BWW Interview: Theatre Tulsa's Jarrod Kopp
Tulsa is a great city for entertainment, but sometimes locals are reluctant to take a chance on homegrown performances when big names come to town. Theatre Tulsa is working hard to expand on the name-brand mindset and bring local productions into the spotlight.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Theatre Tulsa's executive director, Jarrod Kopp, and chat about how Theatre Tulsa has gotten to where it is today and their plans for the future of theatre in Tulsa. Kopp is clear about his vision for Theatre Tulsa's role in the arts scene: "People need to take local theatre seriously... we need a leader to pull it all together." He continues, "Other companies are not competition. For me, our competition is indifference to local theatre."
Theatre Tulsa is about to embark upon its 97th season, and it owes its longevity to a group of dedicated individuals who believed in the future of local theatre even when it seemed as though that future might be impossible. The company underwent a transformation back in 2012 that was borne out of a state of emergency: they had almost no subscribers, donors, or corporate sponsors, and they were significantly in debt when a few key volunteers came to the rescue. In Kopp's words, "We thought it was a tragedy that this was a 90-year-old theatre company and it was just going to die off with a whimper." Kopp and his team of eight friends and colleagues marshaled their resources and experiences and stepped into leadership positions. Theatre Tulsa emerged from this bout of adversity stronger than ever, with a renewed energy and desire to revive the local theatre scene.
Kopp was at the helm of this team, and he was able to leverage his years of work in marketing and PR to help boost Theatre Tulsa towards a successful future. Even before taking on his present-day role in a formal capacity, Kopp used his expertise to help shape Theatre Tulsa's budding identity. He says, "I was giving them a lot of pro bono services to teach them how to get attention from the press, how to pitch a story, some marketing ideas, and help with the brand remake of several years ago." The efforts of Kopp and his team over the past 7 years have certainly paid off: today, Theatre Tulsa is thriving. Their season now includes about a dozen performances, including five mainstage shows, four youth productions, and several straight plays.
Kopp's vision is centered around bringing new audiences to the theatre for the first time, and he believes that Theatre Tulsa can do this by appealing to the interest of regular Tulsans. In his words, "We decided that what was lacking in this market was just a mainstream, popular theatre company... What people are drawn to are things like national touring companies, and they're great, but this town can sell out six weeks of Wicked, and they won't come see a new work or straight play." Theatre Tulsa's most recent season, which included hits like Beauty and the Beast and Newsies, reflects this approach.
Kopp has big plans for the company's future. According to him, "People look at Theatre Tulsa and think it's great, but it's not even a glimmer of what we're trying to achieve." A big piece of this vision includes a new physical center for Theatre Tulsa somewhere down the line. He says, "One of my big goals is to get us a centralized space where we can take all of this energy and put it into one cohesive area." This space would allow Theatre Tulsa to have a more tangible presence and would therefore help the company achieve their mission of expanding outwards into the community as a whole. Kopp is visibly excited by this prospect, saying, "I think it would be explosive."
Above all, he wants the next generation to know that local theatre is alive and well in Tulsa. He says, "We wanted to create our company for young performers to aspire to and change the idea that people had to leave Oklahoma" in order to pursue the arts. Theatre Tulsa has robust education programming, but Kopp hopes that this will grow, especially when his dream of getting a new physical space for Theatre Tulsa becomes a reality. He hopes that this, and his work at Theatre Tulsa in general, will send these young people a powerful message: "that they can have a home in Tulsa and can still be a performer."
In the long term, Kopp hopes that by attracting new audiences with big-name musical productions, they'll get hooked on local theatre and be willing to take a chance on more unconventional or obscure pieces. He believes that Tulsa audiences are "very value conscious" and often choose to attend the opera, symphony, or ballet because they know that they'll get professional-quality bang for their buck. The Theatre Tulsa team decided that they wanted their company to be the catalyst for expanding audiences beyond "people in the community who see each other's shows" and especially attracting those who "don't know that they like theatre because they haven't tried it." A rising tide lifts all boats," Kopp says, "and we hope to be able to do that."