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Coming To Bushnell: Layoffs, Restructuring

April 28, 2005
By FRANK RIZZO, Courant Staff Writer

Facing a significant deficit from a less-than-blockbuster Broadway season, the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts faces staff layoffs and restructuring in May, says David Fay, executive director of the Hartford presenting house.

Fay says changes in the entertainment industry are causing the arts center to radically change the way it does business, including what it programs, who it programs for and how it markets the programs. The center currently has 50 full-time employees.

"This is more than just dealing with a tough year," Fay says of the Bushnell's 75th anniversary season. "This is as much about restructuring ourselves to deal with a completely different entertainment industry than we have had to deal with, historically speaking. We're in the middle of figuring it all out now, and we don't know yet how it will look but it will be permanent. This is not just temporary restructuring to deal with a single bad year."

For the budget year ending June 30, Fay forecasts a deficit of between $500,000 and $1 million for the Bushnell, which has an annual operating budget of $15 million and a $19 million endowment. The shortfall is attributed to the one-two punch of falling ticket sales and a drop-off of contributed income.

The show touring industry is having a difficult season nationwide, with many - though not all - presenting houses reporting that productions, including "The King and I," "Oklahoma!" and "Big River," are failing to meet their expectations in their bread-and-butter "Broadway" series, which usually fund a large part of operations.

The Wang Center for the Performing Arts in Boston recently announced that it expects a deficit of more than $1 million in its current season. The Wang now faces increased competition with the new Boston Opera House, owned and managed by Clear Channel Entertainment.

The Shubert Theater in New Haven reports a 20 percent decline in box office projections for the season ending in June, according to William B. Conner, president and CEO of CAPA, the Ohio-based firm that manages the theater. However, its contributed income, including sponsorships, is up by nearly as much, and at this point Conner sees a "small but manageable deficit." He says there are two months left in the fiscal year and several events remain scheduled for the theater, so the Shubert could well end the season without any red ink.

The Providence Performing Arts Center, which has an operating budget for its single stage at just under $10 million, will report a modest surplus.

"I know a lot of people are taking a hard look at what they're doing," says PPAC President Lynn Singleton, adding that his theater doesn't feel a need to reinvent itself. Singleton, however, points out that he just spent a year slightly reducing his staff through attrition. Singleton says he has 35 full-time staff members but the arts center expects to fill some of those vacant positions. He is also optimistic about the shows that are being groomed to tour in the next several years.

No one at the Stamford Center for the Arts could be reached for comment.

To add to the Bushnell's economic woes for the 2004-05 season, its "Broadway" series failed to line up a corporate sponsor, which can bring as much as $250,000 into the coffers. The Bushnell had budgeted for anticipated deficits for the first few years after the opening of the $45 million Belding Theater in 2002, but that fiscal cushion expired last year.

The Bushnell programs for several different size spaces, including its 2,800-seat Mortensen Hall, its 900-seat Belding Theater, and other smaller spaces in the arts center used for community events, including the Autorino Great Hall and the Seaverns Room. The Bushnell also runs its Partners program, its arts education component.

This year, the Bushnell's activities as a producer increased with "The Overcoat," a dance-theater piece that originated in Canada and will be touring to other theaters next season. The Bushnell's producing efforts will continue, Fay says, because such endeavors are not part of the problem but, rather, "part of the solution."

R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, chairman of the Bushnell board and president of the MetroHartford Alliance, says the changes at the arts center are not focused solely on cost-cutting. "We are trying to align the talent in the organization and the financial realities we face with where the marketplace is driving us," he says.

Fay anticipates the upcoming 2005-06 Broadway season will be one of the Bushnell's strongest in years with a six-week engagement of Disney's "The Lion King," a two-week run for the hit musical "Wicked," and several other likely audience-pleasers, including a national tour of "Dr. Dolittle."

"It's painful," Fay says of the pending cuts and restructuring, "but it's something we need to do. A lot of companies are going through this now. The industry has changed and the marketplace has become increasingly segmented. We have to address the demands of a highly competitive marketplace. People not only have more to choose from, but are more selective in what they choose to see, and we have to be responsive to that."

A discussion of this story with Courant Staff Writer Frank Rizzo is scheduled to be shown on New England Cable News each hour today between 9 a.m. and noon.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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