Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What’s a Theatre Company to Do When the Economy Crashes?

This special guest post was written by Pamela Rosen, a Silicon Valley-based business writer who moonlights in the theatre as an actor, director, and acting coach.

As we begin to emerge from the “great recession,” Bay Area theatre has a vastly different landscape than it did during the boom years. Well-established, respected companies have disappeared —victims, it would seem, of the terrible economy. Yet, there are plenty of theatre companies in the Bay Area that flourished during the recession. It makes me wonder: how did the successful ones do it? What caused others with solid audience bases to fail? And most importantly, what can struggling theatres do now to shore up their futures?

Keeping it real in good times

When times are good, it’s easy for theatre companies to breathe easy and focus only on producing great shows. But so many companies plan from year to year and not for the future. When ticket sales are good enough to keep a company afloat, who wants to go out and raise money? It’s hard to convince a Board of Directors to work even harder to raise cash when money is flowing in from the box office.

In 2008, our economy fell apart quickly, and not many even came close to predicting how severe the recession would be. Many theatre companies reacted by putting on traditionally crowd-pleasing shows they thought would draw big audiences. But splashy, family-oriented productions of Oklahoma and Annie couldn’t bring in the family if the tickets were priced out of the family’s budget. Incomes fell in 2008—but production costs didn’t. Without a long-term plan or a contingency in place, companies were simply not agile enough to adjust budgets or ticket prices.

One producer at the now-defunct Alameda Civic Light Opera (ACLO) explains, “We looked out into the audience during Annie and saw half-filled houses. Meanwhile, families were walking away from the box office after seeing the ticket prices, carrying crying little girls. It’s not like the audience wasn’t there, but the shows weren’t affordable anymore.”

With dramatic scenes like that, it’s unlikely ACLO would be have been able to recoup their losses with last-minute fundraising. The window of opportunity had closed. The board was too busy trying to pay the bills and keep the doors open and couldn’t take on the additional, now more difficult task of fundraising.

“The loss of ACLO is a huge void in the community,” says ACLO director Cary Litchford. “I miss the company terribly and they had a lot of heart and soul.”

Building Relationships and Raising Funds

Theatre companies fare much better if they have long-term 3-5 year plans and Boards of Directors with members who understand that their individual and group responsibility is first and foremost fundraising and community outreach. The Willows Theatre Company in Concord closed its doors in November of 2009 and moved operations to its smaller cabaret house in Martinez, but is now roaring back. How did they manage it? With the company’s closure, the surrounding businesses and restaurants also suffered a drop in business. The Willows had developed such close relationships with those businesses that the theatre had become indispensible. An outcry from those businesses, The Willows’ key stakeholders, enabled The Willows to reorganize and return. Because The Willows had been making money putting on smaller, lower cost shows during the depths of the recession, they were ready to move back in and operate again in two venues, each feeding the other. Today, they have a new artistic director and a solid five-year plan.

One for the money, two for the show

An upstart non-profit company in San Leandro, Curtain Call Performing Arts, arose as a direct result of the recession, with a goal to provide affordable theatre to everyone regardless of the state of the economy. To do this, the Board created a unique charter: raise the all the funds to mount a show before a production begins, then charge no more than $12 a ticket. They’ve mounted three productions this way, and even offered $1 tickets to children with a paid adult during a specified matinee.

Though this method currently makes it impossible to schedule production dates in much in advance, it’s an interesting model. The board is forced to continually innovate with creative fund raising and volunteer coordination. They’ve come up with clever ideas. “Our concert choir, Cantare, is one hundred percent volunteer operated,” says founding member Andrea Gorham. “Its sole purpose is to raise funds. CCPA partners with other nonprofit art groups in San Leandro to put on benefit concerts featuring Cantare.” Curtain Call partners with other arts organizations to share the profits and the audience. They’ve built an impressive audience base, and, through the choir, a large pool of volunteers.

Though it’s not a model that many companies will likely embrace, other companies could take a page from Curtain Call’s book. They might also learn a lesson from The Willows, which stayed in business in the middle of a recession by mounting smaller, less expensive productions and maintaining strong relationships with external stakeholders who revived The Willows' mainstage.

All over the Bay Area, theatre companies are still struggling. Those with a long term plan, an understanding that the purpose of a board of directors is to raise money and develop external relationships, that also have the flexibility to scale productions costs to swing with a volatile economy, will flourish. We’re not out of this yet. For some companies, it’s too late. But there’s still a chance for others to mobilize and heed the lessons of the last three years. What steps has your company taken to weather the economic downturn?

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