Sunday, July 15, 2018

St. Petersburg City Theatre struggles to climb out of debt

ST. PETERSBURG — In April, St. Petersburg City Theatre was thinking ahead, preparing for the fall season of performances.

Then the calls started.

Staffers told Bruce Cook, then the theater's president, about getting calls from vendors wanting to be paid.

"Utility bills, printing bills, that sort of thing" were all past due," Cook said. "That's when the red flags went up."

Before the dust settled, the theater's board had forced the resignation of executive director Megan Byrne, turned staff members into volunteers and slashed its summer budget. With no way to underwrite the costs, the theater scrapped its planned 2016-17 season lineup.

The struggling theater is hardly alone. The number of community theaters in Tampa Bay has fallen off since the 1990s, when there were more than two dozen. Now, there are about half that.

"The generation that would have supported community theater is disappearing," said John Collins, who directs the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance. "In the fundraising world, we have this discussion a lot — where is the next generation?"

• • •

A community theater is loosely defined as one that does not normally pay actors, although directors, choreographers and musicians might be compensated.

The term also happens to describe these theaters as social hubs surrounded by a purpose, similar to church communities. Jean Schuh has acted in more than 50 productions at St. Petersburg City Theatre and written its newsletter. Her late husband, former St. Petersburg Mayor Charles Schuh, served a couple of years as vice president.

"Almost every one of my really good, close friends, I met there," said Schuh, 80.

At 91, St. Petersburg City Theatre bills itself as the "oldest, continuously operating community theatre" in Florida. The thousands of residents who have crossed its stage or worked behind the scenes include soldiers in training during World War II, retired soap opera actresses and a young Angela Bassett.

It was known for most of its life as St. Petersburg Little Theatre, but confidence was never a problem. In 1958, it opened the first show at its current location, a new building on 31st Street S. During peak years of the 1960s, its high school auditorium size seemed about right.

Besides its regular menu of straight plays and musicals like The Pajama Game, they put on edgier productions over the summer. Jean Genet's The Balcony likened political figures to prostitutes and their clients. Helen Gordon Davis, who would later become a state legislator, commuted from Tampa to play Miss Alice in Edward Albee's Tiny Alice, an acid takedown of corruption in the Catholic church.

In 2009, leaders switched out the theater's 400 seats with 251 more comfortable ones. In 2011, they dropped "little" from the name, inserting the word "city" in its place.

The changes said: We're growing, we're adapting.

A payoff came in January, when the musical Memphis brought the first sold-out crowds in 20 years. The show ran an extra weekend and is now thought to be the largest-grossing production in the theater's history.

That's why the creditors came as a surprise. Bruce Cook knew the theater's budget had taken a $12,000 hit to repair the air conditioning. But as president, he didn't keep the books.

Megan Byrne, the theater's executive director, did. Previously, Byrne handled contracts and budgets as a production and entertainment manager at Ruth Eckerd Hall's Capitol Theatre. Before that, she was an award- winning lighting designer, a jack-of-all-trades who could build a set, apply for grants or pull off special events single-handedly.

Cook said he asked Byrne for copies of all of the theater's bills.

"I received everything but the credit card statements," Cook said. "I was told that there was no balance."

In fact, he would learn, credit card debt alone totaled $26,000. The theater had been charging its operating expenses. Cook said Byrne never reported the extent of the debt, which by April totaled $45,000.

"As things got worse and worse, she became more secretive about it," he said. "I think she was trying her best and she didn't want to bring it to the board."

Byrne, 36, did not return several phone messages from the Tampa Bay Times requesting comment.

In a private meeting with Cook and another board member, Cook said, Byrne came clean about the credit card debt.

"She admitted that what she had said was untrue, that there was a balance," Cook said.

The timing could not have been worse. As Cook was learning the extent of the debt, the summer camp loomed. With just $5,000 in the bank and grant funds not in hand, there was not enough money to pay directors.

Byrne resigned in May, following a vote of no confidence by the board. The theater slashed pay and staff. Apart from an original comedy planned as a fundraiser, as of late July the theater also had no fall season — "which is probably that first time that has ever occurred, I don't know," said Sharon Cook, the theater's current president and Bruce's wife.

In forcing her resignation, theater leaders said that Byrne's charges all went toward legitimate theater operations.

"Her sin, if any, was keeping this hidden from the board until we had a crisis on our hands," Bruce Cook said.

• • •

What happened shows how fragile a theater's budget can be. Community theaters compete at a disadvantage on every level, from the size of grants they can secure to the financial risks assumed.

"People don't understand how much it costs to run a theater," said Corinne Broskette, 69, founder of Venue Theatre in Pinellas Park. Broskette closed the 50-seat theater in 2014 after reaching an impasse with her landlord over increased rent.

Electric bills can be especially high. And securing the "rights," or permission to put on someone's work, can climb as high as $10,000.

"I know young people who have never been to a play before," Broskette said. "There are so many choices, especially for young people. Netflix, Bright House, watching TV on your computer."

MAD Theatre rents the Shimberg Playhouse at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. For the musical Spring Awakening (Sept. 8-18), MAD is paying more to rent the larger Jaeb Theater. Cathy Hooten, MAD's president, senses the economic climate is improving.

"I think people are a little better off financially than they were a few years ago and perhaps have more resources," Hooten said.

MAD tries to balance riskier ventures, such as Next to Normal, a musical performed last season about mental illness and suicide, with more upbeat fare, such as Stephen Sondheim's Company, coming in spring 2017.

History can lull a theater into repeating the same formulas year after year. In 2013, Largo's Eight O'Clock Theatre, doing better financially than most, got a rude shock when it opened the season with South Pacific, a safe bet in the past.

"We thought it was a slam dunk, but it was just okay," said Judy Hall, 66, Eight O'Clock's president. "We were befuddled."

Francis Wilson Playhouse in Clearwater is the only community theater contacted for this story that earns 100 percent of its revenue from ticket sales, according to board member Gabrielle Snapp, aided by a loyal following and waterfront location.

The most stunning success is the turnaround at Richey Suncoast Theatre in New Port Richey. When Charlie and Marie Skelton got involved in 1998, the roof leaked badly. On rainy show days, said Marie Skelton, "People sat out there with their umbrellas during performances."

The theater was $200,000 in debt in 2000 when the late Charlie Skelton took over as president. It took years to bounce back.

Besides putting on plays and musicals, the theater offers big band and doo-wop, acting classes and film festivals.

"When the good times came and we made the extra money, we put it away," said Skelton, 61. "We invested it for the future because you never know when things are going to change again."

• • •

In the midst of its crisis, St. Petersburg City Theatre hired a consultant to evaluate the company. His verdict: The training program for kids was working. The stage shows were not.

"We've been told that we need to look at a different business model for our main stage," Sharon Cook said. She and other theater people brainstormed with City Council member Steve Cornell. One idea entails selling the property and continuing somewhere else.

"The main stage is underutilized," Cornell said. "If you had a different rehearsal space you could do more programming there."

Hopeful signs have emerged since the spring. A fundraising blitz has brought in donations. The theater's debt is down to $30,000.

The theater has also penciled in a tentative season. St. Petersburg City Theatre marketing manager David Middleton wrote a pair of them, including the season opener, Star Chix (Sept. 23-Oct. 2).

Two plays from the season as originally advertised — Proposals, a Neil Simon comedy (Jan. 13-22), and The Game's Afoot, a mystery by Ken Ludwig — have been resurrected.

Those royalties had already been paid.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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