Last Tuesday, Concord's decades-old Willows Theatre Company issued a press release announcing a dire financial predicament. Willows, which runs a 210-seat venue in Willows Shopping Center and a 192-seat cabaret in Martinez, needs to raise about $350,000 by November 1 to cope with debt and production costs. The problems of declining ticket sales and skimpier donor funding have been thorns in Willows' side for at least a year, but only recently did the board of directors start ringing alarm bells. Now the company is so far in the red that it faces the possibility of shuttering one or both theaters, shortening its season, or filing for bankruptcy. Or, worst case scenario: all of the above.
It wouldn't be so much of a shock were Willows just a small black-box theater company working on a shoestring budget. But it's actually a well-entrenched nonprofit. The theater had its genesis in 1974 at a scrappy little venue called the Parkside Playhouse. It moved to its current home base in 1977 after a fortuitous coincidence: The developers who built Concord Shopping Center found they didn't have enough acreage to properly zone their land, so they built the shell of the theater and gave Willows a thirty-year rent-free lease in exchange for a variant from the city. Willows' current artistic director Richard Elliott came on board in 1986 and oversaw much of the theater's expansion, garnering two National Endowment for the Arts grants for commissions of new plays. He now collaborates with an eight-member board and seven-person permanent staff, and they've put together a company with fairly high production values. Willows is known for mounting several musicals each year in addition to dramas like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Kentucky Cycle. The board hires Equity Association actors who require a base salary plus benefits. In 2007, Willows claimed to serve 70,000 patrons annually, the same year it added the new cabaret. That kind of business ain't cheap.
A concatenation of factors — mostly recession-related, says board president Chuck Lewis and vice president Bob Rezak — led to Willows' current plight. Three years ago, the nonprofit theater company made an ambitious move by opening its second location in Martinez at a time when its flagship was doing quite well. The following year things started getting sour, Lewis said. That's when Willow's lease expire and the city stopped funding Willows' main stage, which effectively raised the rent from $1 a year to $40,000. In 2008, the ticket-sales dip began taking effect. Traditionally, tickets represent 60 percent of the theater's annual budget, said Lewis, and season subscribers are the real bread and butter, since they provide a reservoir of money that can be budgeted for the following year. In 2007, Willows had 3,500 subscribers for its main theater. By this year it had less than that many for both facilities combined; Martinez reported 886 subscribers and Concord had 2,350. A corresponding reduction in single-ticket sales (8,695 at the main theater in 2007 versus 5,000 in 2009; 11,742 at the cabaret in 2007 versus 5,500 in 2209) made tickets sales drop to just 38 percent of the theater's annual budget. Thus, Willows suddenly had to depend more heavily on foundation grants and corporate largesse.
Unfortunately, that pool also got a lot shallower. "Last year, when we were doing our budget before the bailout, we were looking at foundations and saying, 'We got to step up our requests,'" Lewis recalled. "Instead, what happened was all of a sudden these foundations were looking at their portfolios, seeing it's worth half of what it was before, and decided, 'We're rethinking what we're doing. We're not giving any money this year.'" Corporate sponsors began hunkering down, too. Normally, most shows at Willows received between $3,000 and $5,000 from local businesses in exchange for program advertising and a little plug in the director's before-curtain speech. "A lot of them have disappeared — I think we've only had one or two this whole season," Lewis said. Finally, recession panic has put a dent in individual donorship. "You have people who've been coming to theater for more than twenty years and traditionally gave $5,000," said Lewis. "These people gave zero." One would assume that if it's a recession thing, then other local theaters would also have fallen on hard times. Well, yes, sorta. But not to the same degree. Managing director Susan Medak of the Berkeley Rep said her company has carefully monitored attendance and contributions since last October and made "judicious cuts" where needed. The Rep projects a reduced budget for the 2009-10 season, even though its ticket sales remain relatively strong. "We will be a leaner operation in the coming season," Medak said via spokesperson Terence Keane. "But we will survive."
In contrast, Aurora Theatre Company's artistic director Tom Ross said his venue was doing quite well, and even reported a rise in ticket sales. Shotgun Players' managing director Liz Lisle said she'd seen "a definite shift in the type of subscriptions people are buying," but assured that the problem wasn't so much a reduction in sales as a loss of larger support systems, such as foundations and corporate sponsorship. Masquers Playhouse publicity manager Tammara Plankers said her theater has managed to withstand the economic slump because it's an all-volunteer operation that has expanded the business to include a "lending library" of props and costumes, which it rents to other theaters for a small donation. California Shakespeare Theatre reported a 3 percent decline in ticket sales and reduced corporate funding. Yet nearby Contra Costa Civic Theatre is financially robust and even saw a 17 percent rise in subscription. Obviously, no local theater company is immune to the current recession, and most resorted to creative ways of rebudgeting. But even the more beleaguered theater companies don't have it quite as bad as Willows. What gives?
Myriad other factors probably contributed to the calamity at Willows. For one thing, Lewis noted, its audience isn't getting any younger. "You always have people whose life has changed, and you want to make that up with new people — but the new people are at the lower end of their lifetime income stream." Location could also be a factor since Willows Shopping Center in Concord doesn't have the same cachet as Berkeley's growing Addison Street arts corridor, where the Berkeley Rep is located. Above all, the 2007 expansion to Martinez, right on the cusp of the worst recession in decades, was unfortunate. Rezak demurs on that point, arguing that it takes the same size staff to run both theaters as one. But Elliott concedes that the Martinez move did indeed require Willows to dig into its coffers. "One thing we didn't count on was the costs of renovation were more than we anticipated," Elliott said. "We took some money out of our reserves, in thirty years we've never ever had a deficit." He added that the expansion didn't really increase Willows' audience, so much as diffuse it.
Willows' staff is doing everything it can to scale back. Last month, theater personnel took a 10 percent pay cut across the board. Rezak said some people left voluntarily, others agreed to reduce their hours, and others took on additional duties. Elliott recently incorporated a plea for money in his before-curtain speeches. Willows started sending letters to its subscriber base and placed a distress call on its web site. Nonetheless, it will take a small miracle to raise the required $350,000 in two months' time.
Rezak remains cautiously optimistic. "Last year, the Magic Theater in San Francisco was faced with the same problem," he said. "They made a public appeal, and within a month they surpassed their goal." Elliott said the theater has launched a very methodical public awareness campaign, and he's not gonna think in bleak terms. "The patron base has been very strong and loyal and generous," said Willow's long-time artistic director. "I don't want to let the public think that there's a gun to our heads and we're one step away from the finish."
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