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An interview with Tim Ranson, executive director and theatre manager of the Empress Theatre in Fort Macleod

The Empress Theatre Society will hold its annual general meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27 in the Green Room.
Frank McTighe, editor of The Macleod Gazette, caught up last week with Empress Theatre director Tim Ranson.
The Macleod Gazette: What is the place of the Empress Theatre in Fort Macleod?
Tim Ranson: As the executive director and theatre manager, that’s not really for me to answer. It’s not even a question for my employer, the Empress Theatre Society, to answer, in my opinion. It’s a question for the people of Fort Macleod and Alberta, and for their elected officials.
As a local resident, however, and after a lifetime working across the continent in show business, I’m very aware of the positive impact that arts and culture industries can have in a community like ours.
The potential that exists for our little theatre to work together with other creative minds in the region to invigorate this town, attract visitors and engage new residents is without limits, in my view.

TMG: What are some of the highlights from the past two years?
Ranson: It’s been a blur, but standing at the doors while folks exit the building after enjoying a live performance is my favourite part of the job. Those brief moments can be very affirming, especially if the show has gone well.
I also love hearing people’s Empress stories. From stolen first kisses through marriage proposals to blood-spurting knife fights, patrons’ memories and personal relationships with the Empress frame the responsibility and privilege I have been granted as executive director, and bear witness to a theatre’s ability to have an enduring impact on the lives of so many individuals.

TMG: What are the challenges that come with operating a theatre that is more than a century old?
Ranson: The biggest challenge for me over the last 22 months has been trying to meet everyone’s expectations of me, of the theatre and of the Empress Theatre Society.
At first I thought I might not be up to the tasks, but I’ve come to understand that the expectations are not based in reality.
It’s unrealistic, for instance, to expect the Empress Theatre Society to operate and maintain an iconic, historic, aging public building as a relevant, multi-purpose entertainment facility when it hasn’t the expertise, infrastructure or funding to do so.
It’s unrealistic to expect a small town cinema to remain open seven days a week, 52 weeks a year in an era of streaming content, spiffy home theatre systems, interactive gaming and shiny new multiplexes in malls full of big box retail outlets.
And it’s unrealistic to expect one person to make sure all of those things happen efficiently in 37.5 hours a week, even if that person pretends to have nothing better to do and ends up volunteering an additional 10-20 hours a week.

TMG: How can those challenges be addressed?
Ranson: I think we need to get them all out on the table and have an open and honest conversation about what the Empress means to us going forward. I think we need to talk about tomorrow in our town, today.
If we decide that it’s important, then we need to work together as a community to make the theatre, specifically, and the arts, in general, civic priorities.
If we decide to stick with the status quo, the theatre will continue to fall into disrepair.

TMG: Why should people consider serving on the Empress Theatre Society’s board of directors?
Ranson: This is a critical time in the life of the theatre, in my view. It’s going to need lots of forward thinking people working together if we hope to foster an environment that is conducive to the creation and presentation of quality arts and culture in this neck of the woods.

TMG: What characteristics make a good board member?
Ranson: It seems to me that serving on the board of directors for any not-for-profit organization is about community service. And, in my experience, the most successful ones have board members whose commitment extends far beyond simply showing up to monthly meetings to express their opinions and vote on motions.
My background is in entertainment production, and I am confident that my knowledge, instincts, skills and talents are a rock solid foundation from which to provide the safe and financially prudent delivery of a variety of quality programming.
The areas of greatest need for our board are in fundraising, arts advocacy, fund development, corporate relations, raising money, government liaison-ing and fund-raising. Local businesses and individuals have been very supportive, but we need to extend our reach beyond the town limits.

TMG: If people can’t or aren’t willing to serve on the board of directors but still desire to support the theatre and society, how can they do that?
Ranson: First and foremost, they can buy tickets and attend our events. They can offer to hang event posters in places they commute to or from. They can share our listings on social media. They can volunteer their goods, their expertise, their time and energy. They can sign up for odd jobs. They can help us secure dry, pest-free storage. They can relentlessly badger wealthy in-laws. They can tell their councilors, MLAs and MPs they want more funding for the humanities, education and seasonal workers. They can write us into their wills. They can search for corporate funding opportunities, philanthropists and grants.

TMG: What are the priorities for the theatre in the coming year?
Ranson: My top priority will be to continue trying to illuminate the need for action with regards to the physical condition of the building. We’ve had engineering reports and priority assessments in place for some time, but we don’t have the funds to pursue the recommendations.
Most people’s experience at the Empress takes place when the lights are low, and their focus is on what’s in front of them on the stage or screen. They don’t see, or aren’t privy to, the many physical issues that surround them. I’ve been in the building nearly every day for the last 22 months, and I see something new that needs attention almost every time.
I’m going to focus on informing the community and our governments about the asset we have on Main Street; about the economic, social and cultural potential inherent therein; and about the real costs of doing business.
I’ll also be taking a closer look at our current roster of programs and practices, choosing those that work and finding new ones to replace those that no longer serve us.

TMG: What are the long-term priorities for the theatre?
I think that reaching long-term, comprehensive and equitable agreements with governments, and finding meaningful, substantial corporate sponsorship opportunities are at the top of our list.
We also need to reach out to the rest of Alberta, in my view, and share both ownership and responsibility for our treasured resource.

TMG: Are you optimistic the theatre will be around to celebrate its second century?
Ranson: If it becomes a priority, then it has a chance. I’m concerned many people take our theatre for granted, with an “it’s always been here and so always will be” mentality. If we can’t change that mindset, then the Empress as we know and love it won’t be here in another 25 years.
However, with careful, thoughtful stewardship and attention, it is very possible our little prairie theatre can continue to hold a meaningful, special place in our community well into the future.