To create a lasting economic model for a theatre whose community and individual giving is relatively small, compared to other theatres of its size.
Continue the mission but change the programming—expand to another city while building audiences.
Nearly 50 percent of Perseverance Theatre’s budget is now earned income.
Travel can be costly, and it can be difficult to communicate programming to two separate audiences.
A rural initiative to perform barebones versions of plays is in the works.
How do you develop and expand audiences when the population of a theatre’s town or city is fairly small?
This was the question Art Rotch found himself asking when he returned in 2008 to Juneau, Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre as artistic director. (He had worked there decades earlier with then artistic director Molly Smith.) “Back in 1988,” Rotch recalls, “the theatre’s budget was around $1 million, and the population of Juneau was just over 30,000. Most theatres of a budget that size sell more tickets than those numbers make possible.”
As is the case at many theatres, Perserverance’s income is a mosaic of ticket sales, individual giving, grants and endowments from large state and national foundations—but the percentages coming from ticket sales and individual giving weren’t enough to guarantee the theatre’s economic longevity. “One way to change that was to try and sell more tickets,” Rotch reasons. “Another way was to see where the people are.”
Alaska is the largest state in the U.S., but its population is small and scattered. Anchorage, with a population of 300,950 (compared to Juneau’s 32,660) was an obvious choice for a possible expansion of Perseverance’s programming. Rotch likens the relationship between Juneau and Anchorage to Athens and Sparta, before emphasizing with a chuckle, “but Alaskans are Alaskans.”
It takes more than 21 hours to drive from Anchorage to Juneau, or an hour-and-a-half flight. Before expanding to Anchorage, Rotch and his team reexamined the theatre’s mission, which is “to create professional theatre by and for Alaskans.” Perseverance employs Alaskans on and off stage, typically casting 70 percent of its acting talent with locals. “The theatre had done a great deal artistically and has had a great impact on the community,” says Rotch, “but what we hadn’t done was develop a business model that was sustainable. I wanted to figure out a way to make the good work this theatre has done last.”
The Perseverance team spent about a year “discussing the theatre’s mission and building a vocabulary for our purpose—we realized the mission could remain intact, but the programs could change,” says Rotch, who also spoke with leaders from other companies that have expanded or tested out satellite programs. These included Arizona Theatre Company, which operates in Tucson and Phoenix; Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland, which partners with Idaho and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festivals; and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which used to have a Portland satellite program.
Of course, if the goal is to develop audiences and increase ticket sales to 40–50 percent of your theatre’s operating budget (from 17 percent, where it had previously been), both the budget and support system has to grow. In order to jump-start its dual city infrastructure, Perseverance partnered with Anchorage arts organizations, including the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, where Perseverance is now a resident company; the Anchorage Concert Association, through which Perseverance sells tickets; and the Anchorage Opera, which helped with a lot of back-end support, including space for props and sets. “Partnerships need to be win-win,” Rotch cautions. “Each organization has to bring value and something unique to the other partner.”
Enlarging infrastructure via partners was a no-brainer—but other costs added up as well. “We quickly realized that the scale and marketing of production would need to double, and we could either try and get that money up front or gradually evolve toward that,” explains Rotch, who, along with his team, opted for the latter approach. In 2012 the company set out to move two Juneau-based productions—The Blue Bear, adapted from Alaskan author Lynn Schooler’s book, and A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s American classic—to Anchorage. “We wanted to just learn how we could do this and see who would come,” says Rotch.
Those first experiences taught the Perseverance team a number of lessons. The Juneau tech crew, for example, isn’t accustomed to observing the rules of IATSE, the stagehand’s union, while the Anchorage team is. Shipping the set, as opposed to building a new one in Anchorage, is Perseverance’s preferred method. “We close in Juneau, pack up the set during strike, and then the actors fly to Anchorage and put in a week of rehearsals,” Rotch elaborates. “We usually have the director come back, and that’s fun because they get to see what the actors have learned after a month of performing in front of audiences.”
Usually the actors maintain their roles in both Juneau and Anchorage productions, though some small parts have changed now and then. Since 2012 Perseverance has added one full-time Anchorage staff member as well as four Anchorage board members (the other 11 are Juneau-based). “The board is still trying to figure out how this works and how many meetings we should have, but there have been very thoughtful discussions about just how big we should get. The community in Juneau is very protective. It takes time.”
Rotch also notes that the travel can be fairly constant. He typically spends a week in Anchorage every month; the full artistic team goes to Anchorage for auditions. Anchorage-based actors taking a job with Perseverance typically must spend two months in Juneau, one rehearsing and one performing. Still, Rotch is hopeful that all the cross-pollinating will lead to future collaborations. “When you get actors from two places, they start thinking about what they can do together, and over time that will spin off to pitches for me or other producing partners.”
Rotch allows that communicating programming to two different cities is still an evolving effort. “Talking about Perseverance’s statewide programming is great for donors, but audiences want to know what they can see and when they can see it,” he says, adding “it will be a full 10 years before we understand how this all works.”
For now, the numbers indicate positive growth. Perseverance has reached four out of five of its benchmark goals on time, including boosting earned income to 50 percent—but Rotch is quick to point out that the dual city initiative isn’t just about raising ticket-sales percentages. “What we’re really after is building audiences in Alaska,” he says. “The artists and the audiences are the reason we’re here, and connecting this strategy to our mission is essential. It’s changed the conversation about who Perseverance is.”
Identities evolve, and Rotch is looking ahead to other areas of Alaska for Perseverance programming possibilities. “Right now we have the actors on contract for a dark weekend while we wait for the scenery to move,” he explains. “We’ve been thinking about a rural initiative, ‘Perseverance Unplugged,’ where we’d take a production of say, As You Like It, to a remote location like Barrow, and perform there, just without the set.” Rotch dreamily sketches out how it might work—a day for travel, three shows including a matinee. “It would only be an additional flight,” he ventures enthusiastically, before adding, “But I suppose it’s like flying from New York to North Dakota.”