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Regional theaters adapt as funding sources come and go

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Bonnie J. Monte, artistic director, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, in the company's prop storage.
Bonnie J. Monte, artistic director, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, in the company's prop storage. - ()

Tucked into a run-of-the-mill Florham Park office park, behind the doors of a flat, brown industrial building, resides a menagerie of theater props. From the head of a 20-foot elephant to a vintage lace handkerchief fit for Elizabethan royalty, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has created a support facility fit for King Richard himself.

In 2013, the theater company finally purchased this home base for its administrative offices, sets and prop storage, classrooms, set building workshop and costume design studio. The main hallway is in the process of being painted to look like a 16th century European village with an apothecary storefront that functions as storage for the pill bottles, vials and pestle and mortar props used in productions.

The conference room has strings of outdoor lights and paper lanterns hung above a 30-foot table handmade from donated, discontinued flooring. Next to the table stands a floor-to-ceiling chain link fence that guards the company’s artfully displayed skulls, skeletons, sickles, shields and silk flowers and plants from past productions in a space known as “The Armouretum.”

While the displays could be part of museum exhibits, these props are all employed during the theater’s productions.

Nearly all the renovations, decorating and creative storage solutions have been a DIY labor of love of the theater company’s staff, made up of artists, craftsmen, designers and builders. Money for large capital projects at nonprofit arts organizations is hard to come by, so the staff has to be resourceful.

Three years after taking over the facility, they are still painting walls and unpacking boxes.

The facility represents an end to the nomadic existence of one of the largest Shakespeare theater companies in the country. The administrative offices were housed in an uninsulated attic space. The props and sets were stored at locations across the state, including lumberyards and old warehouses. And the designers and craftsmen were scattered. The consolidation of all these operations under one roof saves the organization thousands of dollars per year.

Founded in 1972, the company, then known as The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, also moved around, performing in any space from an old summer playhouse to a casino before finding a permanent performance space in an old gymnasium on the Madison campus of Drew University. By 1998, the dilapidated gym was renovated into the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre.

“In those days, it was much easier to raise money for capital projects and for the arts in general,” said Bonnie J. Monte, artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

Twenty-five years ago, Monte was hired to turn around a near-dead organization. The theater company was financially destitute, had a tremendous amount of debt and had lost its audience.

“It had every problem ever known to theaters,” Monte said. “But I was young and naïve, thank God, or I probably wouldn’t have taken the job. All I could see was promise.”

Today, the company, comprised of mostly professional equity actors, is a $4 million organization with 22 educational programs, including one of the top eight summer theater internship programs in the country, according to Backstage magazine.

In her time at the helm, Monte has seen tremendous shifts in the way nonprofit regional theaters are funded.

Monte said funding for the arts in the 1980s was “huge, flush and fantastic.” But by the 1990s, donors began expecting greater levels of accountability.

“The (nonprofit theater) companies that survived were the ones that decided they were going to shift and get a little more business-like about how they raised money and how they earned money,” Monte said. “You saw a lot of (theater) companies fall by the wayside at that time. A few years later, everything evened out.”

She continued: “There was a lot of corporate funding, at least here in New Jersey there was, because we have a lot of corporations here. We had a pretty strong base of funding that was equally divided between corporate, government, foundation and individuals.

A little friendly competition
With regional theaters’ growing demand on audience dollars for survival, one might think competition between these top organizations has grown fierce.
One would be wrong.
“I prefer not to think of us in a competition,” said Timothy J. Shields, managing director of McCarter Theatre in Princeton. “It is true that New Jersey is well-served in terms of performing arts houses, but the more of us out there showing the public that watching live performing arts will add value to their lives, the better.
“I’m happy to have someone head up the road to NJPAC or George Street (Playhouse) and have a good experience, because they then will be more likely to come see something at the McCarter as well.”
In fact, Shields believes more successful, high-caliber theater in the area allows these organizations to be more persuasive about getting people to put down their remote controls, leave their homes and consume live entertainment.
Shields said the higher-level competition for performing arts is represented by electronic screens — televisions, laptops, tablets and phones.
“People can increasingly curate entertainment for themselves; but it is flat and two-dimensional,” Shields said. “What we offer as an alternative is a three-dimensional, live experience.”
One of the central challenges the McCarter Theatre faces today is figuring out how to make the experience it provides extend beyond curtain up and curtain down.
“As the generations of the audiences shift, we have to evolve the way we engage people before they come see a performance and provide them a memory after they leave,” Shields said.

“Now, corporate funding does not exist. There are a few corporations in this state and nationally that are still committed to the arts. But those corporations are few and far between. I’ve watched my corporate funding, which, at its height, was between $300,000 to $500,000 per year, shrink down to $38,000 per year.”

Monte said that, when the stock market imploded in 2008, corporations used that as an excuse to stop all philanthropy, especially to the arts. She cited one particular corporate sponsor that provided a substantial grant for The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s touring company: When the economy tanked, the sponsor pulled the grant without much warning.

Today, the former corporate sponsor has gone back to making profits, but never reinstated its philanthropy to the theater company.

“We watched this happen at corporation after corporation, over and over, yet their children continue to enjoy our programs at school, their neighbors and acquaintances are enjoying our work at the theater and we are helping to make this a more culturally rich state to live in,” Monte said. “Very few corporations give back to the arts community, which in this state is a substantial community. It’s very distressing to me.”

The Paper Mill Playhouse, located in Millburn, is a producing organization that is responsible for creating its own shows from the beginning of the artistic process to the end of the show’s run. As one of the top equity, nonprofit theaters on the East Coast, Paper Mill has worked with commercial producers, such as Disney, to premiere shows like “Newsies” and “Honeymoon in Vegas,” that have gone on to Broadway.

Budgets for its productions range from $750,000 for a single-set play to more than a million dollars for extravagant shows. The organization, which first opened its doors in 1937, has firsthand experience with declining corporate funding.

“The way corporations give to the arts has changed over time, and it’s a disturbing trend people are seeing all across the country,” said Todd Schmidt, managing director of Paper Mill. “The arts used to be a major focus for many corporations. Now, their giving is somehow tied to their product.

“For example, a pharmaceutical company is now more inclined to give to an organization tied to health care. They are tying their giving to their business.”

Corporate mergers and acquisitions have also decreased the number of companies donating to the arts.

Not all corporations have pulled their arts funding. Short Hills-based Investors Bancorp has been a vital supporter of Paper Mill Playhouse for eight years and Bank of America has been committed to supporting The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s summer stage productions at The College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown for the last 10 years.

With corporate funding all but dried up, theaters have seen the pendulum swing toward individual contributions.

“Corporate and foundation funding has been either flat or declining for the last five to seven years and the number of individual contributions and ticket sales have increased,” said Timothy J. Shields, managing director of McCarter Theatre in Princeton. “There seems to be a good appetite from the public for the kind of work we are putting onstage.”

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has seen a similar trend.

“We’ve watched our individual contributions grow significantly, and that is the best because it tells us that the people who have come to see our work like it enough to give us money,” Monte said. “They don’t want us to go away. Individual gifts are pretty strong and our annual gala can raise up to $250,000 in one night, which is huge for our modest budget.”

According to Mark S. Hoebee, producing artistic director at the Paper Mill Playhouse, nearly half of its audience on any given night are subscribers and attend five shows per season.

While having to adapt to the funding paradigm shift, regional theaters do have an advantage in that New Jersey is somewhat of a hotbed for the performing arts.

According to Shields, the state enjoys the geographic advantage of being right across the Hudson River from the legions of available artists and other world-class creative types needed to produce its shows.

In addition, he said, this densely populated state has a high concentration of arts consumers. And it’s a highly educated population that grew up with exposure to the arts.

The future of the performing arts center
As performing arts centers have evolved from town movie theaters into downtown economic and cultural entities, we asked the Top Five performing arts centers in the state what the future holds:

  • Dominic Roncace
    CEO, Bergen Performing Arts Center (Englewood)

    “Acts that can play bigger venues and arenas are also playing performing arts centers now. Some time ago, that wasn’t the case. Performing arts centers were more specifically used for cultural events — but now audiences prefer smaller, more intimate settings for concert experiences. … Ticket prices have also escalated to a level where the artist can play smaller venues and it still makes financial sense.”

  • Steven Schultz
    board member, Count Basie Theatre (Red Bank)

    “The music industry has changed. More people are touring because, with the streaming of music, the artists don’t get their royalties, so they have to be on tour to make a living.”

  • David Rodriguez
    executive vice president and executive producer, New Jersey Performing Arts Center (Newark)

    “As business models change and people look at the evolution of performing arts centers, particularly beyond four walls, originating and creating distinctive programming will lend itself to growth. It’s something that will put us in a leadership role instead of relying on the touring whims of Broadway shows.”

  • Warren Tranquada
    executive vice president and chief operating officer, NJPAC (Newark)

    “The biggest long-term challenge performing arts centers face is that what we do is fundamentally at odds with the way people consume entertainment today. We’re increasingly self-curating, picking the time, the lineup, very individualized and customized, and NJPAC is showing 3,000 people at once all the same thing. The question is: How do we stay relevant and engaging doing things that take advantage of the fact that we have a community of people together doing something unique and interesting that you want to experience as a group?”

  • Ed Kirchdoerffer
    general manager, Mayo Performing Arts Center (Morristown)

    “We always talk about the future of some of the classical arts like ballet — there is a concern that audiences are falling away from that. … Audiences for chamber music may top at 300 or 400, but in a 1,300-seat theater, that looks like it is empty. We’ve experimented by putting the artist on stage and having people sit around them on stage as well. … But it would be against our mission not to present these genres. We’re here to bring these opportunities to the community and to find ways to energize a new generation into appreciating that kind of art.”
  • Thomas Carto
    CEO and president, State Theatre (New Brunswick)

    "We have stable series such as Broadway and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, but we also book things on an opportunity basis. Last fall, we had an opportunity to present Kevin Hart. We got the call two to three weeks out and we said, sure, we’ll make it work — even though he typically only performs for arenas. Normally, we’d be booking things three or four months out.”

New Jersey also is one of the few states that continues to financially support the arts. While other states have eradicated arts funding, this state has managed to protect its support by directing the income it earns through the hotel/motel tax to arts organizations.

Some of the regional theaters received national grants as well. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey receives grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and from Shakespeare for a New Generation that allow its touring company to perform Shakespeare for up to 30,000 children in economically challenged schools who may not have exposure to the bard otherwise.

For all of these regional theaters, courting the next generation of theatergoers is a lynchpin to their future survival strategies.

When corporate funding began to disappear during the recession, Paper Mill turned to young families to fill its seats and keep the lights on.

“In 2007 and 2008, we faced a financial crisis, and that gave us the opportunity to really look at our financial model and our business model,” Hoebee said. “We looked at the shows we were producing, our mission and what the community around us really wanted. We looked to the changing landscape of our community and saw many young families and urban transplants.

“So, that is where we put our focus. Kids mean everything, and parents will spend money for their education and their entertainment. We were able to realign our organization toward a very family-centric place and that has done well by us.”

Schmidt added that capturing the attention of the youngest members of the community ensures continued demand for the performing arts.

“Rarely does someone see a play for the first time in his or her 30s and become an avid theatergoer,” he said. “But when you introduce kids to the arts at very young age, it becomes part of who they are. Touching kids early in their lives makes future audiences, future actors and future patrons of the arts.”

Surrounded by stacks of classic texts piled on lovingly restored estate furniture, Monte championed the often-unsung role nonprofit arts organizations play in the education of the state’s youth.

“I want people to know that we are doing so much more than people know about and those programs have a tremendous impact on the culture and the citizens of New Jersey,” she said. “And that is true of so many other great theaters in this state. Without our Shakespeare Live program, 600,000 students would have graduated from high school never seeing Shakespeare performed live. And that is wrong. The program teaches these kids lessons that go way beyond vocabulary.

“I don’t know of any arts institute in New Jersey today that is not providing arts education. We are filling a void left by the schools that no longer provide arts education to kids anymore.

“People shouldn’t dismiss us as some artsy-fartsy organization doing plays. Yes, that is partly what we do. But there is so much more that deserves funding and attention and support.”

E-mail to: dariam@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @dariameoli

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