Keeping the curtains up

Local theater companies have to innovate to keep the stage lights lit

TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada director David Zybert and board president Lisa Mancini in the middle of the action during rehearsals at their Linda Way location.

TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada director David Zybert and board president Lisa Mancini in the middle of the action during rehearsals at their Linda Way location.

Photo By audrey love

Scott Reeves gestures for me to sit down on a row of seats at the edge of the empty, paint-scented space that’s now home to his theater company, Goodluck Macbeth. I stumble off the end chair. “Watch the ends,” he says with a laugh.

The seats and stage aren’t yet assembled, and the floor is piled high with building supplies, but GLM is just days from opening the doors to this new, permanent theater space across from City Hall on Virginia Street. They have to be—their first show of the season, Woman in Black, opens this month.

“We just got the final nod on this place about a month ago,” says Reeves, visibly relieved that GLM’s hassle over finding performance spaces is finally behind them. Previously, they’d used the University of Nevada, Reno’s Laxalt Auditorium and the First Methodist Church of Reno, neither of which was convenient or reliable. “We got a deal from a generous patron.”

Support like this, says Reeves and others, is hard to come by these days, and it’s forcing them to use their creativity in new ways.

Setting the stage

According to a 2008 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, widespread growth and good fiscal health are the general trends in U.S. nonprofit theater, but so are decreasing attendance and vulnerability to economic downturns. Between 1990 and 2005, the number of nonprofit theaters in the United States doubled, Nevada being a state noted for having particularly sharp growth during that period. However, in general, audiences are flat or in decline, which doesn’t seem related to ticket prices.

Those trends bear out in Northern Nevada, home to a good dozen theater companies, many of which don’t have permanent performance spaces, and to the Lear Theater, a long-empty reminder of fundraising struggles.

Reeves holds out hope that GLM can start to turn this around by helping to establish a downtown theater district with its new space. Although its new rent is more than GLM is used to paying, it’s an investment they believe they can recoup.

“The major thing we want to attempt is making this into a rental space, opening our doors to other arts groups at affordable rates,” he says. “There are a lot of talented people with companies who need places to perform.” Room rentals will average $75-$125 per night, and GLM will take a percentage of the door.

Other planned money-making efforts include merchandise, concession and alcohol sales, and fee-based workshops. They hope to sign the 10-year lease in January, but it will take consistent support and attendance to make that happen. Now in its third season as a company, GLM has enjoyed steady increases in attendance.

Reno Little Theater also wrestles with a space issue. Relegated to the Hug High School auditorium for about five years now, the group purchased land off Wells Avenue almost that long ago in order to build themselves a permanent space (see “Backstage Pass,” Arts & Culture, April 8). Funding has been a constant battle, but they hope to finally take residence this season.

McKenzi Swinehart, RLT’s resource development chair and a board member, says the goal of the current phase of the capital campaign is to raise $1.4 million to get the building’s certificate of occupancy, stock the building with lighting and other theater accoutrements, and fund its operational budget.

“I was looking over our membership and mailing lists, and if everyone on them gave $100, we could open the building,” says Swinehart. “It’s a great perspective, to say that we’re that close.”

Season tickets sales have nearly doubled over last year, she reports, and a membership drive landed RLT an Angel-level sponsor for their first show of the season, A View From the Bridge. The season has grown from four to six shows, and attendance has increased. Plus, RLT has secured grants from the Nevada Arts Council.

Scott Reeves and Michael Peters rehearse<i> The Woman in Black </i>in Goodluck Macbeth's new space across from City Hall on Virginia Street.

Photo By audrey love

Work in progress

Still, interest in recent fundraising pushes has been somewhat lackluster. In the first, a local visual artist offered an art piece for RLT to use for fundraising; an online auction gathered no bids, which Swinehart attributes to either a too-high minimum bid or a lack of tie-in to anything the company was doing.

Another event, to be hosted at a local artist’s home, had to be cancelled due to lack of response. Again, price and a lack of direct association with RLT activities may have been to blame.

“It seems that companies need to tie these things more into their identity,” says Swinehart, citing RLT performance-based, in-show or after-show fundraising events as being potentially more successful.

That’s the approach Truckee Meadows Community College Performing Arts is taking. The company was invited to join 12 other U.S. schools and companies from 60 countries to participate in next year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe during the first three weeks of August.

Director and Department Chair of Visual and Performing Arts Paul Aberasturi jumped at the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but worried about the $5,000-per-person price tag. Fundraising efforts commenced immediately, starting with a wine-tasting and silent auction at Sierra Arts last spring.

“We have so much talent here,” says Aberasturi. “So they performed, people liked it, we raised some money, and that got the ball rolling.”

Performance is key to their efforts, which include a partnership with Daughters Café. Members of the troupe perform for diners, who can leave tips in jars on the tables or top off their credit card bills with donations. This strategy alone has raised about $1,000 so far.

Additional efforts will include cabarets, in which the performers will sing, dance or perform skits, as well as dedicating a percentage of ticket sales to the Fringe pot.

“I think we probably are better situated to raise funds than some other theater companies because we’re with the school,” says Aberasturi. “We have some great community theater groups in this town, but from a fundraising perspective, our mission is to give professional training to students through performance so they can try to make careers in the industry. So people may be more likely to contribute to that than to a community theater.”

He also thinks having a dedicated publicity representative for the group, as well as a public information office for the school, have helped a lot. Still, he’s constantly frustrated that, after 10 years in their theater at Keystone Avenue and Fifth Street, many people still don’t know they’re there.

“Grant funding and community donorship are down about 25 percent, so we’ve had to be creative to stay lucrative,” says Lisa Mancini, president of the TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada board, which focused its sights this year on fundraising.

A strategic planning session came up with two major initiatives: 1) to secure a permanent office space—a space on Linda Way in Sparks was donated—and 2) to develop an annual fundraiser, the first of which will be a murder mystery dinner, Murder Me Always, on Oct. 23. All proceeds will benefit the theater season and youth acting classes. The event is TWNN’s only performance until 2011.

Mancini says the goal is to sell about 120 tickets—at the time of our interview, approximately 60 had been sold, which she says puts them on track to reach their goal.

“I think [fundraising success] is all about personal contacts and relationship-building,” says Mancini. “Do less emailing and more one-on-one contact, making phone calls, tapping into resources and partnerships.”

Reeves echoes this, explaining that Goodluck Macbeth’s success has come largely from the group’s affiliation with MacAvoy Lane, renowned Mark Twain impersonator (and Biggest Little Best of Northern Nevada cover model), who extended his support and an opportunity for the group to perform some pieces with him around Lake Tahoe.

“Mac told me the first day we worked with him, ‘Work begets work,’” says Reeves. “Success comes from blood, sweat and tears, so we try to stay as busy as possible.”