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Jessie Davis, executive director of Friends of the Strand Theatre in Rockland since 2015, has led the transformation of a struggling, loss-making for-profit cinema into a thriving, multi-dimensional arts and cultural hub. As the Strand marks 100 years in 2023 and a decade as a nonprofit, Davis says she feels the venue is “just hitting its stride.” During her time at the helm, the organization has diversified its revenue stream, bolstered its membership program, corporate support and advertising, and expanded programming to appeal to a wider audience.
Mainebiz: What lures young or new spectators to your theater?
Jessie Davis: We offer a huge variety of programming at the Strand. While we cannot be all things for all people, there is certainly something for everyone coming soon. Early on in our evolution to a nonprofit model, we recognized that Strand audiences tended to be older with very specific tastes that didn’t necessarily have a wide appeal. In 2015, we established an Educational and Family Series program that brought performing artists in from across the U.S. and beyond, to perform for students from pre-K through 12th grade, and offered these school-time matinees free to schools throughout our region. Building relationships with our local educators and school administrators has helped us better cater to students’ needs and wants and relate the performances more directly to classroom curriculum. We welcome approximately 2,000 students from 18 different regional schools to a variety of cultural performing arts programs every year. I remember the first show we had, back in 2015, when I asked the 300 first, second and third graders filling the theater how many of them had ever been to the Strand before, only a few hands went up and most belonged to teachers. Today when I ask, every hand goes up. Those first groups of first graders are now freshmen in high school and having visited the theater every year, they now feel a sense of ownership. To me this means we’re doing something right.
MB: What keeps you motivated to work in an industry that’s struggling?
JD: I have experienced the impact of film and performing arts firsthand. As an audience member for incredible presentations and movies, I have expanded my perspective, grown my compassion and empathy, experienced the power of joy, and deepened my own experience of what it means to be human. I’ve also been blessed to watch my now 16-year-old old grow up being exposed to artists, and stories and so many examples of the creative achievements of human potential. It has provided her a world-class education right here in Rockland.
MB: What’s behind the Strand’s success?
JD: Our success is 100% due to the hard work, creativity and problem-solving of the Strand team staff and board, and the buy-in of our incredible community. The Strand’s transition after 90 years from a for-profit to a nonprofit was a necessity of survival, as the single screen/stage business model was no longer viable in the era of multiplexes, YouTube and instant access to everything all the time. Charitable giving covers between 40% and 60% of our operational budget. We run smart, take limited financial risks, invest in our employees, and work hard building relationships with our partners and community.
MB: What’s next for the Friends of the Strand Theatre?
JD: In the face of so many independent theaters and movie houses shuttering in Maine and around the country, the Strand has plans to expand programming and grow the organization in smart and strategic ways based on the expressed needs and interests of our audiences, our performing artists and partners, and our community. The Strand isn’t a promise, it’s a project — a beautiful, vibrant, dynamic project that brings the world to Rockland’s Main Street. And with the continued support and participation from all of those who value the magic of the theater-going experience still exists, this fantastic project will continue long into the next 100 years.
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