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The Pay's the Thing 

North Bay theater companies struggle to weather the Great Recession with grace


The thing about actors is that they are, in many cases, pretty good at acting. Having perfected the art of artifice, they have a knack for putting happy faces on situations that are, beneath the makeup and masks, not so happy. With such skills in their toolbox of tricks, it's no wonder that so many North Bay theater companies, when asked on the record to describe the current economic downturn and how it is affecting their particular theater company, appear to view the recession as nothing more than a bothersome annoyance, an economic itch to be scratched away with a little patience.

"We're concerned about the current economic situation, certainly," says Scott Phillips of Sebastopol's Sonoma County Repertory Theatre, "and we are being cautious—but we're not doing anything differently. It hasn't really affected us all that much. In fact, where some other theater companies are pulling back, we're looking for ways to do even more, in terms of outreach and education."

In the Rep's case, this optimism is probably warranted. The Rep has earned a reputation for being lean and mean, fiscally speaking, and for the last several years has been successfully courting major grants from the NEA and other sources. So Phillips' calmly defiant "What recession?" attitude is most likely the real deal.

Meanwhile, across the rest of the North Bay, everyone from actors to tech people to unemployed artistic directors are murmuring in hushed tones, describing the landscape of North Bay theater in dire, Judgment Day&–like terms.

"This is a terrible time for theater, in terms of the economic outlook," says John Moran, founder of the North Bay Theater Group, an alliance of theater companies stretching from Marin to Willits. "Some are doing better than others, but the arts are always the first to be hit in times of recession, and beneath the brave words and assurances that everything is fine, most of the area's theater companies are in a bit of a panic. Pacific Alliance Stage Company is gone, others look to be on the brink of closing shop, and everyone is looking around to see who's next."

So which is it, inconvenience or apocalypse? As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.

There is no doubt that the economy has delivered some devastating casualties over the last few months. As Moran stated, the Pacific Alliance Stage Company, long a staple of the North Bay Theater scene, is no more, cut from the city budget of Rohnert Park earlier this year. As painful as this was, Mary McDougal, Spreckels Performing Arts Center's general manager for many years, has found a way to keep the center open, forming partnerships with a number of small theater companies so that Spreckels will continue to have a season of plays. The recent hit The Santaland Diaries, which played to sell-out crowds and was held over for several additional performances, is an example of the creative efforts theater people will go to keep on keeping on.

"We have worked hard," McDougal says, "to continue presenting wonderful, quality shows and exceptional performance art, we are just doing it within a very tight budget."

In Marin, the beloved 142 Throckmorton Theatre—home to a thriving series of new play workshops, musical and comedy events, and community theater productions—went public in October as being so financially strapped it might be facing closure in 2010. Fortunately, in mid-December, an anonymous donor stepped in with a pledge of up to $50,000 in matching funds, and the move inspired hundreds of donations from across the Bay Area. As of Dec. 1, the fundraising effort exceeded hopes, and management plans to use the donated funds to shore up the nonprofit's financial foundation. For a while there, though, things looked bleak for Mill Valley's most-unique cultural destination.

Beyond the North Bay, the news is equally worrisome. San Francisco's Magic Theatre announced last year that it was more than half a million in debt, saved, for the time being, by a last-ditch effort early in 2009. Elsewhere, rumors of layoffs and shortened seasons blend with reports of diminished attendance and an almost universal reduction in grant money and foundation support.

In Santa Rosa, there have been rumors for months that Sixth Street Playhouse has been wrestling with crippling income shortages, that some staff positions had been eliminated, and that executive director Elizabeth Craven was about to be put on temporary furlough. While a number of sources have repeated these details off the record, leadership of Sixth Street has described things in rosier terms.

"We are being prudent with our budget, as would be expected during a nationwide economic turndown such as the one the country is experiencing at the moment," writes managing director Cheryl Itamura in response to a request of confirmation of recent personnel changes. "We are being creative in our efforts to acquire in-kind donations wherever possible and have additional fundraising events in the works. We have also expanded the number and types of volunteer and internship opportunities we offer to include costume shop and production interns and more administrative and behind-the-scenes volunteer opportunities."

Itamura points to recent successes such as the massive audience turn-out (1,100 tickets sold) for a fundraising revival of the hit show Always Patsy Cline, featuring Mary Gannon Graham and Liz Jahren, at the Wells Fargo Center, and the surprise hit Ham for the Holidays, which added shows to keep up with demand for tickets. But outright gifts are significantly down.

"People are being a little more cautious about assigning a portion of their income to donations," she writes.

As to the staff changes, Itamura confirms that the deck has been shuffled at Sixth Street, assuring the rumormongers that Craven is still with the company, now in the role of artistic director, making the artistic and education-related decisions while Itamura, bolstered by an enhanced crew of volunteers, has taken on the day-to-day details of finance, marketing, development and production. Craven, in fact, is currently at work directing the company's upcoming production of Hank Williams: Lost Highway, hoping to strike the same chord the company hit earlier with the Patsy Cline show.

Whether fair or not, any time a nonprofit quietly makes personnel changes, there are people who smell panic, so most local theater companies have done everything they can to avoid changing or eliminating staff.

"Last year was very strong, box-office-wise, so we narrowly avoided layoffs or staff cuts, despite record low donations from individual contributors," says Ryan Rilette, producing director of the Marin Theatre Company. "This year, going into it, we knew we would be having one of the worst years ever, in terms of donations and foundation support, so we made cuts, mostly ones that patrons won't see."

Marin Theatre Company eliminated its 403B match for employees and shaved off one show from its previous six-show season. The popular Words and Music program was also cut, and the annual patron contribution that made the program possible was moved in the general fund.

"In a year when a lot of theaters were hit very hard, we ended last year in the black," Rilette says proudly. "And we did that without laying anyone off."

Rilette, who before coming to MTC ran the Southern Rep Theatre Company in New Orleans and kept it going after Hurricane Katrina, knows a things or two about operating a theater during a catastrophe. "You can't let a moment of crisis change your mission," he says. "In New Orleans after Katrina, and here at MTC when the recession was looming, we had to ask ourselves which programs don't fit our core mission. We cut back, and we've done well so far, all things considered, so we really are optimistic about the future."

In fact, MTC plans to put the sixth show back in the lineup for its 2010&–2011 season. Meanwhile, as box office sales seem to be holding steady for most medium-sized companies, the big question is when the charitable foundations will start giving grants to the arts again.

"We are experiencing what everyone else is," says Elly Lichenstein, executive director of Petaluma's Cinnabar Theater, "and we are all hurting because, as a rule, theater companies all rely on foundation support, and when an economy is hit hard, the foundations all pull back."

According to Lichenstein, audience attendance is down only slightly at Cinnabar (a recent run of the opera La Bohème saw 95 percent of its expected attendance), but with ticket sales only providing a portion of the company's overall operating funds, strong box office is not enough to keep the stage lights on. Where the company has been hurt the hardest is in dwindling support from major outside sponsorships, grants and other donations, but also in the company's celebrated youth programs, which have thrived on a combination of paid tuitions and donations made toward funding scholarships. This fall, for the first time ever, Cinnabar was forced to cancel a class because there were no paid tuitions at all.

"We have an enormous need for scholarships," says Lichenstein. "Kids learn by doing, and theater mainly becomes a part of a child's culture when they have the opportunity to do it. If kids aren't able to do theater, we end up with generations of young people who don't have theater as part of their culture."

According to Lichenstein, the best way to survive in a bad economy is to tackle the challenges head on. In Cinnabar's case, they hired Juliet Pokorny as the new marketing and development director, to aggressively seek out whatever foundation support there might be, and to bring back grants by, in Lichenstein's words, "telling the story of Cinnabar's importance to its community."

The ultimate goal, Lichenstein believes, is to do more than simply make it through the current economic malaise. The goal must be to strengthen Cinnabar's position, economically, so that it lasts well into the future.

"I'm the outgoing generation," she says. "My job is to make sure that what I leave here is viable enough to continue to the next generation. When I pass the reins, I want to know that Cinnabar is going to be around for a long time. That's what we are juggling to make certain of. That's/ what I worry about."

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