Rural Theater Evades Closure with Bold Move

by ekramer on September 3, 2009

The recession has squeezed arts groups nationwide and caused many to close. In March, the advocacy group Americans for the Arts reported that about 10,000 arts organizations — or about 10 percent of the total  — are at risk of folding. A Kentucky theater was part of that statistic —  but it didn’t go dark. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

In the Kentucky Repertory Theatre’s recent production of the comedy Red, White and Tuna, a small-town director walks out of rehearsals for his forth of July production. His dispute with a local group — the Smut Snatchers of the New Order — has tongues wagging.

Kentucky Repertory Theatre's Red White and TunaOne of the characters explains, “It seems the Smut Snatchers objected to the use of the song ‘I Get No Kick from Champaign’ because it’s being sung in a dry county.”

The Kentucky Repertory Theatre, in the rural town Horse Cave, is in a dry county — but that hasn’t been a problem for this professional theater that started in 1976. In February, it faced closure.

For years, each summer season consisted of about a half dozen plays performed in repertory — meaning that it rotated performances of different plays during each week. Last summer’s season included King Lear, Amadeus and two special productions for the Lincoln bicentennial. But last summer proved cruel when high gas prices contributed to a 50 percent drop in the area’s tourism. Ticket sales fell and the economy crumbled. Artistic director Robert Brock remembers looking at expenses, especially for big casts.

“The payroll was just way up,” says Brock. “And if you’re doing a five-month season, it’s at $18,000 a week for that long and it’s like — ugh!”

By January, the theater had a $90,000 deficit. The stock market collapse meant Brock couldn’t get money from corporate sponsors. And he knew just scaling back the upcoming season wouldn’t be enough. So, he told his staff — “We’re going to have to do something unlike anything that’s ever been done. We’re going to just have to just put it out there and just say, ‘Without your help, we’re gone.'”

Staff members sent letters and e-mail messages to almost everyone they knew. One called a reporter at The Courier-Journal newspaper who wrote about the predicament. And Brock says, “Money started coming in the next day.”

For about a month, about $1,500 came in daily, sometimes from as far as Connecticut and California. And Brock also got a phone call from Bart Lovins, the director of Hardin County Schools Performing Arts Center in Elizabethtown. He says it’s had its own dilemmas.

“Economically it has become more and more difficult to be able to offer drama, dance and music in any given season,” Lovins says, “because of the expense of bringing in companies.”

So, Brock and Lovins worked out an arrangement. Starting with Dracula next month, the theater will rent the center to bring each of its productions to Elizabethtown for a weekend of six performances and keep revenue from ticket sales. Lovins says while this will free up money to spend on other touring groups, he hopes the theater will bring more of its education programs to Elizabethtown in future years.

“I think there are lots of things that could come out of this partnership,” Lovins says. “We’re just skimming the surface right now.”

This survival story of doesn’t surprise Cinda Holt who is the business development specialist for the Montana Arts Council. She’s worked with rural arts organizations in her state and often speaks on panels about strategies for rural groups.

“Rural organizations have always had to do a lot with a very little and they have done it well,” Holt says. “So a majority of them will continue with their passionate nature to produce their work because they have to — they can’t imagine life without it.”

And what are Kentucky Repertory Theatre’s chances of long-term survival? Good, says Sunil Iyengar. As director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, he’s overseen studies on theaters that survived previous recessions.

“We saw theaters with relatively healthy balance sheets,” Iyengar says. ” They grew in terms of capital assets and they kept their liabilities and debts down. And we believe they achieved what we would consider a healthy mix between earned and contributed income.”

Meanwhile, Brock has gotten more requests to take productions to other cities. Last week, it performed Red, White and Tuna in Hopkinsville. And two weeks ago, the staff told the theater’s board that it is officially in the black. But Brock is still vigilant.

“It feels exhilarating,” he says, “except you’ve got that voice going, ‘But you know it’s still a struggle out there.’ And you don’t know how the economy’s going to go.

Now, Brock has the next two seasons planned. He’s keeping costs down by having more plays with smaller casts and by not performing plays in repertory. And while he’s committed to staying in Horse Cave, he’s open to taking the show on the road.

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