This past April, Ricky J. Martinez received the Margo Jones Award from Ohio State University. Martinez was the longtime artistic director of Miami’s New Theatre, a small company dedicated to producing new plays, including the 2002 world premiere of Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics, which won the Pulitzer. Martinez made history as the first Latino to receive the Margo Jones prize for fostering theatre creation and production.
But the acclaim wasn’t enough to save the company. After spending most of its three decades in downtown Coral Gables, the theatre was evicted by a developer. For a time they rented at the Roxy Theatre Group, a youth-focused venue in the area, then relocated to the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay. Both moves cost them patrons. In early June of this year, two months after Martinez’s award, managing director Eileen Suarez retired and the New Theatre shuttered.
The lesson is clear: Stakes are high for theatres in transition. Actors’ Equity considers a theatre “midsize” if it seats more than 699 and is not in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. Many small theatres around the country seat closer to 100, in venues ranging from refurbished churches to former school auditoriums to basement spaces of loft apartments. Budgets tend to hover between $250,000 and $500,000, with modest cash reserves.
But what if you aspire to get to the next level? Many small theatres are finding themselves in predicaments similar to New Theatre’s, whose budget was around $500,000. As once-cheap neighborhoods become hot nightlife hubs, once-generous landlords seek richer tenants or sell off newly desirable property to developers, or parking becomes an insurmountable issue. For some theatres, gentrification is the harbinger of doom; for others, displacement becomes an opportunity to grow.
At the National New Play Network’s annual National Showcase of New Plays a year ago, many companies lamented losing or outgrowing their venues. NNPN executive director Nan Barnett said that many member theatres were rethinking location or renovating facilities, which led to the creation of a breakout session centered around the topic of small theatres growing to midsize, then to a subgroup for member theatres pursuing capital campaigns to help smooth the transition.
To help illuminate just how challenging it can be, we looked at four theatre companies in four different cities as they navigate this tricky juncture.
Kitchen Dog Theater always knew they’d eventually have to give up the bright blue building in the middle of a bustling uptown neighborhood. For more than 20 years, the company was housed in the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, a non-collecting museum dedicated to early- and mid-career visual artists. The MAC had three gallery spaces, and Kitchen Dog had two performance spaces, dressing rooms, and offices; the two organizations shared a lobby. The landlords invested in art and real estate, in this case both at once.
But in 2014 the property became too valuable not to sell. So for its 2015-16 season, the company’s 25th, Kitchen Dog was homeless, performing first at the Green Zone, then at Undermain Theatre.
The day they found out they’d be losing the MAC was managing director Tim Johnson’s first day on the job. The company, helmed by co-artistic directors Christopher Carlos and Tina Parker, were determined to overcome this setback, and began to pursue the possibility of a capital campaign to prevent it from happening again.
They hired a consulting firm and set a goal for $3 million to purchase a space of their own, add some full-time staff members, and continue producing the edgy new work that attracted their subscribers. A few weeks in, two longtime attendees contacted the office to set up Parker and Johnson’s capital campaign presentation. They set a fundraising challenge: If Kitchen Dog could raise $125,000 in two months, the donors would give $500,000 toward new space acquisition.
That amount was more than what Kitchen Dog typically fundraised in a year, but they threw numerous events, called on donors large and small, and hit the deadline. In September, they closed on a nearly $1 million property in the Dallas Design District.
Remaining fundraising efforts will take more time, as will the build-out of the new space, so the company signed a lease with the Trinity River Arts Center, a nonprofit space five miles northeast. Kitchen Dog will perform its 26th season, and likely its 27th, at Trinity.
The organization hopes audiences follow them to their new temporary home. But after a season of bouncing from space to space, they know all too well the potential for attrition. For Johnson, a permanent home will allow the company to recommit to a mission of challenging Dallas audiences and give their audiences a consistent hub to go to.
“To be a risk-taking theatre, you have to have a bit of security,” says Johnson. “You can’t be looking over your shoulder wondering if you can have this space for two weeks or two years. You need to be in one location so people know where they’re going.”
Long Branch, N.J.
For New Jersey Repertory Company, the transition wasn’t the result of outside pressure. Nearly 20 years after founding this new-works-focused company, married couple SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas felt it was ready to grow. Since 1997, they’d operated out of the Lumia Theatre, a small, art deco-style space with 67 seats, donated by a young philanthropic couple. Over the years the company evolved into what Gabor describes as a “laboratory of theatre development” and drew a loyal following. This past June, they purchased a new property, a former school on the west side of town.
“We’re able to produce only 6 to 7 new plays a year currently, and we get 500 scripts a year,” says Gabor, who serves as executive producer. “We wanted an expansion of our theatre size, which would give us the capability to produce more new works.”
The Lumia Theatre was in a less traversed area. The new space, which stretches a city block, is what a real estate agent would call geographically desirable: just two blocks from the ocean, surrounded by restaurants and clubs. The ambitious plans for the West End Performing Arts Center include two performance spaces, a cinema, a gallery space, and apartments for visiting artists. It will also allow for educational programs, which Gabor says was impossible in the smaller space.
The company purchased West End School outright; estimates for the entire capital campaign run to $10 million. In September, they were looking into hiring a consulting firm to launch the first phase, which would solely focus on renovating the performance spaces, including turning the school auditorium into a 150-seat proscenium theatre. Gabor says that none of this would be possible without a stalwart board and an airtight mission.
“One of our board members described the company as ‘cautiously reckless,’” says Gabor. “But we have never been a pragmatic organization. We based our business model on new plays and put our theatre in an area with no foot traffic. We just really believe in keeping the American theatre alive onstage.”
For 28 of its 34 seasons, Phoenix Theatre has operated out of a donated church that they’ve renovated and re-renovated. According to producing director Bryan Fonseca, they use every single inch in the 6,300-square-foot space.
“We have two stages and we produce 10 shows a year,” says Fonseca. “Our model is that we build on one stage, and when that show opens we start building on the other stage. To improve our product we need actual space.”
That issue was compounded by parking pressure. Phoenix Theatre was the first arts organization to move to what’s now a thriving city district. As the neighborhood improved, parking became more scarce, and in turn the company saw an audience decline of 3 to 5 percent. There’s no public transportation near the theatre, and making matters worse, a proposed permitted resident parking system would deprive them of another 300 spaces.
Frustrated, the company decided to sell their space and launch a capital campaign. Fonseca says that rather than pay a consulting firm to tell him the feasibility of raising $8.5 million, he asked donors himself. In the quiet phase of the campaign, they raised $5 million.
An architect has drafted a plan for a 20,000-square-foot facility with multiple performance and office spaces, plus classrooms. The goal would be to offer more educational programs and collaborate with other local theatres that share a commitment to employment along Equity guidelines.
“The primary objective is to create an environment where we can keep actors in our city,” says Fonseca. “Recently we lost five actors in the same age range because they can’t find work.”
This growth, which Fonseca says they plan to undertake with no debt burden, will increase operating costs from about $900,000 annually to an estimated $1 million. Built into the campaign is a cash reserve to assist in the first few years of operation in the new space.
One of the biggest challenges has been the disparity among members of the board of directors, with less wealthy members struggling to find friends they can call on for donations or to throw small fundraisers.
“It’s more than what some people signed up for, so we’re encouraging them to think about what impact they can make, even at a smaller dollar amount,” says Fonseca. “The truth is, it’s putting more strain on every single staff member. At the beginning we went out and just did it, and in our case ignorance was bliss. I didn’t really know how hard it would be.”
Hard, yes—but not impossible. This past January, Phoenix Theatre purchased three properties a mile away for $1.8 million. The kicker? It includes a private parking lot.
In 2004, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte moved out of an arts center and into what they thought would be a permanent facility, thanks to a generous rental agreement. In 2015, they were told their venue was being sold to a developer to build a high-rise.
“When we first moved into our current location, there was very little around us,” says executive director Dan Shoemaker. But Charlotte, like many other American cities, has become a booming real estate market. The landlords gave them through the end of the summer of 2016 to vacate the location.
The first consideration was whether they’d move into an existing facility or purchase a property of their own. They formed a facility committee of several board members and people from the real estate market. After watching theatre companies lose patrons when they relocated, Shoemaker says they’ve been very committed to collecting patron feedback.
“We considered being itinerant and traveling from space to space,” says Shoemaker. “But that added strain on our financial resources and our staff, and our patrons, so we abandoned that idea.”
Roadblocks have proliferated. The possibility of occupying space in a converted factory building was stalled by parking issues. At another location they were unable to come to agreeable lease terms. The construction company they planned to work with closed. But things took a positive turn in September when the company signed a five-year lease in a 4,500-square-foot space not far from their old location. A former movie studio, it comes with not just a 160-seat performance space, but office space, a lobby, dressing rooms, and a small café. ATC needed to put down about $200,000 to upfit the theatre, but most importantly, they no longer have to postpone their 2016-17 season. The first production, The Toxic Avenger, runs Oct. 26-Nov. 12.
What’s more, the theatre has plans to forestall future evictions: Its director of development, Bennett Rich, has been instructed to raise money over the next five years to make the landlord an offer. Time is of the essence, as the theatre is in another up-and-coming neighborhood, called FreeMoreWest.
“It’s a very trendy area,” says Shoemaker. “We’ve met with many of the businesses here and they’re excited to have a professional theatre in the area. It’s really encouraging the way the neighborhood has embraced us.” That’s also more reason to own; ATC plans a capital campaign for early 2017. “If you’re in a situation of ownership, you’re in a better position to withstand an economic storm.”
Lauren Smart is an arts writer and educator based in Dallas.
A version of this story appears in the November 2016 issue of American Theatre.