Floods and fires play havoc with theatres’ economic stability
July was the cruelest of months for the Iowa Summer Rep. Instead of audience members’ vehicles, the weekend of July 10 saw the parking lot of the Iowa City theatre filled with assorted carp and silverfish, none of whom had the slightest interest in seeing The Kentucky Cycle. As the Iowa River rose past the mark it is only supposed to reach once every 500 years, artistic director Eric Forsythe watched his pre-Broadway coup float away from his grasp.
Over in Des Moines, the good customers of the Ingersoll Dinner Theatre were enjoying the first act of Annie when the river suddenly overwhelmed the local power station and all of the lights in the theatre went out. The Ingersoll then lost its water supply for several weeks, giving owner Charles Carnes his worst summer in memory.
Cut off from civilization
And at about the same time in Arrow Rock, Mo., Michael Bollinger was wondering if the selection of both The Rainmaker and Singing in the Rain for the same summer season had been asking for trouble. The Lyceum Theatre had just spent $700,000 on a brand new 338-seat theatre facility just one mile from the Missouri River. A 100-foot bluff saved the building from being swallowed by water, but the tiny town of Arrow Rock became virtually cut off from civilization as one road after another was closed down. That made it virtually impossible for audiences from Columbia or Kansas City to reach the theatre. After the local water treatment plant was flooded, bewildered imported actors from New York and Los Angeles were forced to drink from cans and take showers in plastic bags. Meanwhile, Bollinger and his staff were busy fielding hundreds of cancelled reservations.
Theatres across the Midwest are still counting the costs of last summer’s unparalleled floods which played havoc with programming across the region, disrupting audiences and bank balances well into the fall. Although the floods came at a time when many regional houses were dark, summer and year-round operations across Illinois, Iowa and Missouri found themselves thrust into chaos.
Debbie Denenberg of Missouri’s historic Goldenrod Showboat, based in St. Charles, Mo., estimates that the commercial operation lost over $250,000 when the boat was forced to shut down for its entire summer season of 14 weeks after the Mississippi suddenly became a less-than-calm place to pass a few hours. The reliable Goldenrod may have continued to float, as it has since 1909, but that did not mean anybody without his own boat could get anywhere near the banks of the river.
Doused by the media
Ironically, even theatres that remained relatively unscathed by the floods suffered from the common media-induced perception that an entire region of the country was under siege. Thanks to a floodwall, the town of Rock Island, Ill. was not flooded like the communities on the other side of the river. Still, the Circa-21 Dinner Theatre had to watch its precious bus parties cancel in droves all summer long. “People thought we were all under water,” complains producer Dennis Hitchcock. “The flood really affected everyone’s attitude.”
The social problems caused by the disaster also had an unpleasant effect this autumn when theatres began to look to local businesses for their customary financial support. That problem was particularly acute in St. Louis, where many economically devastated residents were made homeless, and where many corporations diverted their usual philanthropic arts monies towards flood relief.
“Last season we had major corporate sponsors for three of our mainstage shows,” says Ronald J. Himes of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company. “This year we have only one.”
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis also had great trouble this fall trying to remind subscribers that it was time to renew, when most people’s minds were occupied with issues extratheatrical. “Everyone’s attention was focused on recovering from the flood problems,” says managing director Mark Bernstein. “People were telling our telemarketers that they were completely tapped out.” After a strong start to the annual campaign, the theatre finished with 500 subscribers fewer than the previous year, a drop that Bernstein attributes to residual problems from the summer’s disaster.
Even though it suffered no direct flood damage, Iowa City’s Riverside Theatre has also seen its subscription base collapse. “There has been a malaise over the entire community,” says artistic director Ron Clark. “People have had to choose between season tickets and new carpeting or dry wall.” The theatre has lost 400 percent of its season subscribers, causing worrying financial instability.
There is, of course, no midwestern monopoly on Acts of God. Just ask anyone who works on the West Coast. The Laguna Beach Playhouse came within inches of burning to a cinder last October, when fires swept across southern California. Embers landed on the theatre’s property, igniting grass just 100 feet from the building. Managing director Richard Stein stationed his loyal technical staff on the roof of the theatre, where they hosed down both the building and any adjacent trees. With cars parked ready for a quick evacuation and wearing respirator masks hurriedly pulled from the scene shop, staffers and volunteers frantically backed up computer data and loaded valuables into a van. Happily, the fire ultimately turned in a different direction and the theatre remained untouched, faring better than much of the rest of Laguna Beach.
Importance of being insured
What are the lessons to be learned from these theatres’ encounters with natural disaster? First, there is the importance of good insurance. The Laguna Beach Playhouse has recently added business interruption to its list of coverages. “The fire made us all realize how vulnerable we were,” says Stein. “And that additional coverage was really not especially costly.”
Good communication with audience members is also important when crises hit. The same afternoon of the fire, Stein was calling the local press to reassure people that the theatre was unharmed. Bollinger made sure the whole region knew that performances at Arrow Rock’s Lyceum were continuing as scheduled,even if audiences were both wet and tiny. Looking back with hindsight, the Iowa Summer Rep’s Forsythe regrets his understandable decision to cancel performances of The Kentucky Cycle one day at a time, hoping that at least some performances could be saved.
“That pattern of uncertainty was confusing for the audience,” he now believes. “When we rescheduled in the fall, people did not believe that we were really back.” Instead of the theatre’s customary 95 percent of capacity, The Kentucky Cycle played in August to houses that were half empty.
When disaster strikes, communities invariably pull together, giving theatres the chance to demonstrate their willingness to give something back to their supporters and enjoy some positive public relations. The Laguna Beach Playhouse gave away 200 tickets to local firefighters and wrote personal letters to subscribers who had lost their homes. Circa-21 offered free South Pacific tickets to Red Cross volunteers working on flood relief. Actors from the St. Louis Rep performed for families in flood shelters, and other St. Louis companies donated money from concession stands and lobby collections to relief efforts. Theatres throughout the region adopted a liberal exchange and refund policy, cheerfully returning the money of anyone who was waterlogged and unable to make it to any performance.
If there was a positive side to the recent natural disasters, perhaps it was that many companies enjoyed a new sense of their value to their host communities. The Lyceum’s Bollinger especially enjoyed a local news report interviewing a motorist stuck in pouring rain on a flooded Interstate 70 in the middle of nowhere. “I have to get through,” the woman shouted to the sodden reporter. “I have tickets for the theatre.”
Chris Jones writes about theatre in the Midwest for Variety.