Growing Stages

Cinnabar sets future on healthy donor support

‘As long as I’ve been in this business, people have been asking if theater is dying, if the audience for theater is diminishing,” says Terence Keane, executive director of Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma.

“And as long as I’ve been in this business, the answer has always been no. Theater isn’t dying. But theater is changing. And the theaters with the longest lives are those that ride those changes while staying firm to what it was that made people want to see shows there in the first place.”

For any midrange theater company, building and sustaining a strong financial foundation is a bit like cooking up an exotic stew: sometimes it demands a blend of heart, brains and guts. And if you don’t have the stomach for it, you shouldn’t be in the theater business.

“It’s a game of balance, and it’s not easy and sometimes its scary,” says Keane, “but when it works, it’s incredibly rewarding.”

Keane, who will celebrate two years at Cinnabar this April, was for years the marketing director for the Berkeley Repertory Theater. When he arrived at Cinnabar, his job was clear: to help make a good company even better. Working side by side with longtime Cinnabar leader and current artistic director Elly Lichenstein, Keane has called on lessons learned over his years of experience to steer Cinnabar toward greater financial security, recognizing that Cinnabar’s 42-year reputation is rooted in its commitment to diverse, ambitious, eclectic programming, staging everything from operas to original plays to concerts to solo shows.

Over the last 18-months, Cinnabar has greatly expanded its number of subscribers—patrons who buy a package of tickets for a whole season—increasing individual subscription sales by 88 percent, effectively doubling the company’s subscription income. In the last fiscal year, Cinnabar has expanded earned income (from tickets sales, tuitions and the like) by 26 percent, and has seen its contributed income (all donations from companies and individual donors) increase by 34 percent, all while keeping rising expenses down to a mere 4 percent.

So in a theater climate where so many companies are struggling, what exactly might they learn from Cinnabar’s example? According to Keane, that’s the wrong question.

“Everything that works for us probably won’t work for another company,” he says. “If we tried to do what Marin Theatre Company has done successfully, we would not necessarily succeed. If people like what we’re doing, then you should keep doing it. And you can either maximize that, or by fussing with it too much or too often, you can ruin it.

“At Cinnabar,” says Keane, “we’re committed to doing what we do best.”

Sonoma County Library