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In uncertain times local theaters depend on more than ticket sales

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SHOWTIME 'We are now on the firmest footing we've had in months,' says 6th Street Playhouse's Craig Miller.
  • SHOWTIME 'We are now on the firmest footing we've had in months,' says 6th Street Playhouse's Craig Miller.

Late last fall, Santa Rosa's 6th Street Playhouse announced that it would be cutting back its performance schedule for the rest of the 2014–15 season.

It canceled all of the remaining shows in the 100-seat Studio Theater, while proceeding with the shows already planned for the larger, 185-seat G.K. Hardt Theater. The decision instantly sparked a flurry of rumors that the Railroad Square anchor is on the verge of collapse, a suggestion artistic director Craig Miller strongly denies.

"We've been having some trouble, yes, and I believe it's time to be completely transparent about that," he says, making it clear that, while things have been a bit touch-and-go, the leadership at 6th Street has no intention of shutting its doors.

"The short version is, the fundraising at 6th Street has been inadequate, in terms of meeting our development goals," Miller says. "But the board is exploring new, sustainable ways to keep the doors open, and we're already discussing the slate of plays and musicals for the 2015–16 season."

Miller points to a recently formed group of supporters calling themselves the Champions of 6th Street Playhouse, who last week presented their plans to create long-range funding projects to support the theater. Those plans include a Kickstarter campaign targeted at raising $100,000.

"We are in good hands," Miller says, adding that, despite the jitters caused by the Studio cancellations, "we are now on the firmest footing we've had in months."

So what exactly happened at 6th Street, and is the situation in Railroad Square indicative of a larger problem in the entire North Bay theater community? As Miller describes it, 6th Street's financial problems are primarily a matter of steadily declining donations. At a time when the recession is finally over, and theater patrons are now better equipped to heed their local nonprofits' calls for help, 6th Street has seen a surprising evaporation of community grants, public donations and other forms of contributed income.

"Our goal has always been to build lasting relationships with the community," Miller says, citing the kinds of relationships people have with their churches or with the public radio stations they support on a monthly basis. "We've put so much energy into producing an ambitious number of shows, but we've not been so good at building and sustaining those long-term donations. We admit it. And now, we need to get better at that. And we will."

The theatrical landscape of the North Bay has definitely looked a bit rocky of late. Last year, both the Napa Valley Playhouse and Pegasus Theater lost their longtime homes. Such closures add to fears that the sky over the North Bay's theater world is falling.

"We all need help," says John Degaetano of Wells Fargo Center's North Bay Stage Co., a troupe made up of theater artists long associated with the Raven Players in Healdsburg (a company that bucked the trend by actually adding a second theater space in Windsor last year). "But we can't do it by ticket sales alone," he affirms. "You have to have financial support from the community. That takes years to build up, and getting there requires stamina, persistence and sheer bloody-minded optimism."

While the woes experienced by 6th Street are not necessarily representative of the entire North Bay theater scene, the approaches that companies must take to keep open have been evolving.

"The old models are no longer working," says Beth Craven, artistic director of Main Stage West in Sebastopol. With 70 seats in its storefront location downtown, Main Stage West is the smallest theater in the North Bay, a space it's retained, in part, by renting the lobby as a downtown winetasting room. "Partnerships like the one we first established with Hook and Ladder, and now with Russian River Vineyards, have really helped increase traffic, cut down on overhead and given us another foothold in our community."

It all comes back to relationships.

"In the waning days of the recession," says Michael Barker, managing director of Marin Theatre Co., "our board wisely set up a cash reserve, partly as artistic 'risk capital,' but primarily to mitigate the ebbs and flows of a mid-sized nonprofits' normal cash-flows. Ticket sales alone are not an indication of a relationship with your audience, and relationships are what sustains a theater organization."

"Theater is the dirigible of the arts," adds Craven. "It doesn't look like it could possibly fly, but somehow it always manages to stay aloft anyway."

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