Stifled by debt, Georgia Shakespeare calls it curtains after 29 years

After a 29-year run as one of Atlanta’s most respected theater troupes, Georgia Shakespeare announced Wednesday that it is closing its doors.

Last month, the company canceled its October production of “Henry V” and said its leaders would instead meet with potential funders. Their fundraising goal of $750,000 was earmarked to retire $343,000 in accumulated debt as well as to replenish operating funds and build a small reserve.

But a rescue was not to be.

“We had no major funders who were willing to make a lead gift,” Managing Director Jennifer Bauer-Lyons said. “We had other people who were kind of waiting in the wings — ‘If you get a lead gift, call us back and we’ll do something’ — but there was nobody willing to make a lead gift.”

News of Georgia Shakespeare’s final curtain at Oglethorpe University’s Conant Performing Arts Center comes simultaneously with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing lockout of its musicians as ASO management seeks concessions to address 12 years of deficits. It also follows in the footlights of two other theatrical victims of the recession: Theater of the Stars, which closed last year; and Theatre in the Square, which shut down in 2012.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘This just ticks me off because Atlanta can’t support the arts,’ ” Georgia Shakespeare Producing Artistic Director Richard Garner said. “It can support the arts, but can it support them at the level that we need, that the symphony needs, that other (major) organizations need? I guess the question is still to be answered.”

Corporations and foundations are notoriously hesitant to help arts groups pay down debt, preferring instead to put their support behind new initiatives. The situation is exacerbated by a paucity of local public funding. Georgia ranks 50th in state apportionment for the arts.

Determined to make good on its bills, Georgia Shakespeare paid off $103,000 in debt in 2013 and $110,000 this year. But that created an operating cash crisis that caused company leaders to go public last month after six weeks of quiet funding pitches this summer were unsuccessful.

Yet, while expressing disappointment at having to close, neither Garner nor Bauer-Lyons said they had any finger-pointing to do.

“I don’t blame the funding community or that there aren’t enough ticket buyers or bad business decisions,” Garner said. “There is no place to put a black hat. It’s just that perhaps a company doing the kind of work we want to do — it’s not perhaps, it’s obvious — couldn’t find enough support to do the work that way.”

Garner co-founded Georgia Shakespeare in 1986 as a summer festival, and it stayed with the costly multiple-plays-performed-in-repertory model until 2012. In recent years the company, recognized for its roster of top-flight actors including Chris Kayser and Carolyn Cook, also began selling tickets to its formerly all-free Shakespeare in the Park stagings in Piedmont Park.

Many Atlantans assumed the troupe’s future was secure after the high-profile Save Georgia Shakespeare emergency campaign that exceeded its $500,000 goal in 2011. The cash infusion did stabilize finances for a while, but, unknown to the public, more than $300,000 in debt remained. Looking back on how it framed the situation to supporters, Garner said board and company leaders chose an ambitious but reachable goal instead of one that would have resulted in failure.

“If you look at our history, we didn’t build the debt up all at once, it happened kind of slow,” Garner said. “You miss a ticket-sales goal. You miss an individual (giving) goal or a corporate goal. But once we got to the point of approximately $300,000 in debt, it tended to hover at that number. …

“When you’ve run out of ways to deal with it and sort of tap dance, then you’ve got to pay the piper, and that’s it.”

Garner, who is married to Kennesaw State University theater professor Karen Robinson, said he planned to take a few months off to decompress and consider a future without the institution he has steered for three decades. Instead of pursuing another artistic directorship, which likely would require a move, he said he’d be content to guest direct.

“Directing is where I’ve always been the happiest,” Garner said. “To do that without facing the administrative challenges would be quite refreshing.”