Theater founder wants to give back to town

Posted: Thursday, December 01, 2005


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  Tatiana Butler, left, and Kara Bethune rehearse a scene from "Dandelion Wine" that will be performed today, Friday and Saturday at the newly opened Triumvirate Theatre in Soldotna. The play contains thrills amidst a backdrop of nostalgia. Photo by Jenny Neyman

Tatiana Butler, left, and Kara Bethune rehearse a scene from "Dandelion Wine" that will be performed today, Friday and Saturday at the newly opened Triumvirate Theatre in Soldotna. The play contains thrills amidst a backdrop of nostalgia.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

When a regular person wants to express gratitude, a simple “thank you” usually suffices. When a dramatic person has thanks to give, they do so on a larger scale.

Like opening a theater.

At least that’s how Joe Rizzo does it.

Rizzo has been involved in the performing arts on the central Kenai Peninsula for years — coaching the state-winning Nikiski High School drama, debate and forensics team, writing and directing musicals at the high school, running children’s theater summer camps and putting on community plays. His latest dramatic endeavor is spearheading an effort to open Triumvirate Theatre in Soldotna.

“I started the Triumvirate Theatre in Soldotna because basically it’s where I grew up and, being on my own at a very young age, Soldotna really kind of took me in,” Rizzo said. “This is a way for me to pay back the community a little bit for all the kindness I’ve gotten from them.”

The theater is in the Peninsula Center Mall across from Teriyaki Express. An opening celebration will be held from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday with live music, dance performances, free food, a tour of the theater and door prizes.

Rizzo and his board of directors — his wife, Paulene, Chris and Carla Jenness of Nikiski and A.J. Seims, who grew up with Rizzo and now lives in Wasilla —have been working toward opening Triumvirate Theatre while operating the Alaska Children’s Institute for the Performing Arts.


The storefront of the new theater, which also houses a used book store and art gallery, in the Peninsula Center Mall.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

The institute, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 1998 as a way to get kids involved in theater, Rizzo said. The organization holds summer arts camps and has put on several plays with kids and adults, including “The Doll Collection” in 2003, “The Nazi Chronicles” in 2004, and this year’s “Little Nell” and “Wait until Dark” in July.

The theater operates under the umbrella of the institute and is an avenue for the organization to expand.

“Basically what we’ve done is taken a successful children’s theater company that we run in the summer and we have extended it to a year-round, full-season program,” Rizzo said.

More than just acting is going on in the theater. The stage area with about 100 comfy folding theater seats donated from Kambe Theatre is available for other organizations to rent. The space also includes a used book store and an art gallery.

“It’s going to be great because we’re going to give an opportunity for both kids and adults to feature their own art,” Rizzo said. “Not only do we get to help out the community in a myriad of ways ... but we also get to help them out culturally.”

Rizzo aims to do more for the community than just entertain it. The opening of the theater establishes a home for the community service arm of the institute — the Drop of a Hat Players.

The Players is a group of actors ready to stage a performance whenever the need arises to generate money for people in need, whether it’s a child with cancer or a family who’s lost their home to a fire.

“Triumvirate Theatre’s philosophy is a little different from most community theaters all around the country, and that is that most theaters just try and make enough money to pay for the next show,” Rizzo said. “We’re hoping the theater will become an intricate part of the charity work within the community.”


Triumvirate Threatre includes art gallery space where teens and adults can display their work. Currently on display is work by Nikiski artist Chris Jenness and posters from previus plays put on by the Alaska Children's Institute for the Performing Arts.

Philanthropy and homage to Soldotna aside, Rizzo admits there is something in this endeavor for him, too — realizing a longtime dream.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for years and years and years,” he said. “For one thing, I’ve always seen the performing arts as something more than just putting on a show. It changes people and helps people, especially kids.”

Rizzo realized early on the effect theater can have on those who participate in it while acting in plays as a teen. Participating in the arts gives people confidence and makes them better citizens, he said. It’s also a proud and powerful experience for parents to see their kids perform, a facet Rizzo saw when he started directing shows as a teacher.

“... This is the kind of talent that we try to develop with kids,” he said. “For me, personally, I’ve been blessed with some talents to be able to direct and facilitate and make things happen, and with that comes the responsibility to make things happen for people.”

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