AUBURN — Karen Mayo and the rest of the Community Little Theatre's leaders no longer have to check with anyone if they want to schedule a last-minute show at the Great Falls Performing Arts Center.
It is their building now, after all. For the next 98 years, they are the ultimate authorities on the building, and that's a good thing.
"From a production standpoint, an artistic standpoint, we can control our own fate," said Mayo, president of Community Little Theatre.
But being in charge means they have to pay to fill the building's oil tank, pay its other expenses and plot its future. It also means they must find a way to use the building, especially the 350-seat auditorium.
Empty seats in a theater mean no revenue is coming in, and that could be a problem.
"We can continue to do what we've always done," Mayo said. "But to expand and fulfill the fate of being a true performing arts center, that entire vision, that's something more."
The theater group began its second year as landlords and masters of its own fate in August. City councilors signed a 99-year lease with CLT in 2011, giving the group control of the building.
The city then went ahead and demolished the west wing of the former Great Falls School. In its place is an unpaved parking lot — one of the most immediate improvements.
CLT is in charge of all heating, utilities, snowplowing and repairs. It also pays property taxes to the city and can sublet spaces.
"Our priority now is to make sure everything is safe and sound," Mayo said. "Our bathrooms are child-sized, and we need handicapped access. There's a lot we have to do, and we have to do it."
Their wish list calls for making the place comfortable: better lighting outside, bathrooms, winter heating and summer cooling.
More ambitious projects — building a small "black box" practice stage in back and a bigger main auditorium — are five or more years in the future.
So far, they've had two tenants — graphic artist Kip Elliott and music teacher Brian Gagnon's Great Falls Academy of Modern Music.
Otherwise, the theater group and its operations take up all available space. Their costumes fill four classrooms in the upper floors and their backstage operations and set construction fill the gymnasium at the back of the building.
Still, Mayo knows they have to make room for more.
"We have to be two things right now," Mayo said. "We have to be CLT, but we have to be the Great Falls Performing Arts Center, too. And with the right resources, this could all be so much bigger than CLT."
Celeste Philippon, CLT's artistic director, said the group is applying for community arts grants, but has not yet heard any news about the application. It hosted a fundraising cast reunion earlier in September that filled the seats and is selling historic Lewiston-Auburn theater photographs in their lobby. A formal showing of the gallery of photographs was held Saturday night.
"We're trying to do little things to bring some awareness to new audiences that didn't know we were here," Philippon said.
Stage productions are the group's most consistent sources of income. It has set its schedule for the next year and hopes it will be a big one.
The company wrapped up production on "Aida" last month and is rehearsing its next production, "The Wiz." That show is scheduled for later this fall.
A drama, "God of Carnage," is scheduled for February, the musical "Nunsense" is scheduled for April and the Neil Simon comedy "The Odd Couple" is scheduled to fill the June slot.
Mayo confirmed that the company will produce "Spamalot" next August.
"We already have people coming up, saying they want to try out for it," Philippon said. "It's still a year away, and we're very excited about it."
Mayo said the group frequently has to make accommodations when it comes to finances, opting to do fewer experimental dramas and more blockbuster shows like 2007's "High School Musical." Every performance of that show sold out a week before its premiere.
"There's not a lot of those shows available," Mayo said. "People always say to us, 'Why don't you do "Hairspray?'" Well, they haven't opened up the rights to that. They have to give you permission, and it can be very expensive."
There's a limited number of shows they can do, with a set number of regular volunteers.
"If our patrons had their way, we'd do five big, honking musicals every year," she said. "But we don't have enough people to do that. We continually have to tap the same group of people, and they have jobs, too, and lives outside of here."
Attracting new people may mean renting the space.
"So that means we have to stay extremely flexible, but still on our own terms," Mayo said. "We have the right to refuse, where before it came through the city's hands. But we do have to be available, and a director may have to find a different space to practice a few times."