Monday, June 6, 2011

Florida Stage, 1987-2011 (updated 6/11)

6/11/11 - added links to Playbill, Palm Beach ArtsPaper and Talkin' Broadway.
6/9/11 -added links to Post story and The Drama Queen

Not only is this a story we didn't want to hear, it's a story we never imagined we'd be hearing.  Florida Stage was the model of "how to do it."  Their unheard of 90% subscriber base meant that shows were guaranteed to sell out, and they were achieving this level of sales based on dates alone - the titles were often announced months after the subscriptions were opened for renewal.   They were a company that was actually selling theatre, not shows.

They kept productions firmly within the budget grasp; when the cast grew, the set shrank.  As Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches, the company mastered a design style jokingly described as "two chairs and a wall."  But they always hired talented designers to make the most of what they had.  There might not have been much there, but what was there was the best it could be.

When the company left the "kitchen table" stage, they brought in experts to analyze their operation, and help them create an organization that was efficient and practical.  Louis Tyrell and Theatre Club marked the first time a not-for-profit won Businessman of the Year from the Chamber of Commerce.

But too many sponsors lost too much money when the economy crashed, too many of the patrons died off before they could be replaced, and too many of the patrons that remained were unwilling or unable to make the trip to downtown West Palm Beach.

Perhaps the company was a victim of its own success.

Consider that 90% subscriber base; 90% left only 10% of of the seats available to non-subscribers, and most of those likely went to friends or guests of the subscribers.  It's hard to bring in new patrons when you don't have any seats to sell them; your pool of prospective ticket buyers evaporates when they keep calling for tickets only to be told "Sorry!  We are SOLD OUT!"  And that happened frequently over the years.

It's not that Florida Stage wasn't reaching out to new patrons; they just didn't have anyplace to put them.  And when they finally had the seats, the economy had collapsed, with Palm Beach County being among the hardest-hit communities in the country.

The demise of Florida Stage is a cautionary tale to us all; if they can fail, any theatre can.

Here's a round-up of all the stories about the end of Florida Stage.  It's a story that caught all of us off guard.

Playbill gave it the kind of weight only a major media outlet could give:
The nationally recognized theatre in West Palm Beach specializing in developing new plays was crippled by the poor economy, its leaders said. It curtain fell because of faltering donor support, meager sales for the coming season subscriptions and even worse advance sales for a musical slated to open in ten days. "We're out of the business; we're done," said Michael Gepner, the director of marketing who was audibly shaken during a telephone interview Monday.
They also note how quickly this came upon us:
As recently as two weeks ago, administrators were optimistic about the long-term survival of the company, although upfront about the fiscal challenges. Fifty-six percent of the non-subscribing ticket buyers this past season were first-time patrons. Administrators believe that showed the move and the marketing was attracting a new and presumably younger audience with a future.

The Miami Herald tells us that the company that boasted a 90% subscription base for decades lost most of them:
Ticket sales for the planned summer return of the musical Ella have been small, but more worrisome were 2011-2012 season-subscription sales. During its best year in the Manalapan quarters it occupied until moving to the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach a year ago, Florida Stage had 7,000 subscribers. Fewer than 2,000 had signed on for the new season.
A lot of theatres have been losing subscribers, but many of them balanced the loss against single-ticket sales.  But no one could survive THAT kind of drop.
"It's the end of an era," said playwright Michael McKeever, whose The Garden of Hannah List and Charlie Cox Runs With Scissors had their world premieres at Florida Stage. " They gave me my career. The loss to me is devastating: You're looking at one of the flagship theaters in South Florida. For a theater of its caliber to shut its doors says an incredible amount about the times in which we live and the lack of respect for the arts."
The thing that probably stings the most is that this was a theatre that was dedicated not simply to doing plays, but to expanding the library of plays in the world.  Florida Stage wasn't a stepping stone, it was the starting line.

Christine Dolen followed up from a more personal angle on The Drama Queen:
And yes, for those of us who spend our nights watching plays then analyzing them for readers, losing a company that has made so many of those nights interesting or wonderful or thought-provoking just plain hurts.  Oh, there were plenty of times that I drove north to Manalapan or, in the past year, West Palm Beach for a Florida Stage show and drove home with the word "why" tumbling around in my brain.  Why that show? Why that staging? Why a particular actor?  But actually, even when I was less than crazy about a Florida Stage play, I could nearly always figure out why Tyrell chose the script.  Something about the writer's voice.  Or the ideas in the script.  Or the creative passion it stirred in him.
The Palm Beach Post's story is based primarily on the press release, but there are lot of comments attached to it.  It's pretty heated, and mostly hot air. A lot of the commenters are erroneously concluded that the move to the Kravis Center caused their debt; and that seems not to be the case. 
"By moving to the Rinker Playhouse, our rent and utilities were reduced by $200,000.  The wonderful Kravis Center facility and staff took over security, front-of-house and usher operations, and provided additional box office services, among many other collaborative efficiencies." - Louis Tyrell
The Palm Beach Post followed up the closing from the patron's point of view.
"Those are the breaks," said Nelkin, an arts patron from Boynton Beach. "We
could file a claim in the bankruptcy filing, but it's not worth the trouble."

Other subscribers are expressing unhappiness and anger.

"It's like stealing our money," said Bob Segal of Lake Worth.
And they talked to others in the arts community.
The Palm Beach County Cultural Council is looking into the idea of giving unhappy subscribers "compensation of some kind, including free shows at other theaters," Executive Director Rena Blades said.

She doesn't believe Florida Stage acted in bad faith. "A bankruptcy, from my understanding, is a snapshot in time. There comes a moment when there's no going back. It's just crummy for everybody."
It's important to realize that the staff really did not know the theater was about to close - the sales staff and development team were acting on the assumption that they would be delivering product.

Palm Beach ArtsPaper makes no bones about its position on the company's recent move:
Not mentioned among the factors in the bankruptcy decision was Florida Stage's move last summer from its former home in Manalapan to the Kravis Center's Rinker Playhouse.  Although that move resulted in a saving of $200,000 in rent and utilities, substantial numbers of subscribers were unhappy with the new venue. The subscriber base shrank at the Kravis for this past season to less than 2,000, compared to more than 7,000 at the company's high point.
Sure, the drop in subscribers comes on the heels of the first season at the Kravis Center, but you have to factor in that a lot of Florida Stage's subscriber base was in their 60s and 70s when the theatre opened twenty-odd years ago, and they retained most of the those same subscribers until this past year - chances are good that as many of them died as simply decided not to make the drive.  And a good many have probably found themselves unable to afford theatre tickets; it's not just the unemployed that are finding themselves short of income; a lot of nest eggs have been evaporating, since a fixed income doesn't square well with a steadily rising increase in the cost of living.

Maybe more subscribers lived in the south county than we think, and maybe they really did simply hate the venue that much.  But they moved nine miles.  You'd think they'd emigrated to another country.


Hap Erstein weighed in with a reflective piece in the Palm Beach Artspaper:
Florida Stage was such a model for regional theaters who devote themselves to  adventuresome new work that the theater critics for the daily newspapers in South Florida often nominated Florida Stage for a Tony Award. And there were reasons to believe that we were inching closer to gaining that recognition for the company.

Andie Arthur weighs in at 2AMtheatre:
This loss is really weighing heavily on me and my community. I know that we need to band together and work to ensure that the rest of the community won't suffer. As the executive director of the South Florida Theatre League, I'm going to do what I can to maintain that sense of family in this community. But for now we need to grieve and share our stories and love for this theatre company that has played such a large role in the South Florida Theatre community.

Talkin' Broadway mostly recapitulates the theatre's own press release, but does add some personal spin:
The history and impact of Florida Stage will live on as a legacy to Palm Beach County culture. The world-class artists who have graced its stage with their remarkable talents - from playwrights to actors, directors, designers, and the team of theatre professionals who are the true unsung heroes of the theatre - they will move on to create memorable theatre art wherever they go. And perhaps a new audience can be found and developed for the kind of thought-provoking new work for which Florida Stage has become renowned. Time will tell. 

There are still a lot of great theatres in South Florida.  But not one of them can fill the void left by Florida Stage.

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