Buy some tickets!

Local theater companies strike deals to survive

It’s time to take a good look at the arts.

It’s time to take a good look at the arts.


Back in August, we warned in this space that the downturn in the economy—and the sharp decline in Sacramento’s real-estate market—would make the 2008-09 season a particularly tough time for the region’s performing-arts groups.

Our dark forecast has proven all too true. Here’s a rundown:

In Nevada City, Foothill Theatre Company’s board decided earlier this month to carry on with a three-show “demi-season” for 2009, featuring “recession-buster” ticket prices. As Foothill’s artistic director Carolyn Howarth put it, “If we had closed our doors, it would have been a slap in the face to the hundreds of philanthropists who have given to us in the last five months. By staying alive into next year, we are buying time—time to maybe win the game (or maybe lose, or tie), but at least we won’t be forfeiting.”

Meanwhile, three of Sacramento’s Actors’ Equity theater companies—the Sacramento Theatre Company, B Street Theatre and Capital Stage—launched a bargain plan in November. The deal offered a total of three tickets (one for a show at each of the companies) for a total of $33. At $11 per play, that’s only a little more than a movie. (“Dirt-cheap tickets,” said one theater manager, who was nonetheless hopeful that people would take advantage of the offer.)

Several theater companies also are offering discount subscription plans for their respective seasons. Subscription sales offer a lot more financial stability than single-ticket sales.

December also was a difficult month for the Sacramento Ballet, which ordinarily relies on income from The Nutcracker to carry the company through the cold, rainy months following Christmas. With its three-week run, Nutcracker ordinarily accounts for about half of Sac Ballet’s performances (and ticket sales); it is the strong reindeer (or, to put it crudely, the cash cow) that pulls the sleigh for the rest of the season.

But this year, Nutcracker ticket sales are running at only two-thirds of what were already cautious projections. Sac Ballet’s board will be meeting in January to discuss trimming plans for future performances—or, in a worst-case scenario, simply closing down the company. It all depends on public support.

Like the professional theaters, smaller companies also are struggling. James Wheatley, the artistic director at Celebration Arts, acknowledged that worrying about paying the bills can keep him up at night, but so far the troupe hasn’t had to cut back on any productions or classes. “It’s in times like these that we really need the performing arts,” he said, noting that Celebration Arts’ base understands this. “It keeps the soul healthy when the economy is not.”

Other small community-theater groups may find that, between the larger professional groups competing more fiercely for support and the tougher times their own regular contributors face, the usual cost-cutting measures of smaller productions and leaner sets will not be enough.

The same scenario is unfolding for arts groups all across the state. On December 15, the 27-year-old Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival—a major West Coast summer theater event (and the developer of Cinderella featuring Gregg Coffin’s songs, now playing at STC)—launched a desperate seven-day drive to raise $300,000. If they don’t raise it, there won’t be a 2009 season, and the festival folds. As of December 18, they’d raised $238,000.

In San Jose, the presenting-producing organization American Musical Theatre went bankrupt. They were a counterpart organization to Sacramento’s California Musical Theatre, which produces the Music Circus and hosts touring shows (as Broadway Sacramento).

We held “backgrounder” conversations with leaders of several arts groups for this column, and they all told us more or less the same thing. “If we can get through January, February and March without shutting down, we might be able to make it through this thing.”

So here’s our holiday wish from you, dear readers. Think of a performing-arts organization whose performances you’ve enjoyed, a group you’d like to see survive. Then go and buy some tickets. If you can afford it, buy the best seats in the house. Imagine that you’re treating a forlorn friend at the end of his or her financial resources to a much-needed meal. And you’ll even get to enjoy a show as part of the deal.