The show always goes on at the State Theatre

For the CDTOctober 5, 2013 

The State Theatre, the downtown venue that started as a 35-cent movie theater in 1938, has now become a home for both local and national performances.

But artistic director Richard Biever said the theater wasn’t always so big on showcasing local talent.

It showed movies until it closed in 2001, and when it reopened in 2006 after a community-supported renovation, it was to host community acts, Biever said.

The Sidney Friedman family, which owned the building, donated it and a significant amount of the money with the idea that it would host entertainment that reached out to and included performances by the people of State College, he said. The family still donates money regularly, he added.

The theater is a nonprofit, he said, and while day-to-day the venue is breaking even, it does “struggle” sometimes financially.

Biever said 25 percent of the money the theater receives is through a development component, which is where funds are lacking. This component is made up of donations, grants, memberships and sponsorships.

A relaxed and light-hearted man, Biever took on his role in January 2012, the fifth person to lead the theater since its reopening.

He said he saw a disconnect between the mission statement calling for performance space for community theater as well as national acts and what appeared in the first years after reopening. The year it reopened, 70 national acts were brought in, he said.

“When I came in, my goal was to help right that balance. ... To go back to where this is truly a community theater, a theater for the community, a community-owned space,” he said.

Roy Love, a current and an original member of the State Theatre board of directors, said Biever and others at the theater are getting back to a better blend of performances. “The key is a mixture of community theater and national acts,” Love said. “You’ll see this combination throughout the year.”

Through the successes of larger, national shows, The State Theatre can fund smaller, community shows and fulfill its mission, he said. The mix helps to keep the town vibrant, he added.

Biever said his choices of acts have not made everyone happy, but, for the most part, there has been good feedback.

There have been letters and phone calls from the community about the lack of national acts, he said, and people want to know why there has been a shift.

“You can’t make everyone entirely happy,” he said, adding that the “mission is not to primarily be a roadhouse for national music acts.”

Heidi Biever, Richard’s wife of 23 years, said she thinks her husband’s background in music and theater has allowed him to make well-liked selections of performances to bring in.

“Any time there are changes, it can be (unsettling) in life. I hope (the community) can see how much he’s devoted to it,” she said. Her husband “never stops thinking about the arts. Never.”

“He really works hard to support the theater. He believes in what it can be.”

Biever and his wife own a community theater group, Singing Onstage, which was one of the primary community groups performing at The State Theatre before he became its director, he said.

Since then, he said, more groups have begun to regularly perform in the venue, including the State College Community Theatre, The Next Stage and The Nittany Valley Shakespeare Company.

The 50-year-old said he fell in love with music at a young age because his mother was always playing musical soundtracks.

“The orchestrations were what got me, and the lyrics,” he said.

Biever, who originally went to school to be an actor, later went to Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

The Nappanee, Ind., native said he finally realized his love for directing and got his master’s degree in fine arts from Penn State.

Before joining the State Theatre, Biever directed shows through Singing Onstage including “Dream Girls,” “The Sound of Music” and “Oliver!”

Since then, he has directed “Scrooge: The Musical,” and in the spring will direct “Annie” and “Les Miserables.”

The venue also produces its own shows through a company called Fuse, he said. This company consists of community members of all ages and incorporates professional performers.

The theater also streams many of the Metropolitan Opera Live shows, as well as performances from the National Theatre Live, which Biever said he didn’t start but will continue.

“Those were here before me, and I would have to be dragged out or killed to not show those,” Biever said. “They should be here. Even if they can’t make money, they should be here.”

Biever said The State Theatre also shows many movies when it can fit them in.

A newer addition is contemporary readings of newer plays with a discussion following.

The readings, and theater in general, can act as a catalyst to get people talking about issues many people face today, he said.

In July it held a reading of “The End of the World,” and last Sunday, there was a second reading of the play, “4,000 Miles.”

“We’ve almost been afraid to talk about things. Theater is a great way to get things started. It’s a great way to get people to open up and talk about how they feel about things,” he said.

Biever said that he hopes to stay in his position as long as he can and continue to bring local acts to the community.

“I mean, I could leave, but I don’t have any desire to leave,” he said. “I’m a theater guy. I want more theater here.”

Emily Chappell is a Penn State journalism student.

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