The crucial gap once filled by Florida Stage

Last week, it was announced in the Miami Herald that Florida Stage would be filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection and closing its doors for good. I am haunted by the thought that the American Theater has just lost an organization without fully grasping the critical role that it played. It appears that the move to a new space was a key factor in financial troubles that eventually left the company with a $1.5 million debt (significant for a theater of its size). This closing has left me feeling sad and disappointed in the trajectory of the American Theater.

Do funders and others understand what is at risk if we cannot sustain the midsized theaters in the US that often take great risks and do great work (think Woolly Mammoth) and often at a fraction of the overhead expense incurred by much larger theaters? As has been noted in the press, Florida Stage was one of the midsized gems in the regional theater in the US. It had a national reputation for producing new work and was a founding and leading member of the National New Play Network (a consortium of midsized theaters that work together to co-commission and produce new plays). However, it seems that this award-winning theater was not sufficiently valued by national and regional funders, donors, and audiences to sustain a $4.1 (or even $3 million) budget. Are we headed for a future in which no theater in the US can commit to a ‘season of new works’ as Florida Stage did for years?

As regards the challenges faced as a result of the move to the new space–well, I wish I could say that this was a surprising result. Unfortunately, over the past few decades we have seen way too many examples of successful theaters (and other arts organizations) seeking, or being encouraged, to trade-up to niftier digs and then falling into financial turmoil as a result. We all know this story: the first couple years generally go OK as there is often great enthusiasm for the new space and people like to put their names on buildings; 3-5 years later organizations are often panicked when they realize that that ticket sales are coming in lower than projected, the electric bill is higher than projected, and the donors that were so enthused to put their names on a brick or a wall are not quite as enthused to provide additional operating funds to support the mission and pay the running costs. Behind the eight ball, these organizations do not generally close; instead, they often ‘evolve’ their missions to suit their new buildings (i.e., begin taking fewer artistic risks).

The case of Florida Stage appears to be somewhat extreme: it seems that audiences in its new venue were significantly lower than they had been in the year prior to the move. Because they closed so quickly, we’ll never know if they might have been able to sustain a larger budget and still maintain a longstanding commitment to new works.

Last week, I penned a post for Arts Queensland’s blog: Are arts groups creating too much of a good thing, or not enough? Can we answer the question? (It’s essentially on the supply demand issue and evaluation.) In it, I wrote:

Rather than using evaluations to help funders assess and rank organizations based on one public value criterion (e.g. excellence) rather than another (e.g. innovation), perhaps they should be used to help organizations and funders alike better comprehend the arts ecosystem (how it works, where it’s healthy, and where it’s ill) and their role in it; to understand where they are playing an important role; to understand where they may be duplicating efforts or missions with other organizations; and to understand where gaps in the system exist that need to be addressed.

Not all, but certainly many small and midsized theaters are highly valued by playwrights, actors, designers, directors, and others because they will work with artists before they have established themselves (or ‘emerged’ as we sometimes say) and, thereby, help to advace their careers (at which point the larger regional theaters will often pick them up). In other words, many small and midsized theaters appear to be doing critical ‘artist and repertoire development’.

It’s a sad reality that, generally speaking, it’s difficult for even the best midsized theaters to compete against the regional behemoths (with their much larger development departments) to secure high profile board members, high net worth donors, and significant grants (the exception, perhaps, being capital funds to build new buildings). Like salt to the wound, not only are midsized theaters often overlooked by donors and funders, but they often end up reading about much larger theaters being awarded grants that will enable them to commission, develop, or produce one or two new works, or put on a festival of new plays, amidst a season of otherwise safe, if not downright commercial, fare.

I’m not sure why Florida Stage could not attract larger audiences in its new space and there is, no doubt, more to the story than I could glean from the papers. Candidly, I wish the board might have been willing to form a strategic alliance with another organization, or move out of the Kravis Center and relocate back to Manalapan, before closing the doors of the theater ‘for good’. Or, at the very least, I wish that the financial troubles had been made public long before the theater reached the point of no return–allowing for the possibility of a consortium of funders and donors to come together and help the organization dig out of its debt and develop a new business plan.

Perhaps these (and other) options were considered but were not feasible? If so, I’m sorry that Florida Stage was left with no option except to close.

While $1.5 million is a significant amount of money to raise, I hope and trust that in making the decision to close the board members of  Florida Stage weighed its debt not simply against the annual operating budget of the theater and the pockets of those board members potentially saddled with the financial burden, but against the critical role and great value provided by Florida Stage in the local, regional, and national artistic landscape. Years from now, I’m betting that artists and funders will be talking with regret about the ‘crucial gap’ that was once filled by Florida Stage and has yet to be replaced by another theater.

Gold cubes image by F. ENOT, licensed at Shutterstock.com.

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Comments

  1. says

    Diane,

    Great post and, sadly, not an uncommon theme!

    I just keep thinking about the new philanthropy model; and the need for Board training in real time experience; perhaps, asking the audience(s) for input before going to extreme measures of closing an organization, (which, by the way, may be an only option).

    All the ideas you share about some solutions, (that we will never know were tried or not), must not have to fall on deaf ears.

    The gatekeepers, (if you will), the representatives of/for the community are Boards of Directors.

    I am not laying blame here, because, I too understand the position of a Board, but, I do not agree with “racking up” a sizeable and unsustainable deficit = debt load.

    Perhaps a good analysis, or, post mortem is “How did the Florida Stage arrive at such a “financial burden?”

    Next chapter for the Florida Stage; perhaps a Phoenix rising from the ashes; one can only wish this may be so.

    Cheers!

    Susan

  2. says

    Diane, I’m so glad you’ve covered this situation. As a former Florida Stage staff member, I can only comfortably say that there was no turning back after our move to the Kravis Center (extremely high rent in Manalapan and a multi-year road construction project that would cut off our main travel artery). We were actively engaged in new audience development, and I wish that we had the opportunity to see what results we could have delivered.

    While many of us in West Palm Beach are currently worried about our immediate futures, I believe, as you’ve said, that the real concerns for the national theater community will appear in the next few years. Who will be the new standard-bearer for new plays? I am hoping that more theaters will step in to fill this void, recognizing that if they don’t do it, who will?

  3. Rafael de Acha says

    Diane, A good post with terrible news. The Florida Stage story is yet another South Florida story. The Florida Philharmonic went bankrupt several years ago. Miami’s Coconut Grove Playhouse closed its doors abruptly not long ago. Several theaters closed their doors during the 25 years I lived in South Florida — some in Palm Beach and Broward counties, some in Dade County. Practically all of these organizations went belly-up because of a terrible lack of support in the community. When a large or medium-sized artistic organization truly succeeds in South Florida it usually does because of the support of one very generous donor — more often than not an individual with very strong ties to South Florida. But more often, major donors in South Florida prefer to give in their home town “up North.” The only foundation with any real presence in South Florida is the Knight Foundation. Very few large corporations abound in South Florida — a region with a very poor track record of corporate support of the arts. Arts councils and departments, especially Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs, do the best they can with ever-decreasing government support. Buildings for the arts are the most popular form of getting the names of donors on bronze and marble and satisfying their egos, yet time and again, buildings for he arts all over the South Florida map become hugely expensive white elephants with no art to put inside them. By and large boards of arts organizations in South Florida lack initiative, leadership and true commitment, hence stories like the Florida Stage one continue to repeat themselves.

  4. says

    Hi Diane -

    This catastrophic news hit just as the National New Play Network was assembling for its Annual Conference… its shadow was felt throughout our gathering, we discussed it at length, and there were a couple of takeaways I’d like to share.

    But before I do: it’s conference season in the US, and I’ve been amazed by the number of testimonials to Florida Stage I’ve heard this month. From audiences who learned to love new plays there. From artists of all sorts who found a reason to settle in South Florida because of the theater. And from the playwrights – God, the playwrights! – who were embraced and nurtured and given a home there… at every theater gathering in the past two weeks I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of individuals who have spoken of their debt to Florida Stage.

    The fact that this debt could not be harnessed to save the institution is due, as you say, to an extreme situation and what Producing Director Lou Tyrrell called a “perfect storm” of factors. Some of those factors are not preventable by any of us in the business – the Madoff disaster and the Great Recession chief among them. But the others I suspect the wisest of us would have underestimated. Among them:

    YOU CAN’T TEACH AN OLD AUDIENCE NEW TRICKS. Despite the move to an artistically far-more-satisfying (and economically more sustainable) home, the Manalapan audience broke Lou’s heart and deserted the theater in droves. And why? As members of the staff there tell it, primarily because the seats weren’t as comfortable. (As one staff member told me, “they’d softened up the old ones by sitting in them for 20 years. We were going to get softer cushions for the new seats next year.”) That, and they didn’t like having to drive 8 miles farther north to West Palm Beach. Where the parking wasn’t free but WAS a longer walk from the theater.

    Is it possible that seats and parking – as opposed to anything as trivial as, say, the ART – could cause a net loss of 4,000 subscribers in two seasons? I’ve heard it now from enough Florida Stage folks that I’ve come to believe it. The older our traditional audiences become, the more fickle and resistant to change they are. The more comfort they want out of their theater experience. Add the seats and the parking to the recession and you start assembling the perfect storm that none of us could have weathered.

    YOU CAN’T GROW A NEW AUDIENCE OVERNIGHT. In our marvelous digital age, every day that goes by makes it easier and more comfortable to sit at home (cuddling up with the internet), and harder and more expensive to leave it. And those “unschooled” in live theater are extremely hard to lure out of their digital caves – their barriers to participation get higher with every movie they download. And our organizations rarely know how to talk to them – why do we keep talking to new audiences as if they’re lapsed subscribers? (Theaters programming the 20th Century’s Greatest Hits to get new audiences – it’s like a radio station playing Chubby Checker to reach teenagers.)

    Lou and Nan knew this. Growing that new audience was one strategic reason behind the move, and they just needed time to do it. But for catastrophic, unfortunate reasons, time wasn’t a luxury the Board could give them. There wasn’t even time for the kind of rescue you advocate in your post. If the past two weeks of conference-going are any indication, there are many individuals and organizations who would have helped if given the chance.

    (On a side note: NNPN’s theaters voted to honor tickets from Florida Stage’s loyal subscribers this year when they travel around the country, and we’re sending around the resumes of the 30 staff members in South Florida who no longer have jobs. We’ll also take part in raising money for a planned “severance fund” for those employees.)

    FINALLY, DOUBLE THE HEIGHT MEANS HALF THE INTIMACY. For an artist like myself, Florida Stage’s new space at the Rinker Playhouse, with its thirty-three foot height (nearly triple that of the Manalapan venue), was a dream come true, a perfect space for new plays. For many longtime patrons, though, it felt cavernous and too far from the action. I still can’t wrap my head around this one, because it runs counter to every presumption I would have made.

    But it reminds us that the intimacy of the small-to-midsize theaters is their greatest asset. Being a few feet away from dramatic action is what sets them apart from everything digital… and it’s what the niche-theater/new-play-theater/alternative theater movement of the past 25 years has proven. The need for that kind of intimate cultural dialogue will only increase over time (cf “Theater for One”, which just closed in Times Square).

    That’s why I’ve gotten over the fear that Florida Stage is the proverbial canary in the coalmine. The theater fell victim to a confluence of factors no one could have predicted. Ultimately, I don’t believe there’s an expiration date for new-play theaters. I suspect there’s an expiration SIZE for new-play theaters. And I KNOW there’s an expiration date for traditional theater subscribers.

    Jason Loewith
    Executive Director
    National New Play Network

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