The following article is reprinted with permission of the Stageloft Repertory Theatre.
After 20 years of ceaseless – and successful – striving to bring top-notch live theater to the Sturbridge area, Stageloft Repertory Theater co-founder and artistic director Ed Cornely and wife Ellen will hand over the business at year’s end.
The new owners-to-be, Christine and Scott Taylor of Auburn, will officially take control on Jan. 1, 2015. Patrons can count on the same high-quality show selections and talented casts going forward, however: Christine is a longtime Stageloft presence as an actor, director and costume designer.
“The thing that really convinced me that Christine and Scott were the people to take over the business is that they have same values I do,” said Cornely, who intends to stay involved with Stageloft. “They’ll create an environment where actors can grow, and they’ll care and respect patrons. That’s how I’ve always felt about people, and I wanted that to continue.”
“Ed has been really terrific about giving me a front-row seat this year to all of the challenges and the rewards he experiences running Stageloft, including directing two productions and occasionally running the box office,” said Christine.
‘(The Taylors) will create an environment where actors can grow, and they’ll care and respect patrons.’
Taylor added “director” to her Stageloft resume by helming the successful March production of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” She’s also directing the final show of the Cornely era, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which runs for three weeks in December.
The Taylors met “almost 20 years ago while we were both singing with The Salisbury Singers in Worcester,” Christine said. The couple has three children, ages 15, 12 and 9, “and, luckily, all possess an interest in either the performing or technical aspect of theater, and have been very supportive of mommy going back to work ‘full time.’ “
Christine, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst graduate, founded the Auburn Community Players in 2011.
“ACP has taught me the value of having a good team I can rely on for each production, and the importance of delegation, organization and communication,” she said. “Everything I’ve learned running ACP will be put to use at Stageloft.”
Scott, her husband of 17 years, has chipped in as a Stageloft set-builder par excellence, and will also put his background in IT to good use as the Taylors expand Stageloft’s ticket-ordering options.
“He’s an outstanding craftsman,” Cornely said, musing that “oftentimes, we’ll tease Scott that he takes so long (to construct set designs) because he’s such a perfectionist.”
‘It gave me a new direction to go in my life. I felt saved by it. I had lost so much, and to get something new … I was sort of reborn. I’m not the same person I was before.’
As its time winds down, the Cornelys’ ownership has left its imprint in ways that go well beyond theater management. People have always come first.
Just ask Marie Daley, who nervously arrived at a Stageloft audition for “Romeo and Juliet” four years ago during what she called “a dark period in my life.”
“I had just turned 50, and had a lot of things change in my life that I didn’t necessarily expect or want,” she said. “I thought, ‘Here’s something that’s totally new.’ That was just what I needed. I felt welcomed by Ed, and that’s not something you get at all theaters.”
She earned a small role in the Shakespeare production, and “it was just what I needed. It gave me a new direction to go in my life,” Daley said. “I felt saved by it. I had lost so much, and to get something new … I was sort of reborn. I’m not the same person I was before.”
From that humble beginning, Marie has become one of the key faces at Stageloft. Patrons have gotten to know her as Ed Cornely’s primary backup at the front desk on show days, as well as her many on-stage roles – including a breakout performance as the weary-but-fierce Ma Joad in Stageloft’s production of “The Grapes of Wrath” in 2013.
Behind the scenes, Daley excels as a stage manager. Most recently, she kept the trains running on time for September’s acclaimed staging of “The Porch,” and will also stage manage “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“Ed always says he wants people to come and learn, get their feet wet. He likes teaching, having new people involved and getting them involved in theater,” she said.
“Christine is very open and giving, so I think it will work out well. I’m very hopeful about how things are going to go,” said Daley of the coming transition. Yet “I’ll always be glad I had the experience of being part of the Cornely (era) at Stageloft. The patrons always feel that Ed is going to take care of them.”
Cornely, who’s approaching age 70 and has endured some medical issues in the past few years, will happily hand over the daily grind of running the theater — but expects to remain a familiar face at Stageloft.
“I’d like to direct a show or two a year, and stay involved with the kids,” said Cornely, the latter a reference to the spring and fall Stageloft Youth Theater productions for ages 6 to 16 that he traditionally directs.
“I’m thinking of doing some tutoring and teaching” on both the college and high school levels, he added. “I also very much want to develop a mini-course to coach and consult people on how to develop a Shakespeare-themed garden” like the one he nurtures in the backyard of his Sturbridge home.
Cornely plans on continuing two other Stageloft-related traditions: The almost-monthly Murder Mystery dinners held at the Salem Cross Inn in West Brookfield — he pens a new “whodunit” script each year — and the annual “Christmas Memories” show.
“I want to do more volunteering,” he added.
Cornely will spend the last night of his ownership overseeing Stageloft’s annual New Year’s Eve variety show for charity. Last year’s vaudevillian take on “The Gong Show” raised $600 for a Sturbridge-based food pantry.
‘Although Scott and I hope to try some new things, we’re not planning on altering the basic values and culture of the theater.’
Ellen Cornely, who’s been through it all with Ed since Stageloft’s debut in the summer of 1994 in a barn behind Sturbridge Country Inn, has been asking her husband to scale back his involvement for awhile. She finally got her wish.
In addition to spending time with their own children (especially more frequent trips to Maryland to enjoy the grandchildren), the Cornelys received some good news recently that coincides with their Stageloft retirement.
Their son Dan accepted a job as a Grade 7 mathematics teacher in Ludlow, and settled in East Longmeadow — which happens to be Ellen’s hometown. Said Ed, “He’ll be much more accessible, and there will be more times when we can connect.”
There have been no last-minute regrets about allowing the Taylors to take over.
“My subsequent health issues made it much more apparent that I had made the right decision,” said Cornely. “I’m noticing my body reacting to the stress again. The summer season is always the most stressful.”
Long after the handover, Ed and Ellen Cornely’s deep well of theater expertise will continue to be tapped when necessary.
“Christine and I have a good enough relationship that she’ll feel free to pick up the phone and bounce something off of me,” he said. “I’m trying to recognize those wrinkles I’ve known and (demonstrate) to her how I solved the problem.”
“Although Scott and I hope to try some new things, we’re not planning on altering the basic values and culture of the theater,” Taylor stressed. “We look forward to meeting the Stageloft audiences, old and new, in January!”
The Next Stage: A Question-and-Answer Session with Christine Taylor
In a recent conversation with Christine Taylor, we posed some key questions about the transfer of Stageloft ownership from Ed and Ellen Cornely on Jan. 1, 2015, and what to expect under the Taylors’ stewardship.
Current Stageloft owner Ed Cornely talks about picking you (and your husband Scott) as his successors because you share the same values as the Cornelys, especially when it comes to treating customers with care and respect. Can you talk about what you see as your top priorities running Stageloft?
It’s a huge honor for Scott and I to be the Cornelys’ chosen successors and we are not unaware of the responsibility that awaits us. Ed and Ellen, with good reason, pride themselves on their customer service, and Scott and I will do our best to uphold the standards they have set.
Audiences attend shows at Stageloft, or any theater, for an enjoyable evening or afternoon of entertainment. In my opinion, every aspect of their visit to the theater, from reserving tickets in advance, to visiting the box office, and attending the production itself, should be as pleasant an experience as possible.
I, personally, am a big supporter of small, local businesses and am highly sensitive to the quality of customer service I receive as a consumer. Good service can make the difference in determining whether or not a business receives future patronage.
I expect the same is true for many of the Stageloft patrons. We know that Stageloft cannot survive without the support of its customers, so excellent customer service is one of our top priorities.
We see our top priorities in running Stageloft as threefold:
- Produce high-quality shows that audiences want to see;
- Maintain relations and good customer satisfaction with the current patrons and audience while also attracting new audiences to Stageloft;
- Be a theater where experienced actors want to work and where new actors can learn and enhance their skills.
What aspects of Stageloft will absolutely stay the same under your guidance, and what eventual tweaks do you have in mind?
For now, most things at Stageloft will stay the same, including ticket prices. We’ve put together a season for 2015 that we believe will appeal to Stageloft’s regular patrons. Ed himself said it was a “good, solid season of shows!”
(Editor’s Note: We expect to begin posting information about 2015 shows as royalty payments, etc., are settled.)
It is not our intention to change the vision or the mission of Stageloft in any way. Becoming the new owners of Stageloft gives us the opportunity to bring our own personal touches to growing and expanding the business as it currently exists.
Sturbridge is a community that celebrates things historical and we really like that the theater with its two styles of older theater seats has a vintage feel, as well. The seats are older and well used, but they have armrests and are very comfortable!
Although we will never get rid of the famous Stageloft cookies, we plan to add some new refreshment items at intermissions, including (by audience request) bottled water.
As time and money allow, we’d like to upgrade the facilities a bit — giving the lobby and restrooms a face lift being our top priority. And, updating the backstage area for the actors is also a concern.
We are also currently researching and comparing various models of online ticketing options. Although many of the current Stageloft audience prefer to speak directly with Ed or another theater employee to confirm their ticket reservations, we know there are a lot of customers who would like the ability to go online, select their seats and purchase tickets immediately.
We intend to have a system in place for January that allows us to reserve and sell tickets both ways.
The performance lineup will be getting some small tweaks in 2015. Stageloft will still offer 10 main stage and two youth productions each year, along with the youth summer theater workshops. The two school-year youth productions will be going “prime time” and getting two full weekends of performances.
And, in March, we’ll premiere a new aspect of programming at Stageloft: theater for young audiences. Our main stage production in March is a musical based on a popular series of children’s books with family-friendly show times.
Because I’m a big musical theater fan, audiences can expect to see a few more musicals on stage in 2015, alongside comedies, a mystery/thriller, and a classic love story.
What have you learned leading the Auburn Community Players that has prepared you to do the same at Stageloft? Do you plan to also stay active with the Auburn theater?
Building the Auburn Community Players from scratch has been a tremendous learning opportunity. Although I’ve worked in different capacities with many other theater groups over the years, nothing else had adequately prepared me to be the person in charge of everything.
ACP has taught me the value of having a good team I can rely on for each production, and the importance of delegation, organization and communication.
Everything I’ve learned running ACP will be put to use at Stageloft. And, yes, with the assistance of the really talented people we have working with ACP and with Stageloft, I do plan to stay active with the Auburn Community Players.
Ed has said he’s tried to expose you to some of the challenges he faces running Stageloft day to day, so that when similar problems arise you won’t be caught off-guard. Can you offer any examples of that?
Ed has been really terrific about giving me a front-row seat this year to all of the challenges and the rewards he experiences running Stageloft, including directing two productions and occasionally running the box office.
From what I’ve seen, there are some issues that can be avoided with a lot of organization and communication, whether that is double-checking the date on a ticket reservation request before ending the phone call, or making sure the members of the creative team for each show know exactly what is expected of them and what their individual responsibilities are.
And then there are some things that you just can’t prepare for. This year alone, we had a lead actor who needed emergency surgery and missed all of tech week and opening weekend, a stage manager being admitted to the hospital during tech week, and another actor hospitalized midway through a show run.
That’s when the community aspect of Stageloft really thrives and can be seen in action. This wonderful community of actors and staff pulled together each time to cover for those missing from the stage (or backstage), and kept the shows running on schedule.
Finally, do you have a message you want to share with the wider Stageloft audience to address their uncertainties about Ed and Ellen stepping down?
As I said earlier, it is not our intention to change the vision or the mission of Stageloft in any way. I’ve worked in and on so many productions at Stageloft over the years, because I enjoy the people and I enjoy what we do there. It’s always been a pleasure to be a part of “The Stageloft Family.”