Virtual_Tour_ImageIf you’re anything like me, first, I must say, I’m very sorry.  🙂  But beyond your unfortunate neurosis, there are moments in your life that really stand out, teaching you something unexpected, allowing you to see a new side of humanity. I experienced one of those moments when I had the great fortune to work with Venture Theatre in downtown Billings. I knew very little about the Venture Theatre beyond that they produce plays and musicals. I was soon to discover the astounding, behind-the-scenes work of the Youth Conservatory and its director Lynn Al Debree.

I stopped by the theatre in early January to pitch them a new service Google is offering that provides immersive, high resolution virtual tours using Google’s Street View technology. The tours are displayed prominently on Google’s search results and are easily shared through social media or embedded on a web site just like a YouTube video.

My cold call to the Venture was right before a cascade of apocalyptic news stories filled the Billings Gazette about the Theatre’s finances, each filled with dire accusations about the its future. If I had known about their financial troubles, I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to try to sell them my service.

When I walked in, there holding court with a cadre of volunteers, was Lynn, Venture’s Youth Conservatory Director. I was instantly impressed when she took the time to visit with me, despite the flurry of activity around her. She instantly understood the utility and technical aspects of the new virtual tour medium, engaging me with insightful questions.

After a few minutes, Lynn demonstrated a deft foresight that still amazes me. She frankly explained that the Venture had no money to pay for a tour, but I should do one for free. I had just started my business, InsideMT, and I was eager o make back my investment, working for free wasn’t on my radar at all, but Lynn artfully convinced me to agree to donate the work. It turned out that the inspiration alone I gained from the experience was absolutely priceless.

On Lynn’s advice, I came back during the annual Fringe Festival between January 18th through the 26th for a series of photoshoots. Each session Lynn carefully orchestrated a dynamic tableau in every room of the Venture: a passel of singing kids crowded around a piano in one room, a vicious fight being choreographed with swords in a dance studio, a puzzle of posing students on a stage, actors pitched in a heated drama, a duo practicing a song for an upcoming show, and colorful sets. Each was arranged with impromptu creativity, skillful management, and charming charisma by Lynn.

Over those few days, I experienced first hand the Venture Theatre’s amazing work while capturing their virtual tour. I saw an encouraging and safe place where children of all ages could come to a judgement-free zone to learn how to express themselves with music, dance, theater and arts. The staff and volunteers at Venture Theatre are passionate about creating a protective place for all children, whether they are dealing with mental illnesses, physical disabilities, troubled homes, poverty, or simply looking for a place to feel accepted.

As if all the classes and programs that go on at the theatre weren’t enough, I was amazed when Lynn explained the many outreach programs that coordinated out of the theatre. The Venture Into Schools Program, an innovative program that has taken up where cuts in school arts budgets left off, actually producing plays and musicals in schools around the Billings region. As well as Project Homelessness, a unique project created in cooperation with Americorps/Vista that tells the story of youth homelessness in the Billings area, fighting social injustices through the arts.

Then, on the third day, after watching their amazing work, actually seeing these children flourish as a result of the safe and encouraging environment cultivated there, enjoying the adult performances that simply would not have a forum in Billings without the Venture, I learned something that absolutely astounded me. Venture Theatre operates almost entirely on donation like any other not-for-profit organization.

It’s not the ticket sales of the productions, it’s not the crazy-affordable fees for the classes. Venture Theatre is able to do this powerful service for the Billings community primarily on donations. The long hours by the dedicated staff and volunteers help but the bills get paid just like the United Way, the Red Cross or any church, through generous donations by supporters.

The experience opened my eyes to what real, innovative, and effective dedication to the Billings community looks like. I was deeply moved by it all, turning me into a life-long evangelist about the power of the arts to empower and inspire youth and to effect real positive change in a community. If you live in Billings and want to make a difference, I sincerely encourage you to talk to Lynn, the Youth Conservatory Director, and ask her what you can do to support this truly amazing Billings community asset.

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