Back From the Brink

Let's review the list, shall we? There's Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke, Va., and Foothills Theatre in Worcester, Mass. There's Connecticut's Stamford Theatre Works, Wisconsin's Milwaukee Shakespeare, and American Musical Theatre of San Jose, Calif. A small, unfortunate club of opera companies—the Baltimore Opera and Opera Pacific—made the list, too. All were casualties of the devastating fall and winter just ended, when the bottom not only dropped out of the world economy but affected nonprofit regional theaters in a particularly lethal manner. All these groups are now bankrupt or have suspended operations.

On a separate list, meanwhile, are regional theaters that endured what one could call near-death experiences: They came close to the abyss yet somehow survived. It's not that such groups as North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass.; the Magic Theatre in San Francisco; and About Face Theatre in Chicago have returned to rock-solid ground. But each has entered into a process that could enable its survival. The alarm bells and flashing red lights of November, December, and January are increasingly distant memories. Yet how will they maintain the sense of urgency, which is often required to raise the money required for long-term health?

Consider North Shore, for example. Carol LaRosa, the venue's public relations manager, said the company is still trying to raise $2 million in donations by July to be back in business. Artistic director–executive producer Barry Ivan and the board "are continuing their fundraising efforts," she said, and a plan remains in place for the company to embark on a series of co-productions with other houses.

"But if the board and Barry aren't able to finish raising the $2 million by next month," she added, "they'll continue their efforts to try to present a season in 2010." Does that mean things aren't far along? "No, not necessarily," she responded. "But I don't have any specific numbers at this point—I'm not sure if Barry...[does], either. The question of momentum is one I don't think I—or they—can fully answer."

Lean, Mean, Protean

By contrast, Loretta Greco, who had the misfortune to become artistic director of the Magic Theatre months before its long-term debt threatened its survival, is happy to answer the momentum question in full. Immediately after Christmas, she discovered that the Magic needed to raise $350,000 in two weeks just to keep its doors open. That wouldn't address the company's $600,000 in accumulated debt, but by working with her board and launching a national campaign to heighten public awareness, Greco staved off extinction.

"The magic thing about the Magic is the ship is definitely turning," she said. "Now, it was a very hard December and January, an incredibly bumpy ride. But it's one, I think, that's going to have a smooth landing." In fact, Greco boasted, with the Magic's current production of Theresa Rebeck's Mauritius having received outstanding reviews from local critics, "we're exceeding all of our box-office goals."

Still, near-death experiences have consequences. "When I got here last year, we began pulling back by early fall, just ahead of the recession," Greco said. "Then there were these surprises about past financial reportage. But here's the real story: I've got very, very good news about the Magic's board. They helped us go from a position of having $18 in the bank to only having to cut to four productions from five—and believe me, I say that with great regret and sorrow, but that's a small price to pay given how bad it could have been."

Greco detailed the way the largesse came in—including challenge grants of $25,000 and $100,000 provided by various donors, plus other inspiring tales of fiscal heroism. And she's still closing "a huge operating gap" and must remain unstinting about reducing the company's yearly deficits and ongoing debt. "We're going to be a lean, mean, deficit-reduction scheme because you can't carry debt forever," Greco said. "I can make all the great art in the world, but until our situation is solid, we're not going to be able to support it. That said, I have every reason to believe we'll...survive this moment."

Saving Face

"Those of us who watched companies like the Magic," said Bonnie Metzgar, artistic director of Chicago's About Face Theatre, "benefit from their experience." True, About Face doesn't own its venue as the Magic does, and its budget is smaller. But About Face runs an acclaimed program with lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender youth and develops new work. And it got closer to the edge of the cliff than the Magic. "We ran out of money to where we couldn't pay the staff and cut the budget 30 percent," she said. "We knew no knight was riding in on a horse."

But, Metzgar added, "we learned that when you have an emergency campaign, you roll your immediate needs into it. In other words, the Magic—not to take anything away from them—still has significant debt. Given that we're smaller, we rolled our needs—our debt, immediate deficit, and need for a cash reserve—into one campaign. At this point, we've retired all our debt, filled our immediate needs, and gotten our cash reserve up, though we're not done with that."

Part of About Face's plan involved reaching out to vendors and "converting" them into donors. "So there have been upsides to our experience," Metzgar said. "But this recession is still going to hit a lot of theaters and arts institutions at different times; it just depends on their structure. For theaters where cash flow isn't the problem, it will be a fundraising issue. We had to act very quickly. And we've built a huge number of new supporters, including artists and arts leaders from around the world. Next year, our budget will be the same as this year. But remember, we're 30 percent down from where we were."

Enter the Actor

Whenever a theater goes out of business, reduces productions, or opts for smaller-cast shows, there is a downward spiral in terms of casting and audition opportunities. Multiply the Magic by all the groups that shuttered, cut back, or have suspended operations, and things are tough out there for actors.

Consider actor Matt Daniels. First, he lived in New York. Then, with his wife, an acupuncturist, he moved to Chicago. They weren't happy in the Windy City and became cognizant of how often Milwaukee Shakespeare cast him. "Almost immediately upon moving to Chicago," he said, "they cast me: twice in '04-05, two shows in the season after that, one in the season after that, and so forth. It was looking good for us to move to Milwaukee, plus my wife grew up there." So they bought a house in Milwaukee and, he said, "I had work lined up."

Indeed, he noted, "I'd been working in summer festivals, so we literally bought our house, moved to Milwaukee, and I promptly went off to another Shakespeare festival for a few months, only to come back to a call that Milwaukee Shakes had gone under. I'd gotten my Equity insurance for the year through them."

Daniels, like Greco, had to become resourceful. "The death of Milwaukee Shakes left me in a bind for a while," he said. "Then I picked up, in relatively quick succession, freelance directing jobs: one at a community theater, one at a high school. They ended up helping pay some bills, which was nice. Then I took a restaurant job and started looking again. Finally, I had auditions during the winter that panned out for the summer."

Currently, Daniels is acting in The Mystery of Irma Vep, running at Wisconsin's Lake Geneva Theatre Company through June 28, and then Around the World in 80 Days, running at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre Aug. 13–30. "But I don't know what's going to happen in the larger scheme," he admitted. "Except we own a house in Milwaukee and can't move or sell it. Isn't that always the actor's life?"