Remedies sought for money woes at theater

Posted: February 21, 2013

The Winchester Star

Len Sherp of Front Royal asks a question of the Wayside Theatre board of directors during a town hall meeting to discuss the future of the venue Wednesday night. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)
ABOVE: Wayside Theatre artistic director Warner Crocker shows a PowerPoint presentation about the theater during a town hall-style meeting to discuss its financial shortfall. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)
RIGHT: About 75 patrons and supporters of the Wayside Theatre in Middletown attended a public meeting Wednesday evening to discuss its future.

MIDDLETOWN — Officials and community members came together Wednesday night for a frank discussion over the plight of the Wayside Theatre.

The atmosphere was open and earnest as about 75 people gathered for a town hall-style meeting led by Warner Crocker, the theater’s artistic director, and several board members.

Audience members were invited to ask questions about Wayside’s struggles and offer suggestions on how the theater might be able to better sustain itself going forward.

The theater announced Jan. 7 that it needed to raise $90,000 in 90 days to continue operating and finish its 51st season. Fundraising efforts so far have brought in almost $62,000 toward the goal, Crocker said.

The deadline for the emergency fundraising campaign is April 8.

The objective Wednesday was to draw in more awareness and support for the theater and provide an open forum to answer the public’s questions and concerns, Crocker said.

“A big part of this campaign is transparency and letting people know what it takes to keep a professional theater in the Northern Shenandoah Valley,” he said.

At the outset, moderator and former board member Malcolm Barr told the audience that the value of the evening was in what they — rather than the people on stage — had to say.

But as the almost two-hour meeting progressed, officials did their best to address in detail how the theater got into its current financial crisis and what it will take to get out of it.

Before the questions started, Crocker gave an in-depth look at the theater’s past, present and future financial outlook.

He pointed to a drop in donations and ticket sales as key problems. The theater has gone from highs like the 2006-07 season, when its attendance was 30,214, to 20,010 people in 2011-12.

Many of the initial questions focused on the $90,000 fundraising goal, what it meant for the theater, and what comes next.

Byron Brill, the theater board’s president, referred to the $90,000 “as getting us to first base.” The amount will help the theater catch up on payroll and cover interest payments on its $1 million debt to BB&T.

But it also shows the community’s support for the theater and gives the board “breathing room” to start long-range planning for its future, he said.

“The feeling was that $90,000 would get us to a point where we could make some intelligent decisions about our future,” he said.

That future won’t involve any more emergency fundraising campaigns, he said.

The theater experienced a similar crisis in 2011, and at the time, more than 700 individuals responded to its appeal by donating $106,000, Crocker said. That kept the theater afloat and covered operating expenses.

If the $90,000 is raised by the deadline, the theater will go ahead with its final show of the season, “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and start selling subscriptions to next season, Crocker said.

The theater’s board decided in November not to offer subscriptions for the next season, a first in the theater’s long history.

“Smoke on the Mountain: Homecoming,” which runs through March 17, could mark the theater’s final performance.

Board member Bill Sirbaugh said Wayside has to operate from more of a business standpoint and “come to grips” with the problems it faces without repeatedly resorting to an emergency campaign.

“There are some big debts on the books. We have to face that,” he said. “We can’t continue to operate on a deficit.”

The theater already cut its budget from $900,000 in 2006 to $700,000 this year, and its staff went from 19 to 12, Crocker said.

Beyond the emergency fundraising goal, board treasurer Adele Skolits estimated the theater needs to set an annual fundraising goal of $250,000 to keep the theater operating.

For that goal, individual support will always be critical, Brill said. Officials also hope to hire an outside consultant to advise the board and research other successful theater models.

Praise for the theater and its role in the community were more forthcoming than actual suggestions on how it can better reach its goals.

One man suggested lengthening intermissions to increase time for concession sales and using the theater space for rentals when there are no shows running.

Other suggestions Crocker said he has received since the campaign started are to raise ticket prices, hire stars, shorten the season, do more adventurous plays, and do “Cats.”

Frances Lowe of The Winchester Star contributed to this article.

— Contact Laura McFarland at lmcfarland@winchesterstar.com