Sending Out an SOS

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"Our theater is at a critical juncture—a true life or death moment."

Thus began an email sent Feb. 23 by the Atlanta theater Actor's Express. The company informed supporters that it faced a massive deficit of $140,000, representing 22 percent of its annual operating budget.

To save itself from extinction, Actor's Express would need to raise $50,000 in the next four weeks and an additional $150,000 before July 31. The decision to go public was one that no one at the theater considered lightly, least of all managing director Lara Smith.

"This is something you can only do once in the lifetime of a theater, this save-the-theater campaign," Smith said. "We wanted to make sure that we had exhausted all other possibilities before coming to this point."

But Actor's Express is hardly alone in its troubles. Several Atlanta-area theaters have had to reach out to the public in similar ways in the last year to keep their doors open. And just weeks before Actor's Express began its fundraising campaign, the Intiman Theatre—all the way on the other side of the country, in Seattle—made a similar appeal to its supporters.

According to Smith, Actor's Express has experienced the same sort of cash-flow problems, in terms of earned and contributed income, that have plagued regional theaters everywhere since the economic downturn began in late 2007. Unexpected debts exacerbated the problem and created the current crisis.

But $37,000 had been raised as of last week, and Smith, who joined the theater in August, expressed confidence that fundraising goals would be met. She also noted that the company—which employed 30 actors last season, most of them Atlanta-based—is doing everything in its power to ensure that the shortfall "isn't affecting the quality of the arts or the quality of the programming or the programming itself."

Artistic director Freddie Ashley echoed that sentiment. He said he is in the process of planning a 2011-12 season that is "fairly ambitious in terms of size and scope but that plays right to our audience base in all the right ways." But he is also realistic. Actor's Express staged a holiday show for the first time last year, and Ashley expressed doubt that the effort would be repeated.

"I would be lying if I said that it didn't affect it at all, because that would just be season planning in a vacuum," he said. "It's about choosing the work that you think is going to best serve your mission and your audience—and if you're getting that right and budgeting properly, things should work out."

Meanwhile, in Seattle

At the Intiman, the cost of survival is even greater. The theater announced Feb. 11 that it must drum up $500,000 by the end of March, an additional $250,000 by June, and $250,000 more by September to stay open. The Intiman has attributed its financial woes to mismanagement by former managing director Brian Colburn, who stepped down in November. But Kim Anderson, the theater's board president, admitted that the economic factors affecting other theaters also played their part.

"I've been on the board of Intiman for nine years, and I can't remember a year when cash flow was not an issue, budgeting wasn't an issue, but we've always managed to just sort of get by," she said. But the misreporting of finances by previous management made the company even more vulnerable to the shifting economy than it would have been otherwise. "These were circumstances that took a difficult situation and made it extraordinarily difficult to recover from."

The Intiman employed a mix of local and out-of-town actors last season. Anderson said that the board considered the possibility of cutting the theater's five-production season down to four and replacing the actor-heavy "Playboy of the Western World" with a smaller-cast production, but it found that the money saved wouldn't be worth the artistic sacrifice. However, like Actor's Express, the Intiman will likely eliminate its holiday show.

From Bad to Less Bad

As executive director of Theatre Communications Group—an organization of more than 700 nonprofit theaters, among them Actor's Express and Intiman—Teresa Eyring is concerned by the news out of Atlanta and Seattle, but she's not panicked.

"No matter what the economy is, I don't think we'll be able to avoid having a company or two that are experiencing financial difficulties," Eyring said. "I don't think this is an escalating problem."

TCG produces an annual report on the state of American theater, the newest volume of which is forthcoming. Looking at the numbers from 2008-09 and anecdotal evidence from 2009-10, Eyring noted that many theaters across the country have scaled back their programming in terms of number of productions and cast size since the beginning of the recession—meaning fewer opportunities for actors. (According to Actors' Equity Association's most recent annual report, 2008-09 was the second consecutive season in which overall work weeks for Equity actors declined.) But when Eyring talks with her members, she hears some reserved optimism.

"Theaters are loosening up a little bit more in terms of thinking about different kinds of new projects and the possibilities of mixing in some larger productions with the medium-sized productions," she said. "I think that it's loosening up a bit in a positive way, but that's not to say that there isn't still some concern and caution in the environment."

But Eyring also sees some potential long-term shifts as a result of the economic downturn, particularly in casting. In recent years, she noted, theaters began hiring fewer out-of-town actors, turning instead to local performers in order to save money on travel and housing. She has heard anecdotally that some theaters are once again considering more actors from outside their communities, "but I don't think you're going to see overnight or even ever" out-of-town actors being hired at the levels they once were.

With respected institutions such as Actor's Express and Intiman sending out SOS signals, and potential severe budget cuts at the National Endowment for the Arts, bad signs abound. But according to Eyring, the story of American theater is that it has survived, it has flourished, and it will continue to do so.

"We're in one of those in-between moments, in a way," she said. "Almost all of our theaters made it through a very tough economic period. Many of our theaters are starting to breathe a little more freely now."