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Crossroads Theatre Down but Not Out

The Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, NJ cancelled its entire season this month, to better focus on reducing outstanding debts currently estimated at $1.7 million or more. The company, which won the 1999 Tony Award for excellence in regional theatre, can survive this latest setback, industry experts say, if its board is serious about putting its financial house in order.

The person with the greatest responsibility to do so now is board president Rhinold Ponder, who only assumed that role this month. He replaces Dale Caldwell, who cited his father's illness as a major factor in his stepping down.

Crossroads has been in worsening financial straits since at least 1991, when it moved to its new 310-seat facility. Not only was the space more expensive to run than its previous venue, that was also the year New Jersey bowed to the realities of a devastating recession and slashed its arts budget. Every recipient of New Jersey Arts Grants, including Crossroads, had to make do with half the previous year's funding level. For Crossroads, that was the beginning of a downward spiral into insolvency.

Over the years the company's fortunes rose and fell—it brought in respected administrator David Hawkanson to cut the debt significantly in 1995, and it co-produced the musical "It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues" on Broadway in 1998—but Crossroads never completely managed to climb out of the red ink.

In the last two years the situation worsened significantly; at one point the theatre's Internet website was cancelled, and the site administrator posted a notice rudely announcing that the termination was due to non-payment of its account.

'The Right Thing to Do'

The state of affairs was particularly troubling because Crossroads has an unparalleled history of nurturing writers and actors of color. Its mission statement specifically envisions "a national, world-class theatre for the exploration of the African-American experience as well as its interconnection with other cultures" with "a multicultural audience and work force." The goal was "to build bridges of better understanding between people of all backgrounds in this society and the world." If it were to fail, few other theatre companies are ready to assume that mantle.

Fortunately, however, Crossroads does not seem destined to fail. Although some might have the impression that canceling a season will lead to the complete closure of the theatre, that would be a mistaken assumption, according to Geraldine Boone of the all-volunteer Crossroads Guild.

"We're not going anywhere," Boone told Back Stage. "This is just a chance to get some new people on the board and get some debts taken care of. Sometimes you just have to clear up your bills, and that's all we're doing now. But we're not closing."

Boone is not the only person who believes the time is right for the cancellation. As New Jersey Theatre Alliance executive director Laura Aden told Back Stage, "If what comes out of this is a stronger theatre company, it is the right thing to do."

Aden compared the current situation to the predicament the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra was in seven years ago, when its debt was almost twice what Crossroads has to pay off now. At that time, the orchestra developed a substantive plan for downsizing, moved into cheaper offices, and proved it was serious about getting its finances in order. Shortly thereafter, "The state rode in on a white horse with a one-time grant—with lots of strings attached," she said. "And although nobody likes to see funding come that way, rather than through the Arts Council, everyone was very supportive of rescuing the symphony.

"There is tremendous support in the state when Crossroads develops its plan for retiring its debt and moving forward," she said.

So although the staff has been let go and the locks on the door have been changed, reports of Crossroads' demise are, to quote Mark Twain, "greatly exaggerated." Callers to the theatre get a recording that the phones have been shut down, but the message makes one thing clear: They're only "temporarily disconnected."

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