NOVA Center for the Performing Arts celebrated its birthday Saturday the way many 1-year-olds might — with children singing, a clown making balloon hats, and platters of cupcakes.
There were skeptics who doubted that a collaboration could succeed between the Rimrock Opera Company and a performing-arts company like Venture Theatre, which was known for taking artistic risks. When the ribbon was cut last May on the center, located at 2317 Montana Ave., $500,000 was still owed on the building, but for the first time in more than 12 months, the facility was current on its payments to landlord Mike Schaer. The big question a year ago was: Will they come?
Fast forward to Saturday when NOVA’s management recounted its successful 2013-14 season with several sold-out shows.
“When this started a year ago, I don’t think anybody knew how or if this was going to go,” NOVA managing director Craig Huisenga told a crowd of about 100 people Saturday.
NOVA is ending its first full season in the black with a small reserve, according to Darci Hertz, NOVA financial officer. They managed to whittle current liabilities down to $480,000.
Community donations helped bring in $125,000 in 2013 to allow Venture to pay off the IRS and the city of Billings and to get current on payments to Schaer. But many theater patrons were holding their breath to see how the season would finish, both artistically and financially.
Over 6,000 patrons took in shows during the 2013-14 season, making for packed houses for the opener, “Young Frankenstein,” and the powerful drama “August Osage County.” Huisenga stepped in as managing director in October, taking the reins from Matt Haney, who left due to family commitments.
NOVA amped up building rentals and hired on Dan Nickerson as director of the youth conservatory. He worked to expand youth offerings, including Venture Into Schools, special workshops and classes. Enrollment is up 200 percent over last year for summer classes, which begin in June.
“Everything is just snowballing into next season,” Nickerson said Saturday. “We sold out a lot of shows and we started to pick shows for the new season that we are excited about. My favorite is ‘Big: The Musical,’ which opens in August. It’s based on one of my favorite movies with Tom Hanks.”
NOVA is closing out the season with the campy musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” which opens Friday.
During the celebration on Saturday, adults sipped champagne and bid on old musical instruments transformed by area artists into art.
Board member Mary Goplen said she is pleased with NOVA’s first year.
“We are running along really well, much better than expected,” Goplen said.
James Pelham, 11, came with his mom, Kay, to hear about youth shows next year.
“I was in ‘Chicken Little,’” Pelham said. “I think I’ll try out for another one.”
Kay added, “This was a very good experience for him here.”
The 2014-15 season includes youth productions “Big: The Musical,” “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and “Dinosaurs Before Dark.”
Winner of a 2013 Tony Award, “Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike” opens the main-stage season in September.
“When I read the script, I said, ‘Oh my god, we have to do this. It’s so funny,’” Huisenga said.
On Saturday night, following the party, two shows were planned for NOVA. Venture Improv was set to perform in the Black Box, and a community show, The Drum Brothers, was scheduled for the main theater. Huisenga pointed out that the full evening schedule exemplifies what NOVA is all about — a busy community venue where everyone is welcome.