ACT’s new president sees better days ahead for theater troupe
Virtual shows planned for later this year
James “Jim” Watt recently became Altoona Community Theatre’s Board of Trustees president. He considers himself foremost a “cheerleader” and a “stewart of all good things in ACT.”
Unlike most other community theater troupes, ACT doesn’t own a performance venue. Instead, it rents the historic Mishler Theatre from the Blair County Arts Foundation. It does own nearby offices, a rehearsal hall and an extensive prop and costume collection, which it loans to various high school and college drama programs. Such a spirit of collaboration within the local arts community has been the heart of ACT’s outreach and education mission since 1948.
Watt and the board members he leads remain committed to ACT, its unique place in the community and are adjusting for better fit and function during COVID-19.
More than 100 members of ACT’s volunteer base convened via Zoom for a membership meeting recently, Watt said, noting that some members now live beyond Pennsylvania but retain a love and loyalty to ACT.
It’s been nearly two years since the unexpected death of ACT’s most loyal supporter/employee/visionary Steve Helsel. COVID-19 dealt a second blow earlier this year as ACT canceled its season.
But, Watt said, better days are ahead with virtual shows being planned for later this year with the goal of a return to in-person performances in spring 2021.
Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith talked with Watt about what’s in store for ACT.
Q. What was your very first activity or association with ACT?
Watt: I saw my first live-action play in 1985 at the Mishler Theater, produced by ACT. It was “Guys and Dolls” and I still remember Mark Perehinec’s performance. He did a fantastic job. I went on to help with several shows. Most recently, I played George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” During that play, Steve Helsel asked me to join the board. It was difficult saying no to Steve. He was a treasure.
Q. ACT is advertising for a new position of operations manager, please explain.
Watt: Right now we are limited to what we can do without a professional staff managing day-to-day activities. Covid-19 forced us to restructure everything our office was doing and focus on the most meaningful parts of our mission.
This resulted in splitting up some of the job responsibilities of the executive director. ACT has been consistently adding to the services we offer and the executive director role became daunting.
We are primarily a volunteer-led organization with over 100 active members and growing. Coordinating the logistics of all we do is challenging and we are focusing our hiring practices on volunteer management, fundraising and theater.
We want someone with the knowledge and experience of working with a very active volunteer board. With the help of Kevin Sensinig and Interaction Dynamics Group, we took a hard look at our future and the needs for a solid strategic plan.
Bryce Cossitor is chairing our new search, and under his leadership ACT did a study that quickly showed that the design of our organization looks very different than the typical community theater and our staffing needs needed to support that structure. This is primarily due to the number of collaborations that we have fostered over our long history.
To continue to be successful in Blair County, we are looking for a person to help us grow our volunteer base, increase those collaborations and help our volunteers grow our programming. We need someone that can understand the market here and work within our community and navigate the traditions of ACT.
Q. How does your extensive experiences in fundraising provide an edge to lead ACT forward?
Watt: I am surrounded by fantastic leaders in ACT. Many people on the current board and in our membership have chaired the board at one time or another. I am more of a designated meeting planner and discussion facilitator than the leader of the organization.
Understanding how to raise philanthropic support and having the knowledge base associated with running a 501(c)3 has certainly been helpful in this time of upheaval, but knowing how to ask for help has served me the best.
My time at Penn State University and Juniata College has given me the opportunity to be around fantastic volunteers. I have watched them work alongside other volunteers and staff to lift up a mission they care deeply about in a way that brings passion and excitement to a community.
At Juniata College, I work around some of the best, most caring, community of volunteers. They have really strengthened my ability to ask for help and support. At ACT, we lean on our members and we ask for their backing of time and money. In the past few months, they have really responded and we are incredibly grateful! So, in turn, we are finding a way to give back to our community, doing what we do best! I am just thankful to be surrounded by so many loving, accepting and creative people. Altoona is an amazing place to find good quality agents of change!
Q. What is the best advice you have ever received?
Watt: My father once said to me that hard work covers a multitude of sins. At the end of the day, I may not be the smartest, talented or the most creative person in the room, but I can work as hard or harder than anyone else.
If any one of us can put the right amount of effort into something, chances are it will get better. The most important thing is to put your effort into things that really matter.
Q. Who is the person you most admire and why?
Watt: Working toward my doctorate, I get the opportunity to study and conduct research focused on understanding the qualities and practices of good leadership in diverse organizations. What I have discovered is that innovative leaders are extremely rare. At Juniata College, I have the opportunity to work for an incredibly fair, passionate and focused leader. During the pressures surrounding Covid-19, I watched a number of college administrators run away from the tough decisions.
President James Troha worked diligently on making the best of terribly difficult choices in order to preserve the mission of Juniata College and the surrounding community.
Those choices were not always popular, but they were the best choices to be made with the information available at the time. I watched him share credit for those strategies that went well and bear the negative repercussions of those that were less than ideal.
In the end, he operated with dignity, class and humility. Working for and with him for the last several years has been a great education in itself.