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    Road to recovery or road to nowhere Essay

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    Players Theatre Columbus has ceased all operations,” says the woman’s voice on the answering machine, sounding the death knell of the professional Ohio company, first founded as a community theatre in 1923. Fifty full- and part-time staff members and 4,200 subscribers were left out in the cold when the theatre’s board of trustees, citing a $500,000 shortfall, abruptly closed down the theatre on Sept. 11, canceling a production of Arthur Kopit’s Phantom of the Opera and offering patrons no refunds. “There was no cash and we couldn’t meet payroll for staff or actors,” board chairman Tom Murrill told reporter Chris Jones of Variety. “The board could not take on any further debt and we had to do the responsible thing.”

    Artistic director Ed Graczyk sees the closure differently. “I think that their decision was terribly insensitive and stupid. We were five days away from opening Phantom, with sets done, costumes done, programs printed, $60,000 in advance and a potential of at least another $200,000 in ticket sales,” he says. Graczyk blames bad management practices (the theatre had been through three managing directors in five years), board apathy and a 1989 move from a 350-seat theatre to an 850-seat state-run auditorium for the theatre’s demise.

    “In the old space our reputation was pretty much built on doing new works,” says Graczyk, who has helmed Players Theatre since 1973. “And when we moved into the new space, all of a sudden with 850 seats we’re floundering and the board is saying, |You have to fill the seats. You need to do more musicals.’ So, in trying to do what the board conceived the community wanted, I lost total focus as to what it is we really should be doing.”


    Connecticut casually 

    Westport, Conn.’s Fairfield County Stage Company has also folded as a result of similar pressures. The small professional company, founded in 1984 as the Boston Post Road Stage Company, moved to its third Fairfield County venue in 1990, doubling its seating capacity as the winter tenant of the Westport Country Playhouse. Moving expenses, decreased corporate and state funding, and lack of audience growth for both subscriptions and single tickets were cited as reasons for closure.

    The theatre had previously announced to subscribers that the 1993-94 season would be postponed. “We then continued our efforts to find a way to do a shortened season,” artistic director Burry Fredrik commented, “but ultimately the board realized that without additional substantial funding, it would be unrealistic to attempt to continue.”

    Subscribers received full refunds at the time of the announcement. “Despite our financial troubles,” the artistic director commented, “we wanted to ensure that there would be no further black marks against an area theatre.” Fredrik was appointed as artistic director last season and managing director Marilyn Hersey joined the staff in 1985. The company produced 42 shows in all, including new plays, small musicals and revivals.

    A third theatre, the American Stage Festival of Milford, N.H. has survived rather than succumbed to a crisis. The company edged its way back from the brink of extinction during its 1993 season, ending in the black for the first time in its 19-year history, according to producing director Matthew Parent. With a debt of $67,000 last December, the board of trustees considered closing the theatre, but decided to attempt one more season. In January, Parent replaced Richard Rose, and compressed the mainstage season from 16 weeks to 12 weeks a d reduced the staff by 20 percent. The 1993 season included Little Shop of Horrors, Crimes of the Heart, Love Letters, The Country Girl and Broadway Bound. Parent intends to renew the company’s commitment to new plays next season.

    Kevin Cochran, who acted as consultant to the American Stage Festival last winter, has become the interim producing director of another troubled theatre, California’s Grove Shakespeare Festival. The southern California theatre suspended operations in June, leaving more than 1,400 subscribers without refunds and creditors with $250,000 of unpaid bills.

    Survival strategy 

    Cochran plans to bring the theatre back for a 1994 season next summer by drastically reducing the budget, from an average of $750,000 over the past four years to about $472,000. In July, members of the Garden Grove City Council gave the theatre a vote of confidence by supporting continuation of the contract which allows Grove Shakespeare free use of the city-owned Gem Theatre and Festival Amphitheatre. Cochran points to an average attendance of 25,000 and ticket sales of about $400,000 in recent years as proof of the theatre’s support in the community.

    As producing director, he plans to use many of the same strategies he recommended to the American Stage Festival. “Survival does mean going to a more popular fare here,” Cochran told the Orange County Register, “I think the program here can diversify. Two to three years of trying to hold the company’s head above water, and then I think it can get back to growth.”

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