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Theater Review - How to rescue an Atlanta theater

Georgia Shakespeare, Actor's Express and other local playhouses take steps to stay open

To judge from the increasingly dire appeals of Atlanta's playhouses, the Great Recession is turning arts organizations into an endangered species. This year, three Atlanta playhouses, despite their history of loyal audiences and consistently strong work, have launched "save our theater" campaigns.

Edgy, innovative Actor's Express made its push in February and seems to have passed the financial crisis point. September saw Georgia Shakespeare and Marietta's Theatre in the Square launch drives almost simultaneously. "We were going to do it on Sept. 9," says Raye Varney, managing director of Theatre in the Square. "But Georgia Shakespeare announced on Sept. 8, so we thought, 'OK, let's give it a week.'" It's like a traffic jam of theaters sending up an SOS.

Most of the companies struggle with the same problem: diminished corporate and foundation support due to the ongoing economic slump. With so many theaters facing the possibility of closing their doors, the last-ditch, pull-out-the-stops fundraising appeal has become a kind of trend that's sweeping the arts community. Stage professionals are following what's become a well-established script to save their theaters:

Begin by targeting your base Theaters go public by sending fundraising letters to everyone in the Rolodex. Paul Pendergrass, one of the co-chairs of Georgia Shakespeare's board of trustees, was impressed at the speed of the response. "We targeted our core group of people and were surprised. Doing social media, word moves more quickly now, and we received contributions from 1,000 people in two weeks." Georgia Shakespeare exceeded its two-week goal to raise $150,000 by Sept. 23, but needs to raise another $350,000 by the end of the year. Pendergrass adds, "Until we get the final dollar for Phase Two, I'm going to be a nervous cat. But we find that support leads to even more support, which is a great dynamic."

Don't put all your trust in social networking Varney sees Facebook and other social media as supplements to, but not replacements for, more traditional marketing tools. "I think we're seeing increased access with Facebook in getting the word out. I don't know that that generates money." Theaters with older subscriber bases may find that many of their patrons aren't on the Internet.

Take ideas from other groups Lara Smith, managing director of Actor's Express, talked to representatives of theaters who had gone through similar situations, including Rachel May at Synchronicity Performance Group. Says Smith, "The two-tiered approach was something we took directly from Seattle's Intiman Theatre. We liked taking that idea because it makes people think about your future." Actor's Express made a request for $50,000 in four weeks, and $150,000 over the next four months. The other theaters have structured their campaigns in similar ways.

Put a brave face on it "One of the important things was that this be in positive light," says Smith. "Nobody likes to jump on a sinking ship."

Georgia Shakespeare gave its recent fundraising cabaret the almost defiant name "Go Big or Go Home." As Stacey Colosa Lucas, director of marketing and development explains, "That's our internal rallying cry whenever we attempt something that, with our resources, we shouldn't. Naming the cabaret gives us an air of 'We have to do this, but we're going to have fun doing it.'"

Raise money creatively For a fun little stunt, Georgia Shakespeare's cabaret brought out the giant leg-lamp from its 2010 production of A Christmas Story. "During the cabaret, we put garters on the lamp so people could stuff it with dollar bills throughout the show," says Lucas.

Theatre in the Square pins its campaign on the slogan "Save Your Seat, Save Our Theatre." For $1,000, donors can have a name placed on a small plaque on one of the venue's 225 seats. As of Sept. 29, the company had raised $25,000, on the way to of $225,000 by Oct. 15. Varney explains that the approach provided the theater with an immediate cash infusion. "We have patrons who are very particular about which seats they use, so we made seat-selection on a first-come, first-served basis. That's one of the things we used to get money in the door."

Be mindful of donor fatigue Theaters always hit up supporters for money to some extent, and lately patrons are seeing appeals come in from all sides. "No one has said they're tired of getting requests for donations, but I can't say I don't have some concerns about that," says Varney. "But we're based in Cobb County, and none of the other groups who have gone this way are based in Cobb. We'll be targeting people who shouldn't have donor fatigue."

You can only do it once Theater staffers and board members unanimously feel that rescue campaigns should only be taken if all other avenues have been exhausted. Theatre in the Square started seeing donations dry up in 2007, and took every possible austerity measure, including two rounds of layoffs and a staff pay cut, bringing the operating budget down from $2.1 million to $1.58 million. "As far back as January of 2009, the board was asking 'Is it now?'" Varney says of the decision to launch the campaign. "We didn't want to give up our Equity contract or make a decision that affected the quality of our shows. This is finally where we are."

Expect bad times to be the New Normal Don't expect corporate support to snap back to pre-slump levels anytime soon, so make a new business plan and explain it to your donors. Says Pendergrass: "Someone from the Nonprofit Finance Fund told us, 'Nonprofit' is not a way of operating, it's a tax status. Nonprofits need to make a profit.' We know we need to move to a more sustainable business model."

And finally,

Break a leg Well, it's bad luck to say "good luck."



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