Sights set on next act at Astra Theatre

Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Lorelei Nealy, 8, of Jasper, sits on her mother Maria's lap at The Way Down Wanderers' concert at the Astra Theatre in Jasper on Saturday.


JASPER — When recalling Saturday’s near-sellout concert, Jay Hamlin remembered the crowd. Instead of sitting in the seats of the historic Astra Theatre, attendees were standing, moving and feeling the music as The Way Down Wanderers captivated them with bluegrass-based tunes.

“There were a lot of people singing along, a lot of people having a good time,” said Hamlin, who is president of Next Act, the nonprofit organization that operates the Astra. “That brings a lot of excitement for us, too. When people come in and then are able to have a good time and not just sit there statically. They can feel like they’re part of the show.”

Since undergoing extensive renovations and reopening in April 2018, the Astra volunteer team has worked to transform the theater — which originally opened in 1936 — into a beacon of arts that fills a community void.

The 25 performances that have taken place in the 357-seat venue since its relaunch have varied widely — as have the number of guests that have filed into the building for individual events. But as the curtain closes on the 2019 season and a new run approaches, Hamlin said the team is both happy with the theater’s success and is continuing to search for ways to improve.

People enter the The Way Down Wanderers concert at the Astra Theatre in Jasper on Saturday.

“For the future, what we’re looking for is to continue to provide that exciting and engaging entertainment that people have come to expect from the Next Act and the Astra,” Hamlin said. “I think what we would, in our heart of hearts, like to see [is] greater community engagement. A greater reach across the population that we exist, and we’re putting on programming that, if they hadn’t heard about us, they’re probably going to enjoy if they come see a show.”

Comedy performances and movies have been hits. Annual film screenings of flicks like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” always pack seats. Next Act board member Eddie Luegers said many events this season have attracted between 150 and 250 people, enough to make the hall seem “very full.”

“That’s kind of where we kind of gauge our success,” Luegers said. “When we cross that 250 line.”

Luegers said he believes the 2019 season had been more successful than the theater’s comeback year in 2018. Still, crowd size does vary from show to show. Hamlin said a few factors play into those numbers.

“Music acts versus movies, versus time of year — all of those, there’s different factors that go on,” he said. “We find that things that have a little bit of nostalgia to them certainly play well with the things that we do.”

The Way Down Wanderers of Peoria, Illinois, perform at the Astra Theatre in Jasper on Saturday.

Hamlin later said the team would love for the attendance rate to be 80% at all events. Getting to that number is “just a matter of expanding our reach, and expanding the audience that knows who we are and when a show is going to happen,” he said.

Currently, Next Act utilizes social media and resources like this newspaper to spread the word about the group’s events. In addition to building its audience, Luegers said the nonprofit is also committed to bringing in new performers, and that he’d personally like to see the Astra host more locally-focused events that engage the community.

“With movies and everything else, we’re always trying to do a little bit of something different,” Luegers said. “Trying to get something that we haven’t had, that the community may or may not get to do normally, is what we’re hoping to do. That was kind of always my drive for it.”

Hamlin said growing the Astra’s endowment is also a priority. That could help Next Act bring in bigger events and musical acts, as well as preserve the theater for generations to come.

Though the Astra’s 2020 season has not yet been announced, on Jan. 18, Evansville-based duo The Cold Stares will kick off the organization’s new year, which Hamlin said will include six concerts, six movie screenings and two comedy shows. Customers will be able to purchase a season pass to all of the events that will also allow them to pick their seats in the venue.

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