Meet the newest leader at this Rockford summer classic, and learn about the road he took to get to where he is today.
When Rock Valley College’s Starlight Theatre opens its 2017 season this summer, audiences will be presented with a few productions from the past, a couple shows new to the Starlight stage, and a new director leading the way.
Actor Christopher Brady, with more than 80 productions to his credit, is the new director of Starlight Theatre, following in the footsteps of Mike Webb, who retired last year after more than 30 years at the helm.
By mid-May, Brady had been on the job just a few months and was still getting acclimated to the day-to-day operations while also rehearsing every night of the week and helping actors get to the heart of each production before doing a complete run-through of each show.
It’s a balancing act of having fun while taking seriously what the goal of theater is all about, he says.
“Theater is not just about entertaining. Its main role is to hold up a mirror to society. I’m a fan of lifelong learning and believe each time we apply our mind to something, we learn a lot. Every director has his or her own style, and my goal is to tell the story. I’m challenged by how can I do that and get the truth out of the actors,” he says.
Brady is a familiar name and face to local theatergoers, having performed for Rock Valley’s Starlight and Studio theatres, Artist’s Ensemble and Timberlake Playhouse. He played the title role in “Phantom of the Opera” in 2011 at Starlight. He’s also performed in other regional venues and in New York City. At Starlight, he has served as a stage manager, music arranger, choreographer and an associate producer of theater. He’s also spent time working with box office, set and prop crews.
Brady studied musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatics Academy in New York City and taught social studies and theater at the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) program at West Middle School. He’s also a founder of (usual) Suspects Theatre Group, which made its debut in the fall of 2015 with the “Rocky Horror Show.” The performers, designers and artists who formed the company had worked together both onstage and behind the scenes at Starlight and elsewhere.
Brady, 36, was born and raised in Rockton, Ill., and graduated from Hononegah High School, where he made his stage debut in his junior year. He says he was trying to find his way after not making the school’s golf team.
He had watched his friends perform in the school musical the year before and “felt inspired” and “called” to theater, which seemed to tap into his inner truth. He tried out and got a part in “Lost in Yonkers,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Neil Simon, about a single father trying to piece his life together after the death of his wife.
It was a natural transition. Music had already been a big part of his life. He started playing the piano at age 4 and sang in the junior high choir. When he decided to audition for the play, he not only found out he could do it, but also fell in love with the stage, the storytelling and the audience feedback.
It would be a long road getting to where he is today and it required a lot of soul searching. Webb had talked to Brady several times about someday taking his place. When the offer was officially made, Brady thought hard before accepting because he knew how demanding Webb’s work schedule had been. As a dedicated family man with two children, he considered how it would impact those he loved. His wife, Erin, is a hairdresser, actress, and stay-at-home mom. Their daughters, Ophelia and Imogen, are both named after Shakespearean characters.
After discussing the opportunity with his wife and thinking about what the role would mean to him, the theater and the community, he decided the new position just might bring out the best in him and others.
“My strength is creating a positive environment for people to create and grow in, and making the best possible experience for all involved,” he says. “I really like to develop projects and the best idea wins, which is not always my idea.”
During his tenure, Webb oversaw both Starlight and Studio theaters. Studio Theatre was dismantled last year due to state budget cuts.
“With no Studio Theatre at Rock Valley, that allows me more time to spend on Starlight,” says Brady. “I thought of all the improvements that could be made, mostly by working more with students and doing more with community outreach.”
When he began working at Starlight early in the year, he didn’t have a lot of time to do what he does best. He instead had to focus on getting acclimated, setting up a budget, renewing subscriptions, working bugs out of new software, finding where things are located, and pulling his team together.
“The teamwork component is big with me because theater, for me, is the art of collaboration, especially musical theater,” he says.
With the Illinois state budget crisis in the back of everyone’s mind, Brady must adapt to a new reality, but says it won’t affect the quality of the productions.
“When I think of theater, I think of how to work with problems rather than spend money on them. We put our focus on what matters and no matter what show we’re doing, it’s a quality production that forces the audience to be challenged, to question and connect,” he says.
The purpose of Starlight Theatre has always been to provide a creative outlet for students and community members alike; together they provide the public with a cultural experience that’s both affordable and accessible. And, there’s the simple joy of being in the unique architectural wonder of Starlight Theatre, with its beautiful outdoor setting.
The upcoming Starlight season was decided before Brady was named director. Although he had no input into what productions would be performed, he looks forward to working with the cast and directing the productions that will speak to and resonate with audiences.
This season opens June 7 with “Beauty and the Beast,” one of the most beautiful love stories every told, and appealing to all ages . It will be staged June 7-10 and July 5-9. Beauty and the Beast was last performed on the Starlight stage in 2005.
Being performed for the first time, “Peter and the Star-Catcher” is a funny Peter Pan saga about a boy who never grew up, and can be seen June 14-17 and July 12-16.
Another production new to the Starlight stage is “Sister Act,” an endearing, comical tale of a woman who rocks the church with her soulful music and brings to light the power of friendship. It will be performed June 21-24 and July 19-23.
Returning to the stage a second time, “Godspell” was last performed at Starlight in 2000 and is a powerful tale of building community in today’s world through the parables and teachings of Jesus Christ. It will be presented from June 28-July 1 and July 26-30.
The traditional ComEd Independence Day Spectacular with the Rockford Symphony Orchestra will be at 8 p.m. July 2 at Starlight. Tickets are $30 for adults and $29 for students and seniors for that production.
Brady plans to continue some of the traditions of Starlight Theatre, like the an end-of-the-year awards banquet. Plans are also underway to bring back a booth where people can purchase T-shirts, blankets, chair pads and more.
“Superficially, the audiences won’t notice many differences, but I’m hoping to expand the depth and flavor of the productions,” he says.
Season tickets are now available and cost $80 for adults, $70 for students, seniors, military, and teachers; and $40 for children under 12. Groups receive a 10 percent discount for at least 20 people; 15 percent off for groups of 50 or more; and 20 percent off for groups of 200 or more.
The “Friends of Starlight” program includes season ticket packages from $125 (one set of tickets) to $500 (six sets of tickets) and includes preferred seating, program recognition and an exclusive “Friends” reception.
Tickets can be ordered online at rockvalleycollege.edu/community/theatre; by phone at (815) 921-2160; by fax at (815) 921-2169 or by mail at Starlight Theatre, Rock Valley College, 3301 N. Mulford Road, Rockford, IL, 61114.
New box office hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.