Meet the Best Friends Who Brought Musical Theatre to Toms River

Special Features   Meet the Best Friends Who Brought Musical Theatre to Toms River
 
As Exit 82 celebrates its 10th anniversary, founders Billy Cardone and Keely Davenport look back on launching their own theatre company.
Exit 82's production of Beauty and the Beast
Exit 82's production of Beauty and the Beast

When Billy Cardone and Keely Davenport first met, they were two theatre-loving 13-year-olds who’d both grown up in Toms River, New Jersey. Their shared passion for musical theatre sparked the beginning of a life-long friendship, which years later also propelled them into their very first joint business venture: founding a non-profit theatre in their hometown.

Billy Cardone and Keely Davenport
Billy Cardone and Keely Davenport

Since launching a decade ago, Cardone and Davenport’s Exit 82: A Toms River Theatre Company has produced 23 productions, taught over 334 students, involved over 950 volunteers, and performed to over 38,427 patrons. The only theatre company in Toms River, their 2017 production of Be More Chill drew in nearly 5,000 theatregoers from across the country and around the world.

But the path hasn’t always been easy. On the eve of launching their 10th anniversary season, Cardone and Davenport discovered that they didn’t have the budget to continue producing in their regular performance space (previously contracted to them at a lower rate). The roadblock led them to taking their biggest leap yet—leasing their own theatre space on Main Street in Toms River—and this summer, the company is presenting its inaugural show in the new Exit 82 Theater: an immersive, all-new production of The Drowsy Chaperone (now in performances through July 29). Beginning in October, the space will re-open for a newly imagined Little Shop of Horrors.

With expanded programming, as well as the launch of a Creative and Performing Arts Academy (which teaches theatre to children ages 5 through to college), Exit 82 has come a long way since its early days as two college students’ pipedream.

The duo talk to Playbill about their journey, building a business in the theatre, and celebrating their milestone year.

What was the eureka moment that made you decide to start your own theatre company?
BC: During college [where Davenport studied Arts Administration and Cardone was a performance major] we would both go home for the summer and find that we were traveling at least an hour to do community theatre. Toms River did not have many resources to offer at the time. We both looked at each other, took stock of all of the things we’d been learning in college, and just thought, ‘Let’s take matters into our hands.’ A mantra that we live by is: If the opportunities aren’t there, create them yourself.

What were your first steps?
BC: We met with a not-for-profit lawyer in Newark after school. They helped us get set up and get our 501c3 status. We knew we would have to build it from the ground up—we made connections with local business to help support and sponsor and we reached out to high schools for resources like costumes. Then in 2009, we launched with three performances of On the Town, which had a cast of about 30 people and which we staged in a middle school auditorium.

Exit 82&#39;s production of <i>The Wedding Singer</i>
Exit 82's production of The Wedding Singer

What’s something you learned from that first production?
BC: We staged On the Town in the middle of a heatwave and the facility, which didn’t have AC, was not really equipped for our production.
KD: But it was a testament to how much the community needed theatre at that time—a creative outlet for both performers and audience members. Even though it was in the middle of the heatwave, we still had 1,300 people come out to see the three shows. It showed us that what we were doing was worthwhile.
BC: Every thing we do is a learning opportunity. Ten years in, we have some things figured out but we’re still learning every single day.
KD: Half the time we feel as if we don’t know what we’re doing but we do it anyway and figure it out along the way. We’re so passionate and driven—we will work until all hours of the night to make sure it’s a success.

What were some early challenges you came up against?
BC: The arts aren’t a main focal point in Toms River so we were performing in auditoriums that didn’t have the necessary lighting or sound systems. But we had an extremely limited budget, so it was about figuring those logistics out.

How were you able to raise money ?
BC: We relied on local sponsorship by offering advertising spots in the programs. We also started out doing little gift auctions in the back room of a restaurant, which has evolved into our annual June gift auction. Now that event is able to raise close to $20,000 that goes towards our season. Other fundraising events we’ve held are murder mystery dinners and casino nights—we’re theatre people, so we put those skills to work in producing those events! In addition to fundraising, we also worked on getting exposure so that the community could learn about who we were and what our mission was.

What professional experience did you find useful when building the business?

The Exit 82 Production of <i>Be More Chill </i>
The Exit 82 Production of Be More Chill

KD: I had some great internships throughout college working in big organizations on and Off-Broadway and I learned a lot about the industry through those experiences. I was the artistic assistant at Second Stage Theater; I also worked at Stage Entertainment USA, New World Stages, Two River Theater, and spent some time at an advertising agency.

Has this developed into a full-time job for you both?
BC: We’re not yet at a point where there is room in the budget for our salaries, so both Keely and I work day jobs as professional fundraisers for a children’s hospital. What’s driving Exit 82 as a business right now is a high quality of production, so all of the money that we make goes right back into the company. It really is a passion project and a labor of love. Our compensation will come later.

What advice would you give to other young theatre entrepreneurs looking to do something similar?
BC: Make sure that you love theatre. There will be days where it feels as if the cards are stacked against you and hurdles will be thrown your way. Love it so much that quitting is not an option.

When you reflect on the education component of Exit 82 (CAPA Academy) how does that make you feel?
KD: It’s been incredibly humbling to see Exit 82 become a safe space for these kids. It’s become so much more than us, and what we first set out to do. We feel we have a responsibility now, for future performers and the community.

For more information on Exit 82, its programming and education initiatives, visit Exit82theatre.com.

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