In June things were looking bleak for Perseverance Theatre, a 40-year-old institution and the largest theatre in Alaska. The company had been forced to cancel its spring show, a new musical called Snow Child, had furloughed several employees, and was more than $200,000 in debt. Local press wondered if the theatre was on its deathbed.
Then something miraculous happened, or as Perseverance staffer Julie Coppens called it, a “deus ex machina.” A philanthropist and longtime friend of artistic director Art Rotch donated $200,000. A Perseverance subscriber gave another $207,000. A number of other large donations from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and other donors added up to $650,000, allowing the theatre to pay off its debts and build up a cash reserve, which had been depleted after years of budget shortfalls. The donors also issued a challenge to Perseverance’s donor base: to raise $100,000 more by Sept. 30. So far the theatre has raised half.
Suffice to say, it’s been “a little crazy,” confessed Coppens, one of two new staffers hired by Perseverance in an attempt to refocus in on its business model. Coppens was hired in June as the theatre’s first director of engagement and outreach.
Another new hire, just solidified last week, is managing director Joshua Midgett, in a newly created position. For the past 10 years artistic director Rotch had been overseeing both the art and money side at the theatre. Rotch said the theatre hadn’t had the funds to hire a managing director, but donors demanded that Perseverance hire a professional who could better oversee its finances. Enter Midgett, formerly the managing director of Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia.
Speaking on the phone, Rotch sounded relieved. “Having a second pair of hands and a division of labor, something as capable as he is—what a great thing,” he said, adding, “My wife is very happy.”
Perseverance was founded in 1979 by Molly Smith, who later left to lead Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. It operates on a $2 million budget annually and as of about four years ago programs its work in two cities: in the state capital of Juneau, its longtime home base, and in Anchorage, 848 miles away. The theatre also does an annual tour to rural communities in Alaska and runs an art education program for youth and adults.
As someone who’s been involved with the company off and on for 30 years, Rotch describes running it as “challenging.” Because it operates in a remote city in Alaska of about 30,000 people, and traveling anywhere in the state is time-consuming and expensive, Perseverance “has survived by the passion of those who have been involved, not because it has a solid business model,” said Rotch. Prior to the current crises, Rotch and the board had been “trying to fix that by finding a scale that would get the whole state invested and get enough people in the seats.”
That was why for the theatre embarked on the Anchorage part of its season, which requires them to truck crew, set, and artists through Canada, then via a ferry to the second location. Though the cost of performing in Anchorage was offset by ticket revenue, Rotch didn’t factor in the rising costs of production and some budgeted grants that didn’t come through. That’s how over two seasons, 2014 to 2016, the theatre had a cumulative budget deficit of $700,000 and burned through its reserve funds.
“I’d say that we projected costs pretty well overall, but we had a harder time projecting the growth rate of Anchorage revenues. We also had a hard time holding on to some major donors in the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years,” said Rotch, who also added that those years were also when the Alaska economy had fallen into a recession.
Though Perseverance has bounced back in the last two years and boasted a small surplus this past season, it wasn’t until the recent large influx of cash that has allowed it to restore its reserves and reassess its finances. That’s where Midgett, who has had experience turning debts into surpluses, comes in. When he was hired at CATF, that theatre had a “five-figure operating deficit,” he said. As he leaves it’s got a “six-figure operating surplus.”
Midgett believes the key to is depending less on earned income from foundations and grants and more on audience contributions, subscriptions, and other earned income.
“I want houses that are not 40-50 percent full, we want houses that are 70, 80, 90 percent,” he said from Anchorage, where he’d flown to meet donors. “That’s been crucial to my success at CATF, bringing those house capacities up.” In addition, Midgett also thinks that the theatre needs to reassess its communications strategy, so that “the community understands what Perseverance is and how valuable the theatre is to the state of Alaska, and what a nonprofit theatre means, because many people think, ‘Oh, I’m buying a ticket, that should pay for it.’”
He believes the key is not depending too much on earned income from foundations and grants but on building contributed income from audience donations, hence his focus on increasing the audience base. Part of the theatre’s five-year plan is to increase audience attendance by 50 percent, to 30,000 annually.
For the staff of the theatre, that means doing more, not less. One of the proposals on the table is more targeted outreach to Anchorage residents, which boasts a population 10 times that of Juneau, with a larger potential subscriber and donor base. And it’s not just those two cities: As part of her position, Coppens is hoping to expand the theatre’s education and touring programs, to place them directly in schools and community centers so that they reach more Alaskans who may be unable to travel to Juneau or Anchorage.
The payoff to her is “hundreds of students out in our community experiencing and making theatre together for the first time,” she said. Hopefully what results from that is better long-term, recurring relationships with audience members.
“Maybe some of their parents will come check out a performance on a Pay-What-You-Can-Night,” Coppens said. “Maybe someday these kids will be auditioning for us, or working on a crew, or (you never know) sending us some donations when they start working in whatever fields they choose. But whatever the ultimate reward, ensuring theatre education for every child is the right thing to do. Our schools in Alaska still aren’t doing it. So it’s on us.”
Despite the uncertainty of the past few months, staffers who spoke for this article are optimistic. They are readying their season opener: Our Town by Thornton Wilder (Oct. 5-Nov. 4), and plan to mount five productions in Juneau and Anchorage. They now have individuals focused on things like “augmenting the patron base, on foundation and individual giving, and on managing the budget,” said Midgett, who grew up in Juneau and was exposed to theatre through Perseverance’s school program. “From my relationship with Perseverance, the reputation that it has, it does not feel the problem is the art onstage. We’ll have the opportunity to look at what hasn’t been working and how to correct it and move forward.”
*This piece has been updated throughout.