New Theatre West Virginia Leader Planning Big Changes

BEAVER, W.Va. (AP) — Theatre West Virginia’s new general manager Gayle Oakes said she’s ready to break a leg.

After a few weeks on the job, Oakes said she is planning some major changes including new music for their historical dramas, updates to the stage, new Broadway productions and fundraisers that get the entire community involved.

“This is my dream job,” Oakes said. “Like honestly, it makes me happy going to work every day. But it’s a lot, a lot of work.”

Oakes, who grew up in Channahon, Illinois, a small town on the banks for the Illinois River just a stone’s throw from southwest Chicago, said she has wanted a career in theater since she was young but was always told it would likely be a long shot.

“I always wanted to do theater, but I had a parent that was like, ‘You can’t make a living off theater,’” Oakes said.

This is how Oakes ended up at Mississippi State University studying zoology, a major she instantly knew was the wrong choice after attending a few classes.

“I hated every minute of it,” she said. “And then my roommate, she’s like, ‘You need to go to the community theater.’ ... and I got involved with community theater and then switched to a theater major.”

Before completing her major, Oakes said she got wrapped up with the excitement of traveling, which led her to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, where she met her husband, who was a park ranger.

The two then traveled and worked as park rangers in a number of states including Utah, Washington and a few others before eventually settling in Beckley in 2008.

Oakes said her husband now works as a park ranger for the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve out of an office in Grandview Park just down the road from the Cliffside Amphitheater where Theatre West Virginia (TWV) stages its outdoor productions.

Oakes said she was already familiar with TWV even before being selected to replace the former general manager Scott Hill, who retired in January.

In 2014, a year after the TWV Board of Directors voted to close the theater company, Oakes said she worked as a stage manager for TWV. She said she also worked as the technical director last year.

Prior to getting her full-time gig with TWV, Oakes worked as a pharmacy tech at the Beckley VA Medical Center while also running a non-profit, faith-based performing arts ministry called Beckley Children Theatre Ministry.

Oakes said she started her nonprofit theater after learning about the TWV board’s decision to close the theater company.

“The story behind it was, my son was in the academy, Theatre West Virginia’s Academy. He’s a little 5-year-old kindergartner. He went to rehearsal that night they gave him his part – he had this little part where he got to sing and they gave him this little CD to practice so he could learn his one little line that he had to sing,” she said. “ ... He was just so excited. Well, that next day, I got a call that they were closing. and it devastated him.”

Oakes said the incident was the inspiration behind starting Beckley Children Theatre Ministry, which she intends to continue as TWV and her nonprofit theater operate during opposite times of the year.

She added that it still feels a bit surreal that she has a job that she’s dreamed about since she was a child.

“My husband is completely opposite of me and running my ministry he’s always thought, he loves the ministry part of it, but it’s a lot of work a lot and I’m gone a lot,” she said. “And I always told him, if I can get paid to do this, I’m jumping on it. and sure enough, when this came available, I jumped on it. I couldn’t pass it up. This is my dream job.”

While taking a tour of the Cliffside Amphitheater in Grandview this week, which still has a yellow brick road painted on the stage from a previous show, Oakes pointed out all the things she’d like to add or improve.

First and foremost, Oakes said she wants to refurbish the two towers attached to either side of the stage.

She said she hopes to qualify for grant funding to pay to update the towers by adding railings and replacing some of the rotted wood.

She said she is also looking to update and repaint the sound towers located on either side of the audience section.

Oakes said she recently found out that park employees will be able to handle this project.

“I was up here last week for my first week just to see what was going on and saw that they were redoing the bathrooms, which I didn’t even know about,” she said. “... Then the head of maintenance came up, and we were talking about these towers. I said, ‘Yeah, I’m trying to see if I can get some funding to at least get them painted.’ Next thing I know, I come out here and he says, ‘Hey, we’re starting on the towers in two weeks. Do you want anything changed on it?’ ... The park service people are great. If you’re great to the park service, they’re great to you.”

Coming in as the new director, Oakes said she only plans to do two shows this year: “Hatfields and McCoys,” which will run June 22 to July 5, and “Rocket Boys: The Musical,” which will run July 14-29.

“That’s all we’ll have time for this year because we’re behind with me just coming in, but next year I would love to totally change it up and do a major Broadway production for our first show of the year,” she said.

Even for those who’ve seen “Hatfields and McCoys” and “Rocket Boys: The Musical,” Oakes said they can expect to see a few changes that will keep the show fresh and interesting.

For “Hatfields and McCoys,” Oakes said they have someone working on new music as well as all new choreography. She added that she is also looking into getting part of the stage fixed in order to bring more pyrotechnics to the shows and possibly bring back “Honey in the Rock,” which hasn’t been done for several years.

She added that she’s also got about a dozen fundraiser ideas bouncing around in her head, from battle of the bands to painting chair for cast members, that she’s hoping will bring more people to the theater.

Although it’s been only two weeks, Oakes said she can’t wait to dig in and see her ideas come to life. In doing this job, Oakes said she’s also living proof that you can make a living out of the theater.

“I knew it was possible,” she said. “I just had to get there.”