Staging Survival

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, August 21, 2009

Part 3 in Capital Public Radio's 3-part series "The Show Must Go On"

You might think the touristy Delta King Riverboat, Capital Stage's theatre home, would be an odd place for bold, cutting edge plays. In fact, the intimacy of the 115-seat venue only adds to the intensity. Here's a sample from last year's opening production called "First Person Shooter."
(excerpt from "First Person Shooter")
More contemporary than commercial, Capital Stage was nevertheless coming into its own financially at the start of last season. 
Things were going great. 
Co-founder and artistic director Stephanie Gularte.
We were experiencing continued significant growth, our reputation and getting our brand out there, all of that we were feeling very positive. And then almost overnight it seemed that things just halted. In early October we opened "First Person Shooter" and the phones stopped ringing. I mean almost literally. We went into crisis mode frankly.
The drop in ticket sales was sudden, steep, and for a company the size of Capital Stage, serious. Gularte says she immediately called an emergency meeting with her board of directors.
It felt like there was a twenty minute period of just utter silence. It probably wasn't that long, where we just sat. And the question out there was what are we going to do?
Ya, it felt longer than twenty minutes but that was probably about right (laughs).
Board president Arlen Orchard.
It shouldn't have come as a surprise to any of us, but I think we were still hoping things were gonna turn around more quickly than they had. And of course we have an accountant on the board and so from a cash flow standpoint he was saying we're in big trouble right now.
Ultimately a couple of board members wrote some checks to help us get through the immediate. 
But the season had barely started. There were still five full-length productions yet to go over the next seven months.
Bottom line was we had to get through the season somehow, we had a commitment to our subscribers to do so. And we weren't sure if that was going to be possible or not. But we started making changes pretty quickly.
The biggest change came to the season itself. Gularte took two of the plays that would have required large casts and production crews and substituted them with two smaller cast plays. Gularte, along with co-founders Peter Mohrmann and her husband Jonathan Williams, also took on more work themselves, including acting roles and directing duties. They were able to respond swiftly to the crisis, says Gularte, because of the company's small size and versatility. But board president Orchard says he worried about the founders doing too much.
I think there was a look of concern on the board and we had some pretty frank discussions about staff burnout. Of course without Stephanie, Peter and Jonathan there really isn't a Capital Stage.
You know it's a pretty intense environment anyway. And then you add into that some real fear. I mean things can go a couple of different ways. It can really tear your organization or your family apart or it can pull you together closer and I think everyone kind of had the attitude… what can I do.
People outside the organization were also asking what they could do. Orchard says Capital Stage would have sent out letters appealing for donations, but of course, there was no budget.
So we turned to the internet and did what we call our 25 hundred at 25 campaign. We've got about 2500 e-mails in our database and so we started asking each of those people to donate 25 dollars.
That grassroots campaign raised more than thirty thousand dollars. As for corporate support, Gularte says previous sponsors have remained, but it's been difficult striking up new partnerships in the current economy. One area that is growing and that must continue to grow, says Gularte, is Capital Stage's subscription base… and not just for financial reasons.
Subscribing to an arts organization, and whether its Capital Stage or someone else, it really is so critical to the arts having flexibility to take a little risk with the work that is done. To not have to rely on doing something commercial every single time so that we're so heavily reliant on that single ticket revenue.
Gularte says that artistic freedom allows Capital Stage to showcase emerging playwrights and new works… like last season's closing production "Erratica"

(excerpt from "Erratica")
Diane Shirts was in the audience for closing weekend.   She's been a Capital Stage subscriber almost from the beginning.
I usually buy two subscriptions so that I can bring a friend with me down and we have quite a discourse after the plays, discussing you know what was the point of that play, what was the underlying theme, that sort of thing.
Joe Zanicker was also in the audience. He heard the pitch from the stage for season subscriptions, and he says it really sunk in.
We've always enjoyed everything that's here. But at the end of the day if we don't start buying season subscriptions, organizations like this aren't gonna make it. So tonight we became season ticket holders.
That gives hope to Stephanie Gularte, not just for Capital Stage, but for all of the arts. 
We're actually having that dialogue now, well what does it matter if an arts organization shuts down. There's a lot of reason to think that the arts are gonna come out not just having survived, but actually come out stronger throughout this. And we hope and plan to have a role in that.