Stage Fright

As the economy swoons, local theaters realize that the shows can’t go on.



People who purchased tickets to see actress Michael Learned in the Orlando production of Driving Miss Daisy were unhappy to hear that the show was canceled. But they weren’t as unhappy as the owners of the Plaza Theatre, where the former star of The Waltons was to appear.

“Butts in seats” pay a live theater’s bills, but seats weren’t filling up at the Plaza and other playhouses in Orlando as the curtain opened on 2009.

“It was a humbling and disappointing decision,” Russell Dayvault, chief operations officer of the Plaza, says of canceling the play, which was scheduled to run for 11 days in February. Driving Miss Daisy was just one of four productions Dayvault scrapped when the Plaza pulled the plug on its 2009 season and laid off 35 part- and full-time employees. The economic downturn had trickled down to the box office.

“It was a direct result of ticket sales. In order to sell seats, we were having to discount from $39 to $20,” Dayvault explains. The Plaza Theatre isn’t out of business; it’s just out of the live theater business for this year. It will still stage concerts, which are far less expensive to produce. 

Similar cost-cutting decisions are being made all over Orlando by performing arts groups feeling the financial pinch of cutbacks in personal spending and in funding for the arts. The Orlando Opera reduced its staff by 25 percent and cut salaries, while Orlando Ballet axed a Christmas performance of The Nutcracker. Orlando Shakespeare Theater eliminated one position and will hire fewer actors. Seaside Music Theater in Daytona Beach, a staple of Central Florida theater for 30 years, closed in October.

Financial instability is nothing new to the performing arts community in Orlando. The arts usually operate on tiny budgets, hence the term “starving artist.” But never have so many local cultural groups—big and small—been in the same boat at once. And the boat’s taking on water.

In January, leaders of the artistic community sat together on a stage at Mad Cow Theatre to talk about the economy and its impact on the local arts scene. It was Salon night, a monthly open conversation usually focused on the latest production. “It’s 2009, and we have a new economy. We don’t know what the bottom looks like,” Alan Bruun, Mad Cow’s artistic director, told an audience of about 50 people.

Some at the meeting had gotten a glimpse of the bottom, and it was dark and foreboding. The Garden Theatre in Winter Garden had to scale back its schedule while in its first year. “We cut the last show of the season, Noises Off,” said Alauna McMillen, general manager of the Garden. “We said, ‘This is a huge show—we need to adapt.’ Looking at a two-story set and nine actors, it was a big risk.”

Open since February 2008, the Garden can only guess that it would be faring better had the economy not plunged into crisis. “We don’t have baseline data to look at, but we’ve definitely seen audiences down,” McMillen said. “Ticket sales have to be down from what they could be if we were in a different economy. We’re losing money on our shows, and it’s scary.”

Orlando Shakespeare, on the other hand, has 20 years of data on its children’s theater. “Schools have held back on field trips,” said managing director Donna Law. “Corporate sponsorship is down 15 to 18 percent.”

The arts are taking it on the chin as funding sources cut back or dry up altogether. United Arts of Central Florida pools funds from private donations with government and corporate grants, funneling money to nonprofit cultural organizations. UA says it has told arts groups to expect 30 percent less in funding for fiscal 2009. UA doled out $2.68 million in fiscal ’08.

It’s easy to see why the arts are in such desperate straits. The state Division of Cultural Affairs cut funding to Central Florida arts organizations by 52 percent this year. Such mainstay sponsors as Wachovia Bank, Orlando Sentinel and OUC dropped their support levels to $25,000, $10,000 and zero, respectively, from their traditional $100,000 per year donations. The Orange County Arts and Cultural Affairs endowment to UA fell by a quarter-million dollars, to $700,000. County officials say funds from the Tourist Development Tax will drop 5 percent this year, and possibly 10 percent next, affecting cultural funding and likely altering the design plans for downtown’s $425 million Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center.

Still, not everyone has pulled back on their support of UA. The city approved the same level of funding for 2009 as in the last three years, a $2.50 per capita commitment that adds up to $550,000. And devoted arts patron Hal Kantor, a partner of Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed, says that the law firm upped its overall contribution to UA to $104,000, including an $8,000 increase in employee-matched contributions. “We stepped up, because people need art in this economy,” Kantor says.

The overall decline in arts funding has a wide impact on the local economy. Fewer shows mean fewer theater goers, who also support the baby-sitter economy, the parking lot economy, and the restaurant and bar economy. A 2007 United Arts study found that spending by audiences outside the actual events came to almost $59 million that year.

At the Salon meeting, someone suggested that theaters offer $5 seats to spur attendance. But Bruun dismissed deep discounting as bad for business. “Even free seats are not free to the theater,” he responded. “Should we have $5 seats every night? We’d be done at the end of this week. Our rent is over $100,000 a year. We can’t just push the button and have the projector play” as a movie theater does.

Playhouses are examining production choices, selecting plays with smaller casts. “Last year we hired 89 performers,” said Bruun. “This year we’re hiring 69. Some plays have 15 actors. Some have one.”

Despite the morose tone of the Salon gathering, Mitzi Maxwell, general manager of Mad Cow, remained optimistic that local theater will eke out an existence during the recession. “Even during the worst times of World War II, there was theater,” she said. “This is nothing compared to that. So I have hope. We’ll make it through.”

Categories: Community