By nature, Allen Cornell is a builder. It's in his genes.
For four generations the Cornell family were general contractors who built scores of the stately brownstone homes in Philadelphia and on the Main Line, as well as many of the city's landmark buildings, including the historic restoration of Independence Hall.
Allen Cornell III took a different path. After college he headed to a theatre in northern New Jersey and later into New York City where he worked on scenic design and lighting. In the early 1980s he moved to Vero Beach where he landed work as a set builder at Riverside Theatre. This year Cornell is starting his 35th season, now serving in the CEO capacity on the business side as well as its creative leader in the role of Producing Artistic Director.
As a kid growing up in a family of builders in Newtown Square, Pa., the garage was always full of tools.
"I liked to make stuff," Cornell says. "My dad would have a load of scrap lumber dumped in the driveway and my friends and I would haul it into the woods and build very cool tree houses."
In high school Cornell took Saturday morning studio classes at the Philadelphia College of Art which led him in the theatrical direction.
"It was a very creative environment and I thrived," Cornell recalled. "At that point I knew I wanted to do something creative with my career. I loved to sing and I earned the lead role in Carousel, playing Billy Bigelow in the high school productions. I knew the theatre would be my world."
An award-winning director, scenic designer and playwright, Cornell has built Riverside into the largest cultural entity along the entire Treasure Coast in terms of its $8 million annual budget. The professional, not-for-profit theatre ranks among the country's most successful small producing theatres delighting local audiences with its Broadway-quality shows. Each season the theatre strives to progressively raise the bar.
With well over 200 Riverside productions to Cornell's credit, it's been the venue for memorable productions such as South Pacific, Les Misérables, Faith Healer, Copenhagen, Red, The Producers, and 42nd Street.
Theatre subscribers have risen to a total of 6,346 in 2016- '17, one of the largest subscribing audiences in Florida. It also host academic lectures which have been a sell-out almost since launched in 1999. Riverside is home to one of the state's only free-standing buildings dedicated to children's theatre classes which are subsidized by grants and donations and bring in yet another audience. It is one of eight theatres in Florida designated as a Cultural Institution.
Last season's Stark Stage lineup of powerhouses included Ring of Fire, Private Lives, Chicago, Mame and Saturday Night Fever, the latter three generating three of the eight top shows in weekly ticket sales in Riverside's history. The budget for major musicals is close to $1.5 million each.
The key to success is balance, says Cornell, providing the Vero community with large scale Broadway quality productions on the main stage as well as developing compelling theatrical experiences for the adjacent Waxlax Theatre, a large black box venue, for avid theatregoers.
“I always think of my job as being the one who is the facilitator of what would make their investment and experience at the theatre the richest possible," Cornell explains. "Is this production going to help us move the theatre forward artistically and is this going to help us financially? Is it a good decision? You've got popular entertainment which is always well received versus challenging works on the second stage where I'm trying to engage the audience with those pieces."
A large segment of the Riverside audience consists of the patrons who support the theatre financially. When the economic downturn hit in 2009, the theatre came under serious financial strain due to lack of ticket sales and a decline in donations. Cornell introduced the Patron Producers Program.
“Initially, their sole interest was keeping theatre alive in our community," Cornell relates. "We don't have a lot of corporate supporters, but we do have a lot of private wealth in Vero Beach. Beyond the financial support I wanted them to see what it takes to put on a show. It's worked out very well and many of the patrons are quite articulate about it which helps to grow the theatre."
From 32 supporters for the 2010- '11 full season of shows, the program grew to an impressive 66 for the 2016-'17 season. Typically couples or individuals donate $10,000 or more each year that goes to the cost of the productions which enables Riverside to produce big budget Broadway shows that attract actors and directors from New York City and all over the country.
But it's more than just contributing funds; the patrons are often intimately involved with the process of putting the show together, instilling a sense of ownership in the theatre's productions. The generous patrons are also granted posh privileges such as sitting in on New York auditions, attending rehearsals, and meet and greets with the cast.
M. J. Grant moved to Vero from South Florida a decade ago. She has been a patron producer for six years.
"It's added such a big spark to my life, I didn't think I could be so passionate," Grant observes. "The best part is learning the back story to the production. Seeing how the show is built. They have such a talented design and production crew. Watching the designer runs, from the first rehearsal through to the final product. It's just remarkable. We also get to know who the cast members are beyond the face on the stage.
"It is a wonderful facility that is used all the time, very little downtime. We're fortunate to have Allen and his talented staff and crew."
For many years, Riverside has done the majority of its Equity casting in New York City. Top-tier actors flock to the auditions when they are announced. In addition, directors and designers from New York and other parts of the country are brought in for two weeks of rehearsals and up to four weeks of shows in Vero. Many cast members have Broadway and national touring credits on to their resumes. This past season Michele Ragusa portrayed Mame Dennis in the production of the classic Jerry Herman musical "Mame," returning after appearing in the title role of the 2016 production of "Hello Dolly!"
"I have so many friends that have worked at Vero Beach," Ragusa says. "Everyone is impressed with Allen as director and scenic designer and the theatre's strong production values. It has to be in the top ten theatres in the country. I couldn't believe the size and sturdiness of the sets. They just take so much pride in creating them. I'm also bowled over by the sound quality. It's better than Broadway.
"Broadway is about being a spectacle, but also money since it costs so much to produce those shows. At regional theaters like Riverside it's about the art. You can interpret the show sometimes in a different manner whether it be a time period or locale. That keeps things fresh."
As comfortable as Cornell appears to be in the director's chair, he has an equal affinity for scenic design and building the complex and intriguing sets. Long before rehearsals begin for a stage show, countless hours have been put into the production by the scenic designer and his crew. The set designer is responsible for visually creating the world of the play on stage.
Cornell develops a scale model that is a physical representation of what the set will look like, maintaining accurate relationships between all important aspects of the final, life-size set in the theatre. Cornell builds his sets in miniature and then draws them as meticulously as an architect. It supplies a visual and working representation of the show, how it functions and depicts the themes at the heart of the story.
"The most valuable way to communicate the scenic design to my team is by a scale model," Cornell explains. "When complete, the scale model should be a tiny work of art. There are a lot of computer generated models in today's world, but for me nothing will take the place of a tactile work in three dimensions. I prefer the craft of drafting on paper which takes me back to my initial experience in the arts."
As scenic designer, Cornell is responsible for the style and tone, the mood and atmosphere of the show. He brings his vision to life through the construction and painting of sets, buying stage properties (props), such as furniture, draperies, decorations, costumes and setting up lighting for the show.
Dusty Terrell collaborates with Cornell and other scenic designers painting the large backdrop pieces for each production. She works from Cornell's digital images or his meticulous drawings to bring the set to life. Early summer is prime time for building sets.
"Beyond being a director Allen is a set designer and lighting designer so he understands what my team goes through to make a particular show happen," says Terrell, the lead scenic artist. "He's tuned into the needs of our shop and gives me a degree of freedom in my painting. I work very closely with him on the set designs, the colors, the texture, adding shadows. It's pieces of a puzzle that eventually fit together."
A couple of years ago the venue created Riverside Theatricals, which is devoted to creating new musicals for young audiences starring professional performers. "Poodleful, A K9 Mystery Musical," based on the children’s book “Pansy at the Palace,” by Vero Beach resident Cynthia Bardes was the first production in 2015. It was staged at Riverside and in Stuart, Gainesville, and Lexington, Ky.
Cornell says regional theater has become home for original works of theater in America today.
"Regional theatre is where new works can be born away from commercial pressure, " Cornell relates. "Our new works target young people, create an audience for tomorrow. They get to experience the magic of theatre and hopefully they continue being involved as their lives move forward. We've had a number of young people here go into the theatre world and we're proud of that."
Since 2013 Riverside has partnered with the famed Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia on producing the final show of its season. Last season the collaboration was "Saturday Night Fever" that had a three week run in Vero before it travelled to Philadelphia for a seven week summer run. By sharing the costs of the sets, props and costumes, productions of this magnitude are possible. For the 2017-'18 season, the two theatres will do a co-production of Mamma Mia.
"I had been looking to do a production in Florida in the winter so I was put in touch with Allen and found that Riverside was very compatible with us," says Bernard Harvard, Producing Artistic Director of Walnut Street Theatre.
"We get along very well, share the same values. Being from the Philadelphia region Allen understands our theatre's history and that of the city. We collaborate very well. With Saturday Night Fever we're getting a show that's in very good shape, a well oiled machine. We're rarin' to go."