Save Our Ship
When your theatre's sinking, how do you best conduct a mayday appeal?
By Eliza Bent
There is no sense in rehashing the financial collapse of September '08 and the crippling ripple effects it has had on theatres nationwide. Some theatres find themselves on the brink of closing, and a few have already dropped their curtains. Of course, theatres have been known to get into serious trouble even when the economy was riding high. Miscalculated ticket sales, declining subscriber bases, shortfalls in contributed income, not-so-successful capital campaigns and accumulated debt can create a perfect storm that forces a theatre to launch an emergency fundraising campaign.
You've seen it before: an e-mail or news article announcing that unless a certain amount of money is raised within a specific period of time, said theatre will be forced to close. Patrick Hudson of Backstagejobs.com has called this tactic a "ransom demand," a rather harsh if fairly accurate description.
I spoke with leadership teams of seven theatres for this article (and could have spoken to many others). They encompass institutions large and small that found themselves on the verge of collapse and made urgent calls for donations. Despite the vast differences between these theatres—in budget size, location and artistic output—similar challenges and solutions presented themselves throughout the interviews.
Seventy-year-old Paper Mill Playhouse of Millburn, N.J., one the country's oldest not-for-profits, and SecondStory Repertory (located on the second floor of a suburban Seattle-area mall) both cited wacky ratios of earned-versus-contributed income as a central issue in their respective crises. "Our percentage was 80 earned to 20 contributed, which is virtually unheard of," admitted Mark Hoebee, artistic director of Paper Mill. "We also had no endowment at the time , which is staggering." Susanna Wilson, artistic director of SecondStory Repertory, cited the same 80/20 ratio at her theatre, pointing out that "most theatres strive for 50/50."
Shakespeare Santa Cruz, which raised more than $400,000 last year through an emergency appeal, is in a particularly interesting position, being a part of the University of California—Santa Cruz (the theatre channels its funding through the university). "I think we had a false sense of security that if we went over budget it would be all right—that we were in some ways protected by the university," said Ann Gibb, the company's director of development. "But we weren't." As for Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble of Pennsylvania, "We didn't have the best financial reporting," said producing ensemble director Gerard Stropnicky, before adding with a grim laugh, "We were operating on a budget of hope."
Assuming responsibility for too much real estate got Shakespeare & Company of Lenox, Mass., and Willows Theatre Company of Northern California into trouble. Shakespeare & Company went from being tenants to landlords of 66 acres, an adjustment it was not financially prepared for. (It has since sold a portion of its land.) Willows had had a 30-year rent-free lease from the city of Concord, but when that ended in 2007 the company began paying more rent than it could afford. "We went from zero to $40,000 overnight," Willows artistic director Richard Elliott said. Pressure to add a full-time stage from the city of Martinez, where Willows had a successful outdoor series, was an added challenge. Upon opening a cabaret in Martinez, Willows found its audience split in two instead of attending performances in both cities.
Pressures to expand also plagued the House Theatre of Chicago. "We'd had great success with The Sparrow, which had a commercial transfer here in Chicago," said House managing director Ryan Butts. "But then we didn't meet our projected income for the next shows. It put us in a weird communication area—we had this hit show and then we had to tell our subscribers why we were cancelling the third show of our season."
"Try to avoid being in this situation to begin with," dryly noted Gibb. She tells cash-strapped theatres that contact her for advice to be "really honest and clear in all your communications with your stakeholders." In fact, candor was something each theatre leader I spoke with strongly recommended. Said Bloomsburg's Stropnicky, "Tell the truth even if it's embarrassing, and when people have questions, give answers without hedging or putting spin on it." Letters and press releases describing why your theatre must raise X amount of money by X date should be concise and well articulated. (How to determine that figure? A number of leaders I spoke with reported using outside consultants. When an objective consultant eye combs through finances, boards are more apt to give their blessings to an emergency campaign.) In addition to stakeholders, donors and constituents, staff needs to be kept in the loop as well. Paper Mill's Hoebee recalled a system of weekly financial reports by which staff was updated. "Some people left because they couldn't handle the insecurity," he conceded.
Butts, of the House Theatre, drew from a pool of freelance artists his theatre had worked with, as well as his board, to make calls to lapsed and previous donors. "We had a script, so the 60 volunteers weren't so nervous—and then the second half of the evening, they would make thank-you phone calls." Thanking people on time should not be underestimated. "Otherwise," said Gibb of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, "you run the risk of damaging relationships if you don't get back to people." To steer clear of such faux pas, Gibb suggests using everyone in your organization to thank donors. "We had a Google document that was open to the whole staff and board," she recalled. "If someone knew a donor he or she could call and thank that person individually." Both Shakespeare Santa Cruz and SecondStory Rep kept running online tallies of how much had been raised, and Bloomsburg elicited comments from donors and posted them on its website.
Using everyone on staff is essential, but sometimes so is letting go of personnel. Enacting hiring freezes, cutting positions or making full-time jobs go part-time or seasonal is difficult but effective. Said Butts, "By cutting our operational costs we were able to maintain our artistic budget." His House Theatre also moved into a smaller office space. Hoebee of Paper Mill, who also eliminated some positions, believes that when conducting an emergency campaign, theatres should keep their shows running. "If the theatre is dark, people won't write checks," he contended. Willows head Elliott concurred, but warned, "Make sure the quality of your show doesn't go down. Otherwise it starts to look like smoke and mirrors, and people know."
The hero who emerges from emergency campaigns is the small donor. Practically every artistic leader I spoke with used the words "grassroots" and recounted anecdotes about donated piggy banks. Over and over, artistic leaders said that it was not one single donor that saved them but rather many, many modest donations—gifts of $100 and $150 that added up to serious money.
Boards are also vital in providing guidance in tough times, and can often connect theatres with external aid such as consultants. A Bloomsburg board member was able to arrange for a meeting between the town's three bank presidents—each bank had individually turned down BTE for loans, but the board member shrewdly wondered if a consortium could be created. It worked.
A supple staff that can step in and step up is another major advantage when a theatre's in crisis: In many situations, when job reshuffling took place, directors of development found themselves as managing directors.
Interviewees resoundingly stressed engagement with community. "It doesn't matter what you're doing if people don't come," said Hoebee, who believes when Paper Mill sold its land to the town of Millburn, which in turn leases the property back to Paper Mill, community relations strengthened. Wilson described SecondStory as a community theatre: "Even though we pay our performers, we are constantly engaging with the town." SecondStory took part in "Thrill the World," a worldwide effort to reenact Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance and raised $3,000 in the process—a drop in the bucket measured against the $80,000 they need by the time this article is published. But Wilson maintains that the company's participation was great for community-building and gave their situation more visibility.
Raising funds through old-fashioned letter campaigns worked for many theatres, as did spreading the word through Facebook. Wilson created a "cause" on Facebook, asking friends to join, donate money and invite their friends to do so as well. "Just today I got about $700 of donations from Facebook," she attested in mid-November. An urgent appeal also stirs interest in a theatre's next show and usually has a good effect on ticket sales.
Facebook, despite its user-friendly nature and ability to engage with younger people, is not a panacea. Gibb of Shakespeare Santa Cruz noted that problems can arise when a strident fan of your theatre creates a Facebook page that does not employ the carefully crafted language your theatre has used in official press releases and campaign letters. Said Gibb, "It can cause confusion among donors and supporters." Thirty-year-old Butts of House Theatre coolly stated, "Facebook is great for some things, but it's not necessarily going to save your company."
Success, and the hope that it can generate, needs to be managed carefully. Just as the positive trajectory of The Sparrow in 2007 had masked some of the problems the company was having, House found itself in a sticky fundraising situation last season when enough money had been raised to continue operating—when the word "emergency" no longer applied—but there was still not sufficient backup to ensure that the company would remain out of debt.
House Theatre has received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and while that hasn't created an immediate rebound, Butts feels House is growing in a healthy way.
Gibb hopes to partner with U.C. Santa Cruz's theatre department. "They have a focus on world and experimental theatre, which isn't quite our purview, but we're really looking to collaborate," she said with enthusiasm.
Bloomsburg's "Point of Decision" campaign in 2006 raised $200,000 in a matter of months and put it back on track, but the company is feeling the current economic crunch. It has not set a specific campaign goal. "We don't have the number because we don't know how long the recession will be, or how deep," said Stropnicky, who hopes to ramp up individual donations. Artistic director Tony Simotes of Shakespeare & Company, on the other hand, is looking to rely not on individual donors but rather on corporate sponsorship, paired with donor-based expansion.
Elliott of Willows Theatre, which closed its Concord location but will be maintaining its cabaret in Martinez, worries about a suspension from using Equity actors. This season he has shrewdly programmed shows that call for young, college-age performers. "A lot of people can't envision that you've got to get smaller before you can get bigger," said Elliott. "That's the bitter pill we've got to swallow now." My conversation with Santa Cruz's Gibb concluded with the topic of artistic management: "It seems arts management and administration too often takes a backseat. This is a big problem in our industry. If you don't have good management, it doesn't matter how great the art is. In the future, I hope that arts management is commensurate with the investments we see in the art itself."blog comments powered by Disqus
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