TheaterWorks' Deficit Means Changes Onstage And Off
By FRANK RIZZO
March 14, 2012
Hartford's TheaterWorks, whose founding artistic-executive director took a sudden medical leave in January, is facing "a serious deficit" that is causing dramatic changes in its programming and operations.
A large, yet-to-be-determined six-figure deficit, a low cash flow and bills that are in arrears — which caused actors in the recent "The Sty of the Blind Pig" to receive eviction notices at their housing at Hartford 21 — have prompted TheaterWorks' traditionally low-key board to step up and initiate new management for the 26-year-old, not-for-profit theater.
"We have to do what we have to do," says Michael G. Albano, the new chairman of the board. He says he does not know when Steve Campo, the theater's founder and singular driving force, will recover from health issues that have been characterized as "not life-threatening."
(Campo did not respond to emails and texts for this story.)
"We have all jumped in to make sure we're stable and we're moving forward in our fundraising and our management and making sure we run properly artistically," says Albano.
Rob Ruggiero, who had been associate artistic director but had reduced his involvement with the theater in recent years because of his free-lance career, is temporarily overseeing the artistic side.
Ruggiero's immediate decision related to the theater's financial problems is to cancel the last two four-actor plays of the 2011-12 season — Neil Labute's "Reasons to Be Pretty" and Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still" — and replace them with shows with smaller casts and shorter runs. Ruggiero is in negotiations for a new solo show for the June 1 to July 9 slot. The two-actor romantic-thriller "Tryst," which played off-Broadway in 2011, will now end the season, Aug. 3 to Sept. 9.
The Tony Award-winning play "Red" will proceed as scheduled with performances beginning March 23, directed by Tazewell Thompson, who staged five of the last six shows.
"We are grateful to Tazewell for stepping up for the theater," says Ruggiero, who says he will be consulting Thompson, but expects to use a broader base of directors.
The financial side of TheaterWorks, which has an operating budget of $1.7 million, is more troubling, especially in a bad economy with the decline of corporate and foundation funding.
"The amount of the deficit is being investigated," says Albano. "We don't know the numbers yet because we were audited the prior year and the [new] numbers aren't in yet. It's serious enough for us to address it on a — if not weekly — then a daily basis." The board previously met four or five times a year, he says.
Albano characterized the deficit as the largest since 2007, when the theater had $105,000 in red ink.
Regarding Hartford 21, Albano says the actors were not in danger of losing their housing. "We were only a month-and-a-half behind in our rent payment," says Albano. The theater will now lease two, two-bedroom apartments instead of three, and expects to make good on back rent.
Albano says the theater has made every payroll to its staff of 12 full- and part-time workers who multi-task. Last summer the staff took staggered unpaid furloughs of four weeks.
"The staff has been severely stressed and the morale has been very low," says Thompson, "but they've rallied and they're devoted and they've done an extraordinary job during difficult circumstances. I love the theater and it would be a tragedy if we lost this wonderful institution."
TheaterWorks is soliciting subscribers for its five-play 2012-13 season, which Ruggiero says will be revealed shortly, months ahead of its typical late-in-season announcement.
TheaterWorks' subscription base of about 6,000 — higher than some of the other Tony Award-winning theaters in the state — is one of its strengths. TheaterWorks' subscribers also traditionally renew at a rate of more than 60 percent — without knowing the new season's shows. TheaterWorks' programming is based on popular titles of small-cast hits on Broadway and off, with an occasional premiere and star such as Kathleen Turner or Valerie Harper.
Renewals for next season are ahead of last season at this time, says Albano, and money coming in "is being used as needed."
Albano says the theater owns its four-story Art Deco building on Pearl Street "free and clear" and has no liens, loans or long-term debt.
But he says the building is a "money sucker. It's wonderful that we own the space and have a home, but it costs us a lot to maintain."
TheaterWorks operates a street-level gallery and leases space to about 10 not-for-profit arts groups, including HartBeat Ensemble. "We don't get that much money in income from the rentals, because we subsidize many of them." The armed forces also rents space for its recruitment offices. The $90,000 TheaterWorks earns in rentals (including $68,000 from the armed services) falls "significantly short" of what it costs to operate the building.
"We have a handsome, old building and though it's creaking in places it's been well maintained," Albano says. "A lot of time and money also went into making the place look good on the outside and fixing the look on Pearl Street from our side of the street. That's taken time and money, too."
He says a long-term strategic plan is being made. A development person will be hired for the first time and the 12-member board — small compared to other theaters' — will be expanded "to bring in new blood."
"Right now we're addressing the most immediate concern, which is making sure we're on firmer financial footing to allow us to go forward." Albano says. "Now we have to step up. We have no choice. We not only have to make decisions but we have to make decisions in a different way. We're committed to the product and to our audience and we have no intention of not going forward."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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