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Art and money: Jobsite and other theaters struggle to find balance

TAMPA — By the time patrons streamed in for an opening night performance at Jobsite Theater, news of the next season's lineup of plays was supposed to be out.

That's how it has worked with other Tampa Bay theaters in recent weeks. Friends of Jobsite, the resident company at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, expected the theater would follow suit at the end of February.

But no lineup came. Instead, on Feb. 28, an "important message to our friends and fans" appeared on the theater's website.

"Let me level," producing artistic director David Jenkins wrote. "I've been struggling with a decision all weekend."

In the lengthy message that followed, Jenkins said he had a lineup all set to go. But he didn't like it. He inveighed against the idea of putting on "trite fluff, safe but tasteless garbage that may be easy to sell tickets to, but that leaves me feeling empty."

Jobsite's current situation is emblematic of an age-old question faced by many theater leaders who want to produce meaningful work but also survive financially. Other theaters have expressed support for Jenkins since he wrote the confessional memo and hit send.

To a casual observer, Jobsite has had reasons for optimism. For the second year in a row, with backing from the Straz, the company has drawn thousands to the adjacent (and larger) Jaeb Theater for an irreverent musical, performing Silence! The Musical with a singing Hannibal Lecter and a chorus of dancing lambs. In January, world-famous playwright Israel Horovitz worked with Jobsite's production of his play, Lebensraum, an arresting work that draws a straight line from the Holocaust to current events.

Jobsite, which was founded in 1998 and has always prided itself on being a "blue-collar theater" that values substance over crowd-pleasing antics, is hurting financially. Jenkins is not talking about the bottom line, which was greatly helped by 6,000 customers who saw Silence!, and a favorable arrangement with the Straz, which collects a percentage of ticket sales in place of rent.

It's the half-dozen plays the theater puts on in the small Shimberg Playhouse that aren't working. Jenkins cited three plays over the past year: Orlando, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf's gender-bending novel; the dark comedy Annapurna; and Lebensraum. They are the ones that define Jobsite's core mission — and they're tanking.

"If I had to rank everything we've done, those shows were the three top artistic and critical successes," Jenkins said in an interview after posting his memo. "Yet they were the three bottom at the box office."

Those numbers belie the rosier message in a fundraising letter Jenkins had already put on the website. That letter talks about audience growth over time, an expected record $350,000 budget for 2016-2017, and up to $30,000 in matching contributions from the Gobioff Foundation.

Over the last two years, however, much of that robust growth has come from the musicals Return to the Forbidden Planet and Silence! at the Jaeb. Their success masks a 30 percent drop over the last year at the Shimberg, Jenkins said.

"Having 6,000 people come see one musical in the Jaeb more than makes up for that loss," he said. "But that doesn't help out those shows that are more mission-based."

Before those numbers sank in, Jobsite had been planning another ambitious season, including a play from a local playwright whose work Jenkins had considered outstanding. Then he thought about expenses and changed his mind.

"So I told my core artists, some of my nearest and dearest friends and colleagues, to play it safe," Jenkins wrote in his posting.

While the letter amounts to an open plea for financial help, Jenkins said he agonized about making it.

"I hate the phrase, 'support local theater.' It sounds like an obligation," Jenkins said. "I don't want to go (to the theater) to support s---. I want to have a good time. No one likes to back a loser, on top of that. But the reality is, we have kind of been getting beat up here for over a year."

Eric Davis, co-founding producing artistic director of St. Petersburg's Freefall Theatre, can relate.

"I think it's a dilemma that every theater faces," Davis said. "As arts institutions, we have a responsibility to artists and our art form to push boundaries and create new work. But we also need to get audiences in the seats, and a broad swath of the audience are only motivated to see things with which they are already familiar."

Freefall has responded by producing inventive takes on well-known works, such as The Importance of Being Earnest With Zombies and Davis' own one-man version of The Tempest, mixed in with newer plays. Part of the problem for Jobsite is that it relies on ticket sales for 70 percent of its revenue, unusually high compared to some theaters.

Tampa's Stageworks Theatre, for which the box office supplies 40 percent of revenues, has had success with donations and sponsorships to make up the rest. A law firm, for example, is helping underwrite Inherit the Wind, which opens Friday. But some plays, such as Stageworks' recent production of In the Blood, a harrowing tale of homelessness, illiteracy and violence, are a tougher sell. Karla Hartley, the producing artistic director for Stageworks, is happy to risk it.

"The times when I do something I only flat out do to make a pile of cash, they never do well," Hartley said. "My audience wants something more thinking than that."

Audiences go to the theater for something new and trust their favorite theaters to take them there, said Stephanie Gularte, the producing artistic director for American Stage Theatre Company in St. Petersburg.

"It's the greatest challenge," Gularte said, "balancing artistic integrity and fiscal responsibility. There is always a tension between those two dynamics."

About Jenkins' web post, Gularte said, "It's a really great thing that he has been so open about it, as he has chosen to be."

As of Friday, no new pledges had come in, Jenkins said. The new season lineup is still on hold.

Jobsite needn't worry about losing its status as the Straz's resident theater company, said Judy Lisi, the Straz's president and CEO. Nor was she put off by the artistic director's message.

"If you know David, you know he speaks from his heart," Lisi said.

She has built the center's offerings through Broadway shows, which supply nearly half the audience numbers for everything at the Straz and help support less-profitable ventures, such as lesser-known shows and opera.

Her message to Jenkins is simple: Join the club.

"If you wanted to make money," she said, "you would be in the private sector, not running nonprofits."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

Art and money: Jobsite and other theaters struggle to find balance 03/06/16 [Last modified: Sunday, March 6, 2016 9:52pm]
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