How Marietta lost its theater

The demise of Marietta’s Theatre in the Square this week has sent shivers through its home city and Atlanta’s theater community. Known for its solid productions and willingness to stage challenging work as well as crowd-pleasers, the 30-year-old playhouse was one of the metro area’s most respected and important midsize companies. Its shows brought in a heavy stream of diners and shoppers most evenings, adding vibrancy and cash to the historic square.

“There is a very delicate ecology in the theater community,” said Richard Garner, artistic director of Georgia Shakespeare, which faced an emergency funding crisis last year. “Theatre in the Square is such a big piece of the ecology, and what they were facing is what we were facing and what Actor’s Express was facing. With nonprofit theater, we always walk the edge. But several of us are slipping over.”

For four hours last Friday, members of Theatre in the Square’s board of directors and what was left of the Marietta theater’s executive staff picked through the rubble of the company’s finances.

In it, they thought they’d spotted glimmers of hope.

Earlier that week, the Marietta City Council had given the cash-strapped playhouse an emergency $30,000 grant. A new lease had been negotiated with the theater’s landlord, and the landlord, a City Council member, had agreed to reduce the company’s rent by nearly $3,000 per month. Three quarters of the way through its 2011-12 schedule and a week into “Flyin’ West,” the next-to-the-last show of the season, box office revenue was strong and accounted for 60 to 65 percent of the operating budget, comparable to last year’s pace.

To some in the room, including Palmer Wells, the theater’s co-founder and artistic director, those developments seemed reason enough not to let the playhouse go dark.

“The optimist in me said we could do it,” Wells said.

But they needed at least $400,000 by the end of June to keep going and pay creditors. And it would still need money to make budget and prepare for a 31st season.

There were hours of anguished conference calls over the weekend among members of the board and Wells as they tried to make the numbers work. But by late Monday afternoon they realized that short of a miracle donation, there was no way they could go on.

“We had vendors who asked for their money early,” said Mike Russell, board chair. “The turning point was when we saw we didn’t have enough contributions to finish out the season.”

“On Golden Pond,” was the first show Wells and his late partner, Mike Horne, did when they founded the theater in 1982. They had each put in $3,000 for the lumber for a stage. Their then-employer, IBM, gave them a grant for the lighting.

Through the years the theater grew in scope and ambition, staging works as diverse as “M Butterfly” and “Tobacco Road.”

In 2007, the theater began a $1.5 million campaign to refurbish and expand its facilities, with Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens and Dianne Isakson as honorary co-chairs. It raised $1.3 million, enough to move forward on the project.

Wells said this week that the expansion had not contributed to the theater’s debt because the money for the campaign was earmarked for capital improvements.

Russell and Wells blame the economy’s 2008 financial collapse for the theater’s failure. Several large donors, who gave as much as $70,000 to $100,000 per season, lost their shirts in the recession. For three years running, the theater applied for and got a $75,000 grant from the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund, but not this year. The $40,000 or $50,000 from the Georgia Council for the Arts went away when that agency experienced state budget cuts. And the $75,000 that the theater received yearly from the city of Marietta’s car rental sales tax shrunk to $38,000.

The theater dipped into subscription renewal money from its 3,300 subscribers to help fund its $1.6 million operating budget, Wells said. Generally, that money was intended for producing upcoming seasons, not the current one.

“It’s bad business practice, and I hate to say it, but it’s common,” said Flora Maria Garcia, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition, an arts advocacy group.

By last year, when it was clear the theater was in danger of closing, it launched the Save Our Theater emergency campaign. So did several other theaters, including Georgia Shakespeare and Actor’s Express, and Theatre in the Square found itself competing for the same pool of shrinking funds. Georgia Shakespeare and Actor’s Express have so far managed to weather their funding crises.

Theatre in the Square’s campaign raised about $375,000 by year’s end, but it was only enough to pay a portion of the company’s bills. Staff was reduced from 17 to 12 employees. Wells’ pay went to $37,000 a year, a 20 percent cut, and in the final weeks he went without a paycheck at all. The managing director also took a 20 percent cut, to $59,000, Wells said. She resigned in February.

In February, “we realized we couldn’t make payroll,” Russell said. The City Council stepped in to try to find a way to keep the theater open. Based on an informal study of the theater’s audiences a few years ago, theater officials estimated that the playhouse injected $1 million a year into the local economy and brought an additional $50,000 per year to the square.

But the board determined the city’s $30,000 grant wouldn’t make the necessary difference. The cast of “Flyin’ West” was paid for its final performance, and Russell went public with the decision to close.

“It’s ironic, we’ve got this beautiful building, but we’re broke,” said Wells, 75.

Friday was the last day Wells had to clean out his office. Through the week he’d found pictures of past performances, taking time to field calls and read emails from distraught audience members and old fans. Those hurt his heart. He tried not to let blog and social media comments saying the theater deserved to go under if it couldn’t manage itself break his spirit.

He’s not sure what’s next. And some in Marietta’s business community aren’t sure what this loss will mean for the health of the square.

“It has been like the square has been in mourning,” said Theresa Jenkins, executive director of the Marietta Visitors Bureau. “My fear is that we’ll lose some of the restaurants next. I pray I’m just seeing the boogeyman behind the door, but I worry.”

Even now some hold out hope that an angel will swoop in with a fat check and resurrect the theater in time for a 31st season.

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Ticket exchange information

With Theatre in the Square closing its doors this week, its Marietta square neighbor, Georgia Metropolitan Dance Theatre, is offering holders of theater tickets the chance to attend its weekend performances of the ballet “Peter Pan” at the Cobb County Civic Center. Theater patrons can trade upcoming show tickets at the Jennie T. Anderson Theatre box office starting an hour before show time (offered as long as seats are available). 2 and 7:30 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Sunday. $24; $22, seniors, students, children. 548 S. Marietta Parkway, Marietta. 770-426-0007, www.georgiametro dance.org.

“But so far, we haven’t heard any fluttering wings,” Jenkins said.