Jessica Ruth Baker. Photo by Radhika Stein.

VLT Grows Up

Eugene’s Very Little Theatre hires its first paid executive director as construction begins on a remodel that raises the stage roof to provide fly space

Very Little Theatre’s charismatic old building is undergoing a long-awaited remodel, and when its doors open to the public in 2022, more than just the size of the stage will have changed. After 92 years of operating as an entirely volunteer-run theater company, VLT is moving to have full-time paid staff positions as the company aims to expand their role in the community.

Jessica Ruth Baker, who has been involved with the community-based theater company since 2017, has just stepped into the role of interim executive director at VLT. Having earned her master’s in nonprofit management from University of Oregon in 2019, Baker says she has had “deep connections” to both VLT and Oregon Contemporary Theatre in Eugene.

In the early months of the pandemic, Baker was working for OCT but, in September 2020, her role was eliminated as a result of the pandemic. She reached out to VLT, which was putting together a new development and marketing coordinator. Baker stepped into the job in February of this year, and quickly realized that a larger leadership role is needed for the kind of change VLT seeks to accomplish. 

“I said [to the board], there’s so much work to be done here. And I actually approached the board with a proposal, and I said I think that we should transition my role into interim executive director.” The board readily accepted Baker’s proposal.

“Yes, we need somebody to be at the helm,” VLT Board President Karen Scheeland says. Baker will hold the position through the end of the fiscal year while the board looks to hire someone permanently.

The remodeling project will expand the stage, raise the stage roof to include fly space into which backdrops can be raised off the stage, modify the auditorium to give better seating and expand back-stage shop space. It started with budgeting years ago, Scheeland says.

Scheeland says that years ago she went to Carolyn Chambers, VLT’s past board president, and said, “We want to do this remodel.”  She continues: “And before you can ask people for money, you’ve got to have money.” So, since about 10 to 15 years ago, “we started putting $2 from every ticket into a building fund. And then, when we had $200,000, we thought, ‘Maybe we can realize this.’”

Now that the renovations are underway and nearing completion — the theater expects to re-open its doors in February 2022 — VLT is focused on bringing more people into the fold. Both Baker and Scheeland talk about “getting outside people in.” After a period of necessary seclusion, “a lot of navel-gazing, trying to bring the bylaws into this century,” Baker says her goal is to open VLT up to the community again and in a broader way than before, including people who have “never walked through our doors before.”

Scheeland says she and Baker are “very much on the same page” as far as what needs to be accomplished. “My main goal right now is to get us back on our feet and back to doing these in-person productions.”

VLT has not had live productions in front of an in-person audience since having to shut down its production of Little Women on opening night — March 13, 2020. The company did pivot to virtual, and did some well-attended “parking lot theater” performances.

Little Women will open VLT’s 93rd season on Feb. 25, with the main actors mostly the same as the original 2020 cast. Baker says this is a testament to VLT’s community support and loyalty. “People have been coming to this theater for decades, people whose parents brought them to the theatre are now coming and they’re bringing their kids. There are so many people who’ve rallied around VLT, in the past, and now during COVID and during our renovations.”