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Theaters' financial vulnerability takes center stage

In Washington County, glitches in show plans can have a big impact


by: PHOTO COURTESY OF BAG&BAGGAGE PRODUCTIONS - Participating in a modified open-forum performance and talk-back of Bag&Baggage Productions Lear the weekend of March 21-23 were (left to right) Tylor Neist, composer of the original score; cast members Benjamin Farmer, Rebecca Ridenour, Jessi Walters, Stephanie Leppert; and Scott Palmer, the companys artistic director.When the lead actor in a major theatrical production in Hillsboro fell victim to a stroke last month, it caused more than an immediate crisis for the upcoming performances.

It caused a painful financial hit for the company.

The sudden exit of Kevin Connell — who played King Lear in Bag&Baggage Productions’ “Lear,” an adaptation of the Shakespearean classic — put a tighter hold on the company’s purse strings.

“It isn’t great for us,” said Scott Palmer, head of the city’s professional theater troupe, which had not assigned an understudy for Connell. That was not an oversight — according to Palmer, in the Portland metro area only Portland Center Stage has paid understudies.

“We didn’t have the time, money or inclination to put in a pinch-hitter ... it just wouldn’t have worked,” Palmer said. Paying actors a wage for the potential of going on stage and expanding rehearsal time to include that understudy is “just simply cost-prohibitive, so we, along with [almost] everyone else, roll the dice and hope that nothing like this happens.”

Connell’s medical condition has since improved — the Jesuit High School English teacher remains in the hospital but is on the mend, according to Palmer — but the fallout from the situation, something that happens rarely but is not unheard of, underscores how close to the financial bone many of Washington County’s nonprofit arts groups operate.

Instead of offering a full-blown performance of “Lear” on the show’s final weekend, March 21-23, Palmer was forced to stage a significantly altered version at The Venetian Theatre on Main Street in Hillsboro, with remaining actors running through show highlights that did not feature Connell and then offering a “talk-back” with audience members.

It went over as well as could be expected, Palmer said last week.

“It certainly could have been worse, but it could have been much better, too,” said Palmer, who estimates the company lost the equivalent of about 500 tickets due to reimbursements and exchanges requested by patrons.

With every ticket worth an average of $20, Palmer is projecting a loss of just over $10,000 on the show, or almost 3 percent of Bag&Baggage’s annual $400,000 budget.

“It’s not fatal,” said Palmer, who is busy getting things in shape for the troupe’s next play, Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” which debuts May 8.

“The total number of audience members over the last four shows was 201, and our usual attendance for a final weekend would have been closer to 600 or 800,” said Palmer. With “Lear,” he added, expectations were particularly high. “We were getting great reviews — it was so critically acclaimed.”

The open-forum approach was well received by those who chose to attend rather than request a refund or exchange, Palmer said. It included a question-and-answer session with four cast members, the composer of the show’s musical score and Palmer.

Still, the loss is not a figure that’s easily made up.

“Our response to this will be to look at restricting future expenditures for shows,” said Palmer, as well as maximizing profits from “Private Lives” by extending the run of that show for a week. The company will also boost its fundraising efforts and increase revenue goals for its annual gala June 23 in Helvetia.

“It’s important to note that we have been over target on ticket sales for other shows this season, which also helps to mitigate the overall impact,” Palmer said.

Bag&Baggage isn’t the only western Washington County troupe to experience a bit of bad luck in recent years. During Theatre in the Grove’s 2009 production of “Annie Get Your Gun,” the actress in the title role came down with laryngitis, and one of the young women in the chorus had to step in. When the real Annie’s voice returned, she gave her substitute one more night as the play’s lead to reward her for her efforts.

Ongoing work

Less measurable is what effect a drop in future ticket sales — for whatever reason — could have on a theater’s fortunes. Efforts to court big donors and secure regular ticket-holders, not to mention the ongoing work of attracting arts grants, can take a hit when the unexpected occurs.

That reality holds true, no matter the length of a company’s reach — whether it’s professional theaters with paid actors, such as Bag&Baggage and Broadway Rose, or community theaters such as Theatre in the Grove in Forest Grove, Beaverton Civic Theatre, Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre (HART) or Tigard-Tualatin’s Mask & Mirror.

“We have had actors turn up ill and we have replaced them with competent [people] with no audience complaints,” said Gary Romans, president of the nonprofit Mask & Mirror Community Theatre, adding that each of his company’s shows so far this season have ended up in the black.

With a budget of just under $4,000 per show, Romans says Mask & Mirror takes a “conservative approach” to fulfilling its mission: bringing community theater to Tigard and Tualatin.

“We are membership-based and democratically run,” he said, pointing out that actors are all-volunteer, leaving only stage rental (from a local church), costumes, set and prop creation, and royalties as expenses that affect the bottom line.

Mask & Mirror recently started a choir — called the Mask & Mirror Singers — which is set to perform its first concert later this month at the Tualatin Heritage Center. The April 26 and 27 event will be a benefit for the theater troupe and the Tualatin Historical Society.

The 2-year-old company aims to increase its platform by building audience loyalty and finding a “more permanent home” in which to expand the number and duration of its shows in 2014-15, said Romans.

For Broadway Rose, a 22-year-old musical theater nonprofit in Tigard, blips on the performance radar are less threatening to the bottom line than to the company’s well-honed reputation.

With an annual budget of $2 million and its own venue at C.F. Tigard Elementary School, Broadway Rose is flexible in its ability to recover when bad luck strikes, said General Manager Dan Murphy.

“We have nine full-time and four part-time permanent employees, [as well as] a lot of volunteers,” noted Murphy, “so when inclement weather strikes and we have to cancel four performances, we hope we can buffer it.”

That happened this past winter, when the company was forced to drop a weekend of performances of the Tommy Newman and Gordon Greenberg comedy “Band Geeks” during a February snow storm.

“We took a risk and added a fifth week from the get-go, and when the four shows canceled it was the second week of the five,” Murphy said. “We had enough room to reseat everyone.

“The challenge is that our ‘product’ has an expiration date, and shows close.”

This year Broadway Rose will stage 141 performances — 126 on its main stage and 15 children’s/teens’ shows, Murphy added, giving it additional financial wiggle room.

Still, he acknowledged, vulnerability in arts funding is real.

“The quality of the work is the single most important factor,” said Murphy. “Free parking, a great lobby and clean restrooms are all part of the experience, [but] ultimately the work is the draw.”

Said another way, a theater company has to put good actors on stage to come up with compelling shows providing solid entertainment for its audiences. And with any number of variables that could take a left turn—from cast members’ medical crises to a blip in the grants cycle — living out an attitude of “the show must go on” is critical to a troupe’s success.

Bag&Baggage has learned that lesson more than once.

“A few years ago, one of our actors suffered heat stroke during one of our outdoor [Shakespeare] shows,” said Palmer, who has enjoyed some enviable attention from grant-givers in recent years, including a $1,500 gift from the Cultural Coalition of Washington County just last month. That time, B&B took a different tack than it did during the “Lear” mishap.

“We put our assistant director into the show with a script [until] the original actor was well enough to return,” he said. “People asked for their money back and it impacted the overall quality of the show for two nights.”

The latest kerfuffle wasn’t in the script either, but Palmer and company are taking it in stride.

“It wasn’t ideal, but it’s not a crisis in any way ... it’s a bump in the road,” he said.




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