it suddenly makes us worry if after almost 15 years, this could be the end for us, too. But we get a lot of support from people who don’t want to see us go away. So the really low point has been watching a lot of new people come in but also seeing the audiences become a lot smaller than we would like them to be.
Q: What issue or event has had the most impact – positive or negative – on your organization in the past year and how have you responded?
A: Besides the public shows, we do a lot of outreach for schools, and with everyone being affected by the economy, we’re seeing a drop in outreach booked by schools that would otherwise be able to pay. We try to get funding so that we can help give scholarships to these schools. . . . We also provide theater workshops for students by going to the schools over a series of weeks and working with the kids on acting activities. So I hate to say, “Oh, it’s the economy,” because everyone says that, but I think it affects so many smaller places that are our biggest fans: the schools, the kids, the families.
Q: What new initiatives have been started?
A: Because so many things are costly, we’re trying hard to work with corporations to get sponsorships. That’s our big thing right now. We’re putting together these lovely packages. We had great DVDs made -- actually using one of the Heinz Endowments grants we received – with all of us talking and scenes from some shows. We’re getting these out to corporations and telling them, “Look, your little bit of a sponsorship can guarantee that we can continue to do this programming for families all over the Pittsburgh area.” We’re very big on saying that these firms can have program ads, their names logoed onto our apparel, anything to show that we’re recognizing them as helpers.
Q: As head of this organization, what goals do you have for it in the upcoming year?
A: I guess to have everything paid on time. (Laughs heartily) You know, everybody’s workplace has stress in it, but I think a big goal for us is to make it a year when the work is fun 90 percent of the time instead of 40 percent of the time, and the rest of it is dealing with the pressures of whether we are going to get this done or what’s going to happen if we don’t sell enough tickets for that show. So it would be nice if the upcoming year is an enjoyable season with less stress and only positive things coming our way.
Q: So if your organization was a person, what type of personality would you say it had?
A: I’m trying to think of a really good cartoon character…Part Sponge Bob. Part some sort of really excitable cartoon puppy like in “Animaniacs.” And, probably just any personality a kid can think of when they think of their favorite fairy tale. Gemini Theater is for kids young and old. It really is. So it has an exciting, surprising, colorful personality -- something that a lot people, particularly adults, would love to be around for a little while because it lets you forget your worries.
Q: What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about your organization?
A: A big misconception is that those few of us who work here – there are only five staff members – are making a lot of money at this place and that we don’t understand how hard it is in the “real world.” I think most people appreciate what we do, but what they don’t understand is that a lot of hours of work go into this place and into what we do for very little in return and with very little complaining about it at all. We ask so little for people to come and enjoy themselves, so I believe that’s why people think this is some kind of huge industry when it’s actually just a nonprofit organization. This is not paying back the student loans. (Laughs)
Q: Can you share a short story about an incident or event that illustrates the impact you believe your organization is having on your local community or the region?
A: One of the things that’s happened in the past few years is that we’ve formed relationships with other organizations. Our biggest one is with Children’s Hospital, where we visit once a month to see patients and perform. Twice a year we go to the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind and do shows there. It means a lot to know that so many children love us, that there’s such a need and that we’re such a great thing for children who are ill or have disabilities. It’s a good feeling to know that we offer something that can be enjoyed by everyone and to have another organization come to us and say, “We saw you at the zoo, and we’d really like you to be part of our program for kids.” It’s not that we don’t love all kids, but it’s a good feeling to know that there are no restrictions with us.
Q: Could you share a short story about an individual’s experience that captures what your organization is meant to be to the community?
A: One young man – I guess he’s 13 now – had been coming to our shows since he was about 3. We audition kids when they’re 8, so when he turned 8, he also began auditioning for us. His family is just him and his mom, and through the years, his mother has had medical problems. They’re not very well off. They’ve moved around a lot, and they’ve always lived in neighborhoods where he’s been exposed to things like drugs and violence. Also, in moving around to different schools, he was the kid that got picked on. But his coming here, his mother says, changed his attitude. He suddenly was very helpful around the house. His grades would improve. One day she told us, “You don’t understand how much you’ve helped shape him because though he has his bad days when he misbehaves and I have to punish him, I can’t even imagine what he would be like right now if he didn’t have the influence of the adults at this place to steer him in the direction of putting his energy into something creative.”