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Hat in Hand

Nonprofit status, sponsors keeps theater alive in the North Bay

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KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON In addition to staging escellent plays and musicals, Cinnabar Theater is good at nonprofit fundraising. It has to be.
  • KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON In addition to staging escellent plays and musicals, Cinnabar Theater is good at nonprofit fundraising. It has to be.

'The climate for nonprofit arts organizations right now is extremely difficult," says Diane Dragone, executive director of Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma. "As businesses—and we are businesses—nonprofit theaters are always struggling."

We hear it all the time, usually at curtain speeches before a show. An artistic director or other representative of the theater company tells you there will be an intermission, asks you to turn off your cell phone, and then reminds you—here it is—that ticket sales are not enough to cover the costs of the production you are about to see. Please consider making an additional donation on your way out.

How much of a nonprofit theater company is "theater" and how much is "nonprofit"?

Operating out of an old schoolhouse just off Petaluma Boulevard, Cinnabar is one of 18 theater companies in Sonoma and Napa counties that owns or rents its own theater space. At least 15 other companies exist in the same area and are either nomadic or only operate seasonally, as with summertime Shakespeare companies. As Dragone suggests, there really is an unfortunate public perception that nonprofit theaters are, by definition, supposed to be broke—which may come from the way most theaters are always begging for money.

But the backstage truth is a little more complicated than it sounds. "It is a known fact that the theater arts in America, and the arts in general, do not pay for themselves," says Dragone. "That's the reason theaters are all nonprofits. In Europe, the government subsidizes theaters, and people pay a higher tax to make that happen. What the people get for that tax is affordable theater. In America, since we don't have that, we are put in the position of having to charge more for tickets and having to ask art supporters for money all the time."

Cinnabar—now in its 44th year of presenting live operas, musicals and plays, and moving into its final weekend of the drama The Quality of Life—has established itself as a small theater producing consistently high-quality theater with a strong performing-arts training program for youth that many see as one of the most significant local breeding grounds for the next generation of theatrical talent. To pay for all of that, Cinnabar has built a strong cadre of individual sponsors, many of whom take it upon themselves to underwrite at least one show every season, donating between $3,500 and $10,000 to make that production possible.

"As businesses," says Dragone, "every theater group I know is struggling one way or another, and we all have to depend on the audience and our surrounding community—because even a sold-out run of a hit show might not be enough to keep the doors open."

Generally speaking, Cinnabar has done a solid job operating as an arts organization and as a business, with a small paid staff and a core of volunteers, all underscoring a solid internal understanding of what its audience wants, and how to maintain the infrastructure that makes that possible.

"Cinnabar is small," says Dragone. "That's part of our brand—a small theater doing professional-level shows. We could possibly make more money by renting out the stage to other companies, but then we risk diluting our brand, should audiences confuse the show we produce with the shows our renters might be doing. Our brand is too important to risk that."

Every nonprofit theater in the North Bay shares many of the same challenges. But each finds its own ways to meet those challenges.

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