To form an alliance between two 501(c)(3) theatres in two separate locations
Grow the revenue of both theatres and eventually merge into one stable arts organization
Sharing resources, leadership, and production costs
Restructuring led to massive layoffs, severely affecting morale and prompting key personnel to quit
Growing patronage and pay; tackling building maintenance issues
This past spring two theatres became unexpected bedfellows, as they merged and started sharing resources—despite being 40 miles apart. Indeed one of them was just weeks away from closing if it hadn’t merged with a community theatre an hour’s drive north.
The Henegar Center in downtown Melbourne, Fla., was founded in 1991 when an abandoned elementary school was converted into a 474-seat performing arts center under the leadership of the late Peter Feller. A Tony-winning stage technician, Feller had worked with luminaries like Jerome Robbins and Harold Prince, then sailed his boat to Melbourne to retire. But by late 2018, plummeting ticket sales promised a grim future for Henegar; it had $150,000 in loan debt and $70,000 in unpaid bills.
Meanwhile, the 274-seat Titusville Playhouse in Titusville, Fla., was more stable, with a $1.4 million operating budget. With 1,800 season subscribers, Titusville’s busy schedule of 13 shows frequently sold out. But to maintain a stable cultural organization and give his creative team a decent living wage, executive artistic director Steven Heron was looking for ways to increase his audience size.
Heron started looking into Henegar as a possible merger candidate, with an audience that was yet untapped by Titusville. After checking that theatre’s 990s (tax documents for nonprofits that are publicly accessible), he discovered something surprising: Though Henegar was three times larger than his theatre and in the county’s fastest-growing area, its ticket sales were only about a third of Titusville’s.
So in September 2018, Titusville board president Doug Lebo approached Henegar board president Cliff Bragdon with the idea of working together. The call couldn’t have come at a better time: Henegar had recently done a deep financial analysis and the prognosis was not good: It was set to lose almost $150,000 that year.
That November, leaders from the two organizations met to discuss. But when Titusville learned more about Henegar’s finances—by then it had only $2,600 in the bank—they balked. The following month, Henegar gave layoff notices to most of its staff, which still wasn’t enough. A desperate Nick Riippa, Henegar’s treasurer, contacted Lebo, and in January the two came up with a management agreement calling for shared staff, resources, and programming. Lebo would become Henegar’s board president, and Heron would run both Titusville and Henegar.
“We did not want to initiate this with an unknown leadership team,” said Lebo. The two theatres would still have separate seasons, but there would be more coproductions (which wasn’t a stretch artistically, considering both specialized in musicals).
Unfortunately, the merger meant that Titusville inherited a demoralized staff. These remaining Henegar creative personnel felt hurt and disrespected by their board, and walked away almost en masse.
“From a personal standpoint, for me, it felt like being fired,” said Brighid Reppert, Henegar’s former production manager, who had worked at the theatre for 15 years. “It will be a very, very long time before I step foot back in that building. There was faith and trust that was broken.”
Heron expressed regret at how this part was handled, saying, “We encouraged the Henegar to be up front and let people know what’s going on.” But he also admits they should have been more insistent on open communication between board and staff.
Suffice to say, by the spring there was no one left at Henegar. Heron needed someone who understood the building’s inner workings, so he hired Nathan Dobson, a college student who had served as stage manager on many Henegar productions.
For other theatres going through mergers, Heron advised planning well and retaining as many staffers at each theatre as possible. “The Titusville staff is going crazy at the moment because we have to cover everything,” he admits with chagrin. “We thought it would be okay and cool, but everyone is working 13 hours a day and we’re losing it little by little.” The staff roster, which includes a full-time production crew, numbers 14.
Another pressing concern has been debt management. Three days after Titusville assumed control, they received a call from Florida Power & Light saying Henegar had a past due bill of $11,000 (the power company also demanded an additional $3,000 deposit). Luckily a theatre patron well known for her generosity came to the rescue the following week with $40,000 for Henegar.
To further balance the budget, Heron slashed nearly $71,000 from the production costs of three shows at Henegar. He also changed the ticketing system, which is expecting to reduce Henegar’s bill from about $29,000 to about $14,000.
Of crucial help was asking Titusville designers and directors to volunteer their time on Henegar’s productions, which ended up saving that theatre $100,000. Heron admits that was an emergency-only move, and for this summer’s productions the creative teams at Henegar are being paid (with the theatre covering half of their health insurance and offering a retirement plan).
Heron has announced a blockbuster season for Henegar, with all-age crowd-pleasers like Beauty and the Beast, A Chorus Line, Mamma Mia!, and Grease (the latter two will be a co-production with Titusville, which will continue to operate out of its smaller 274-seat house).
Henegar, once two days away from having its electricity turned off, is now completely turned around. Within five months under the new leadership, it brought in $140,000 and raised its subscriber base by 36 percent. Once again, you can hear singing in one rehearsal room or children practicing ballet in the dance studio, see actors running lines in another studio, gather for meetings in a garden room, and join patrons beneath the reception hall’s chandeliers.
Henegar’s May staging of West Side Story, the first mounted by the Titusville creative team, brought in $88,000—the third-highest-grossing show in Henegar’s history. And Titusville’s Rent traveled to Henegar, where it brought in $37,000 in two weekends.
This is just the beginning, as Heron sees it. The new leadership team just completed a $125,000* renovation at the Henegar. The biggest thing Heron has learned is that, in instituting a merger, it’s important to under-predict turnout and over-predict costs. And always over-plan. At the end of the day, he says proudly, “We’re going to be one of the largest arts organizations in Central Florida. There’s a potential of being a $4 million to $5 million operation between the two.”
Former Florida Today writer and critic Pam Harbaugh covered Henegar and Titusville Playhouse for more than 25 years. She also directed a few plays at Henegar’s black-box theatre.
*A previous version of this story stated that the Henegar recently underwent a $125 million renovation. It was actually $125,000.