There could not be a more perfect union than Davenport Junior Theatre and Ashley Becher.
The bubbly, super-talented Bettendorf native was recently named DJT’s new artistic director. She will lead the Mainstage Acting Company at DJT (heading into its 71st season), typically consisting of three fully realized theatrical productions.
The artistic director creates the culture of the mainstage, builds relationships with students/families, and hires the professional teams of directors and designers for the season.
Becher, 37, is a professional actor, director, choreographer, and creator who truly loves the transformative magic of theatre and the way it can bring us together, according to DJT. She spent more than a decade as an New York City-based actor, in professional theatres around the country, and three years in South Korea (where she met her husband, Bobby).
The Bechers – who play Babette and Lumiere in Circa ‘21’s current “Beauty and the Beast” — also are creators and owners of the production company WhatFun! Theatre, founded in 2014 to produce theater for youth that’s smart, approachable, artistic and fun. Ashley and Bobby met in 2012 while touring South Korea, performing and leading workshops for youth and families.
“She actually brings a lot of experience to the table as a professional actress,” Daniel Sheridan, performing arts supervisor for the city of Davenport (and past DJT artistic director) said this week. “She’s also a solid choreographer and she’s a director. With her partner Bobby, they have created a lot of work and original music together, creating kids shows.”
“She certainly has a background in that and then she also spent three years in Korea, working at a theater there. That’s a very different experience than some of the staff that’s around right now, and so it’s nice to have the diversity of experience coming in,” he said.
Due to the part-time nature of artistic director, Becher will have a lot of flexibility in her hours, Sheridan said. He stepped down from that position after 11 years, in May 2020, keeping the performing arts supervisor job. Ben Gougeon led the virtual COVID season of 2020-21, and chose the productions for 2021-22, the 70th anniversary season that just ended last weekend with a big celebration.
“When Ben left the position, as artistic director, it ended up being filled by what we what we call the leadership team,” Sheridan said. “So we had a production manager, a stage manager and then we had an administrative manager and then myself who does development, fundraising.”
Under Gougeon, the position was larger than the salary he deserved (it’s $10,000-$12,000 a year), so it’s being reorganized under Becher, with not as many responsibilities. One she won’t have is running the Junior Board, made up of DJT students that plan special events.
Gougeon left early this year to become Quad City Arts’ first events coordinator, and he continues to be a DJT instructor.
Free shows for public
DJT serves students age 3-18, with an average of 1,850 enrollments per year in programs with students from over 30 different towns. In the last decade, the facility (based at 2822 Eastern Ave.) has expanded into five additional cottages onsite and added a scene shop and scenic storage also on campus.
DJT switched to offering its mainstage productions free to the public, which presented a financial challenge to the organization, making up about an $8,000 revenue loss.
“We were lucky, we were able to do it, so had a break-even year,” Sheridan said. “I’m excited, selfishly working on development, on alumni relationships, and initiatives of the board sets for assistance, finding financial support. I’m excited to have Ashley coming in as artistic director.”
“I love their mission, about making theater accessible for all,” Becher said Thursday. “I think that’s so important and I also really value theater for young audiences. I think it’s so important to expose kids to theater — to develop those relational skills and empathy. And all the creative muscles that they get to flex, just learning how to speak in public and you see people from different sides and see things from a different angle than you normally would.”
“A welcoming space”
“I love what a welcoming space Junior Theatre is — they really try to make it inviting for everyone and I just really enjoy that aspect of the culture,” she said.
While Becher prizes performing, she gets great satisfaction as a director.
“I love the collaborative process and so you get to work on it from the beginning and imagine what the world would be like,” she said. “You also get to collaborate with the actors and the designers, the technician to elaborate on that and bring it to life. I just really get a lot of energy out of imagining what a show could be and then growing those ideas and being challenged by them within the process.”
Becher wants to continue to make DJT shows free.
“Hopefully, the more people that learn about that mission that are able to give a little bit extra, or even just a few dollars when they come to see a show,” she said. “That will help make it accessible for those people who aren’t able to pay that money to see a show.”
Becher has many directing and choreographing credits at Circa, including “Seussical,” “Just Desserts,” “Grace for President,” “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs,” “The Rocky Horror Show,” and “Rapunzel in the Wild West.”
Earlier this year, she guest directed “Frozen Jr.” for North Scott High School and choreographed “Annie” for Moline High School, and just directed “Imagine That” last weekend for Davenport Junior Theatre.
Previous QC area productions include director/choreographer for last summer’s “Newsies!” at Countryside Community Theatre, and director for DJT’s February 2019 production of “Aesop’s Falables.”
Becher first moved back to the QC in May 2018 to teach at DJT.
What’s up next?
The shows for next season will be approved in mid-July, then professional staff will be hired. The first production will be presented in October.
DJT is in the process of hiring a new production manager, Sheridan said.
“The artistic director is really the eyes, looking up, communicating and staying connected with their families and the public and then the production manager is looking down, doing the nuts and bolts making sure we don’t trip and fall over ourselves.”
The new DJT museum (which Sheridan worked over six years, with many AmeriCorps interns in creating) is in Cottage 13, four down from the Nighswander Theatre.
For other theaters, Ashley and Bobby Becher will be in Circa’s next show, “Disaster,” and she’ll choreograph “Pippin” for Double Threat Studios, and “Rocky Horror” for The Speakeasy in the fall.
“I did tell my husband now that he’s not allowed to let me say yes to anything else for the fall,” Becher said. “It’s hard when there’s so many exciting projects that I genuinely want to work on.”
For more information on DJT programs, click HERE.