Near death in 1891 and suffering from both the effects of the yellow fever and a circus fire, P.T. Barnum reputedly uttered the words, “The Show Must Go On.” Had he more strength he might have added, “and make sure it’s a good one.”
These days, it’s the recession that’s threatening arts venues around the country and throughout the Capital Region, putting Barnum’s rallying cry to a real test.
“Tough times call for great art,” said Tina Packer, founder and executive director at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Mass. “The swings of the stock market have definitely had an effect on our operations, but they can’t affect the transformative power of language, which we’ve spent the last three decades exploring. We are working very hard to produce one of our biggest seasons in years, but keeping everything more streamlined, consolidated and using the resources on hand to their full potential.”
The winter season is typically a quiet time for Shakespeare & Co., while at Proctors in Schenectady and The Egg in Albany the season has been in full swing since September. But how are things going?
“Some things are doing great, and some things aren’t,” said Proctors CEO Philip Morris. “It’s certainly affecting us. I’d be crazy to think it isn’t, and we are down probably 3 or 4 percent. But it’s interesting because it’s not 3 or 4 percent across the board. It’s erratic. ‘Avenue Q,’ for example, did great, but some things did terribly. It’s a mixed bag.”
“Things are below expectations, so yes, we are definitely noticing it,” said Peter Lesser, executive director at The Egg. “It’s nothing really dramatic at this point, but we are in the midst of planning for next season and you do have to make some adjustments. We’re noticing that the number of opportunities to present shows is decreasing because it must be harder to put together tours in this climate.”
Visitors up, staff down
Live theater isn’t the only arts venue feeling the pinch. At the Albany Institute of History and Art, the number of visitors has recently increased because of its current exhibit celebrating the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s trek up the river that bears his name. That doesn’t mean that director Christine Miles doesn’t have any bad news to report.
“In the last six months we’ve had to reduce our staff from 25 down to 19,” said Miles. “It’s great that attendance is up, and that’s because this exhibit is something we’ve been working on and talking about for a couple of years now. It’s a fantastic show, but we’re different than a performing arts venue. About 90 percent of our budget comes from philanthropy and government funding, and that has been shrinking. ”
Jacob’s Pillow in Beckett, Mass. has also made changes due to the recession.
“We are belt-tightening and making sacrifices,” said communications manager Mariclare Hulbert. “We’ve cut our budget, are in a hiring and salary freeze,and are deferring necessary improvements to facilities. We are focused on strategic planning, with above all, a commitment to our mission, which is about another bottom line — the value of art and public access to it.”
Putting on the best show possible in these tough times is something that hasn’t been lost on Carol Max, the founder and artistic director of Curtain Call Theatre in Latham.
“I think how well you do is show driven,” said Max. “If it’s a good show that gets good reviews and a good word-of-mouth response, people are going to want to see it and they’ll come out. ...We’re holding our own, but we are feeling it to some degree.”
At the New York State Theatre Institute in Troy, founder and Producing Artistic Director Patricia DiBenedetto Snyder said things aren’t quite as good as they could be.
“We have noticed some ripples, and it’s primarily with our school audience,” she said. “The family audiences have stayed pretty constant on the weekend, but for a variety of reasons the weekday school programs are down a bit. I think the budget problems are keeping the school districts a little more conservative.”
NYSTI partnered up with the Jerome Robbins Foundation to help schools defray some of the costs of attending a show, and Snyder said her group is looking for additional sponsors.
Their upcoming production, “Yours, Anne,” a musical version of the Anne Frank story, isn’t getting the advance ticket sales she had expected.
“Typically a show like ‘Yours, Anne,’ would pack them to the rafters,” said Snyder. “But the economy is a problem. We sensed a little something last fall, so we wrote to the Jerome Robbins Foundation for their support, and now we’re looking for local businesses to help schools in their area. We’re trying to find a way to help the schools help themselves.”
At the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, marketing director Michele Desrosiers said that the poor economy hasn’t affected subscription ticket sales. However, there doesn’t seem to be as many people as usual coming to see an occasional show.
“We have seen a slight decrease in our single-ticket sales,” said Desrosiers. “We had a strong response from our subscribers after announcing our 2009-2010, so our regulars are supporting us. We know what they expect from us, but we also have to have a broader appeal to bring in those single-ticket holders. It becomes a real balancing act when you put together your schedule.”
Schenectady’s top two community theater outlets, the Schenectady Light Opera Company and the Schenectady Civic Playhouse, are both feeling the poor economy. At SLOC, ticket sales are down a bit more than 10 percent, and at the Civic Playhouse audience numbers are even down a bit more.
“We usually aim for selling about 80 percent of our seats and we usually get that and more,” said SLOC President Bob Farquharson. “But this year we’re selling a little more than 65 percent. We’re trying to be more frugal and to push sales, but it’s been a rough year.”
The Schenectady Civic Players, SLOC’s competitor for entertainment dollars in Schenectady, started out the year not getting the response it wanted from “Moon Over Magnolias,” but its most recent production, “Assassins,” has done better.
“Your first play should be the most heavily attended, but it wasn’t,” said actor Matt Morose, who also volunteers in the box office at the Playhouse. “ [‘Assassins’] actually did better than our expectations, so that was nice, but overall it’s been tough this season.”
In Albany, the Albany Civic Theater doesn’t seem to be hurt significantly by the recession. Its ticket prices, along with the Schenectady Civic Playhouse, are the lowest of any major theater company in the Capital Region, and unlike the situation in Schenectady, it doesn’t have another major community theater venue in the downtown area forcing audiences to make a choice.
“I was kind of worried about it because you hear a lot of negative stuff about how arts venues are doing, but we’re doing pretty well,” said ACT President Tom King. “It’s hard to say, but we haven’t really noticed much of a decline. We’ve had some pretty good houses for ‘A Man for All Seasons.’ ”