Looking for ways to be financially creative, five Atlanta theater companies are banding together to try to raise money collectively as part of the new Atlanta Intown Theatre Partnership.
Made up of Horizon Theatre, Actor’s Express, 7 Stages, the New American Shakespeare Tavern and Theatrical Outfit, the partnership has a goal of helping to keep the city’s theatrical community sustainable.
Lisa Adler, co-artistic director and producing director of Horizon Theatre, came up with the idea after she was asked by a reporter a few years ago what she would do with a million dollars. Her response was that she would like to see it spread among those intown theater companies. Later she sat down and thought about how that might become a reality. She floated the idea with the other companies, and the five have announced a goal of raising $1 million within three to five years. Funding from the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta has made the partnership possible.
“It’s about creating community, finding a base of people who care that there is high-quality theater in Atlanta and will make it happen,” Adler says.
The lead initiative of the partnership is the Atlanta Intown Theatre Giving Circle. The hope is that potential donors who might not want to contribute to one theater might be more willing if it benefits five. And Adler would love to see annual gifts. “I would rather have someone give a thousand dollars every year than one [bigger gift],” she says. The group will start its outreach with board members and patrons, then branch out.
Life as a mid-sized theater in metro Atlanta is challenging. “There is a community that does care that the Woodruff [Arts Center] exists, but we are on our own,” Adler says. Altogether, the five theaters stage more than 1,000 performances a year for more than 150,000 audience members.
The new reality for smaller theaters is that corporate funding is down. “It’s hard outside of the big guys,” Adler says, referring to the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, Georgia Council for the Arts and Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.
Tom Key, executive artistic director of Theatrical Outfit, says that 9/11 and the later downturn in the economy have had effects on virtually all theaters. Most have had to make changes to their seasons, from whittling down the number of plays produced to choosing shows with smaller casts. Key hit a low point with his 2010-11 season, with only three productions, after staging up to seven in previous seasons. Subsequent Theatrical Outfit seasons have rebounded somewhat.
Jeffrey Watkins, artistic director of the New American Shakespeare Tavern, programs year round but says the economy has affected what he produces. “I have to fundamentally compromise the mission of the organization to be sustainable,” Watkins says. One-third of his programming, he says, is chosen to entice new patrons. “Romeo and Juliet,” produced annually by the company every February, is an example.
Although Horizon Theatre has some reserve funds, Adler says that if one of her “big” shows didn’t play out the way she budgeted it, it would be “white knuckle” time for her.
Key notes that, besides mutual respect, the five participating theaters are joined by relative proximity. They’ve worked together before and have been around for about the same amount of time.
In 2000, the Loridans Foundation invited all five to apply for a grant. The foundation was supposed to pick from among them but instead realized that they all deserved funding. As part of that process, representatives of each theater were taken to New York, where they got to spend a week with one another. That time spent collaborating and planning was invaluable, Key says. “We are so busy it’s not always easy to confer.”
Over time it’s possible that more theaters will come into the partnership, but the initial goal is to keep it small. Adler would love to see her local model become a national one. She says she has no idea how the partnership will go over but realizes that innovation is essential. The five theaters will stage preview events at one another’s venues throughout the year. Future goals for the partnership include finding an executive director and developing a communications plan.
Key’s Theatrical Outfit was involved in another important event last week. The company has paid off the mortgage on its venue, Balzer Theatre at Herren’s, and on January 31, Key, donors and members of his board of trustees, including Bill Balzer, for whom the venue is named, took part in a note-burning ceremony.
That brought relief to Key. “We can now focus on the work, the artistic quality of the company,” he explains. “Paying off the mortgage also gives us the opportunity to apply for some grants we would not be able to go after.”