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Trying to live to play another dayNonprofit theaters and playhouses pressed but still fighting to survive

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Gary Smith and Mary Adams-Smith are co-artistic directors of the Theater of the Seventh Sister. The Lancaster-based theater is facing an uncertain future and the challenge of storing and selling volumes of theatrical items and donated materials before its lease expires on Dec. 11. Photo/Amy Spangler
Gary Smith and Mary Adams-Smith are co-artistic directors of the Theater of the Seventh Sister. The Lancaster-based theater is facing an uncertain future and the challenge of storing and selling volumes of theatrical items and donated materials before its lease expires on Dec. 11. Photo/Amy Spangler

No theater is an island — so Gary Smith assembled an archipelago.

But a bell is tolling for his dream anyway.

Smith and other leaders of local nonprofit performing arts organizations say times have been tough lately. They're seeing curtains fall forever at theaters across the country, and they recognize that theater's situation is different than in decades past, when entertainment options were fewer.

And yet they haven't stopped believing. They're still fighting to keep the shows going, trying things, making their cases to the community and asking for some love. Here are some of their stories.

A theater without a theater

Theater of the Seventh Sister is forging into the future by saying goodbye to the idea of having its own facilities.

"I've watched as theaters get buildings, and what happens is the cost of operating the building ends up invariably co-opting the mission," says Smith, who is co-artistic director of the theater and helped found it in 1989. "Building costs are 24/7, 365 days a year, whether you're producing a show or not."

Until recently, Smith's solution to that problem was summed up in what he says are often perceived as empty buzzwords: Cooperation and sustainability. That is, sharing space and reducing energy costs.

The theater accomplished the first part of that equation, Smith says: It rented the Stahr Center — a former National Guard armory in Lancaster — several years ago with an option to buy and had as many as 18 other resident artists and organizations working there.

The second step was in the planning stages, with architects and sustainability consultants.

"We could have created a model regenerative facility — a facility that would generate as much or more energy than it needed — for no more than the cost of renovation," says Smith, who estimated the cost of purchasing and renovating the center at $5 million to $6 million.

The option to buy came up this spring, says Smith, and the theater didn't have enough money to make the purchase then but told its landlord, the state Department of General Services, that it wanted to continue renting and retain the purchase option.

Then came unexpected drama of the building code variety. The building hadn't been inspected for many years, Smith says. He believes many of the issues were present long before the theater arrived at the building and was hopeful the theater could reach a financial agreement with DGS that would enable it to meet code and purchase the building.

DGS said no and decided to break the lease, giving the theater and other tenants 90 days — until Dec. 11 — to vacate the premises. That was just weeks before Oct. 2, the last day the state Department of Labor & Industry would allow business to be conducted in the building if repairs weren't made.

So, Smith says, "From now on, we're only going to go into existing theaters. We're no longer interested in having our own space."

The theater is focusing on getting piles of theater stuff out in time, trying to sell things it won't need without its own theater and finding a place to store the rest. It's also planning an Oct. 6 yard sale to benefit the theater.

On the subject of what went wrong, Smith mentions the economy and its effect on philanthropy, particularly in Lancaster, where he says situations involving the Pennsylvania Academy of Music and the Heritage Center have made people wary of contributing to smaller organizations.

But he also sees wider problems.

"The current way we're doing nonprofit business is a failed model," he says.

Nonprofits have to spend volumes of time fundraising, and givers are faced with so many requests that they can't process them all. "It's not my fault; it's not their fault. It's forcing both sides of the system to work outside appropriate means."

He thinks his cooperation and sustainability model could have helped, but that was not to be. And, he says, the arts have been hit especially hard. During the last several decades, he's seen theater devolve, forbidden by its financial situation to take artistic risks.

"What theater turns into is really factories — you're not getting any really meaningful and artistic work happening," he says.

And in that he sees a warning for American culture: "When you start to lose your soul, that's not healthy."

Help from friends

These days, executive director Melissa Nicholson says, Gamut Theatre Group is doing pretty well. And part of the reason dates to a couple of years ago, when Gamut let its supporters know that the economy was hitting it hard.

Gamut veterans approached with an idea: They wanted to start a series in which they would donate their performances, so the shows would have minimal budgets, to help support Gamut.

That idea became Stage Door, a "come as you are, pay what you will" series that is in its third year and quite popular, Nicholson says. It has featured everything from dramatic readings to an original adaptation of "Dracula," and its proceeds are helping keep the series that feature Gamut's core of paid actors on track.

Overall, Gamut is growing slowly but steadily — it reached 30,000 people last year — and its funding has consistently been 60 percent ticket sales and 40 percent donations, of which the largest source is individual donors.

Although the recession did hurt Gamut, Nicholson notes that it didn't have much of an investment portfolio for the downturn to damage.

However, Gamut does have its challenges — namely, that attendance at its Popcorn Hat Players series for children has been flagging for a few years.

"Sometimes, when we run a show, maybe three people show up. That used to never be," Nicholson says. "The audiences that do come are loving the shows. The quality of the show hasn't gone down, and the price has stayed the same."

Gamut is doing focus groups with parents and teachers to get their input, but she suspects a variety of factors, including shrinking field trip budgets at elementary schools and that it's difficult to park in downtown Harrisburg during weekdays, when the children's shows run.

Gamut has long rented its facilities in Harrisburg's Strawberry Square, but Nicholson says its long-term goal is to have a home of its own.

Making the big decisions

When it decided at the end of August that the time had come for action, Totem Pole Playhouse pulled no punches; it held a news conference and informed the community that it needed $250,000 in contributions by Oct. 1 or it couldn't continue.

"Our endowment took a tremendous hit in 2008, and our audiences for the last 10 years have been decreasing," says Ray Ficca, Totem's artistic director. "We were down almost 20 percent again this year."

Totem is a full-union house, bringing in professionals from around the country for six productions a year. Its $1 million budget — of which only about 10 percent is from donations — is split pretty evenly between production and overhead costs. Its endowment is currently about $200,000, Ficca said, and its debt is about that much.

The 62-year-old playhouse in Greene Township, Franklin County, has tried cutting its production budget and lowering ticket prices, to no avail. It can't expand its season because the building isn't heated, and it can't sell alcohol because it's in a park on land it doesn't own. So now it wants to try a different approach.

"We want to bring back larger, more-recognizable shows, which our audience has asked for," says Ficca. "We want to expand our programming to the full 14 weeks at our place, plus find other venues in which to have our shows."

It also wants to move from its uniform pricing system to one that reflects the price of producing each show.

Ficca says that in the last month an outpouring of support from the community has heartened Totem. More than 200 people attended a fundraiser featuring Robbie Limon, whose 2011 turn as Hank Williams at Totem was almost entirely sold out, and people sent letters and notes with their contributions.

October is late to embark on the complicated process of planning a season, Ficca says, but if the money comes in, he thinks the playhouse's new vision is achievable.

"Theater's never been the easiest business," Ficca says. "But it's so important to our culture."

As of Tuesday, Ficca said Totem was still processing donations and would know the results in a few days. Donations were kept in a separate account so they could be returned if necessary — but, he said, Totem was hopeful that it would meet the goal and begin its next season.

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