Theater regroups

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After a rough year, the Charlotte Repertory Theatre is reworking its own script.

The nonprofit troupe is looking for a new artistic director and aims to better balance financial prudence with its push in recent years to raise its level of artistic excellence, says its volunteer leader.

“Over the last five years, we went from being too financially focused to where we got too focused on the artistic side,” says Mike McGuire, Carolinas managing partner for accounting firm Grant Thornton and the Rep’s board chair. “We’ve got to get the needle moved more toward the middle.”

Despite failing to win a competition three years ago that nearly would have doubled its annual operating support of roughly $300,000 from the Arts & Science Council, the Rep pushed ahead anyway with plans to stage fewer plays, extend their runs and invest more in costumes and scenery.

It also hired a new artistic director and managing director, and used roughly $100,000 of its $165,000 reserve to finance its plans.

But 9/11 and the slumping economy, plus unexpected setbacks with its production of The Miracle Worker last spring, contributed to a steady financial skid.

While the Rep still is receiving roughly $40,000 to $50,000 a year in state arts funding, another $75,000 it had been receiving dried up.

And corporate and foundation donations combined fell to $70,000 in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2002, from $93,000 two years earlier.

The Rep, with an accumulated deficit of roughly $300,000, this year lost the two leaders it hired to oversee the new strategy — Michael Bush, artistic director, and Matt Olin, managing director.

“They left because they could see the theater didn’t have the budget to support what they wanted to do,” McGuire says. “It’s like you brought in a Porsche and you could only drive 55.”

The Rep also has drawn theater-goers’ criticism that it was sacrificing its dramatic quality and regional focus for show-business values and national ambitions.

“We feel like the worst part of it is over,” McGuire says. “We’ve kind of hit the bottom. We’ve got a plan to stabilize.”

The plan calls for raising $160,000 to $180,000 from foundations, corporations and patrons, and securing a $250,000 line of credit from a bank to cover the up-front investment needed for productions before they generate revenue.

Board members also have made loans to the organization, which expects to post little or no deficit, or even a small surplus, for the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2004, McGuire says.

The Rep, which also lost its development director, also needs to fill empty staff positions, McGuire says.

Debbie Fitts, who in August was promoted from general manager to managing director, says the Rep can count on its community roots.

“We certainly hit some rough spots and there will be some additional rough spots,” she says, “but we are going to survive this and we are well on our way.”

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