‘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.
“One thing that sets us apart from a lot of others is that we don’t have any paid employees,” says Taylor Bartolucci, co-founder and artistic director of Napa’s Lucky Penny productions, which became a nonprofit in 2011. The company opened its own 100-seat space, the Lucky Penny Community Arts Center, in January 2015, and is getting ready to open a run of The Miracle Worker. “Most companies of our size have at least one or two people on staff. That means that Barry [Martin] and I do a lot of the work, probably spending more time here than we do at our full-time jobs.”
One motivation for that, says Bartolucci, is to allow Lucky Penny to buck the trend of most nonprofit theaters who aggressively remind audiences that only a half or less of their operating costs come from ticket sales. Though Lucky Penny has received a number of individual donations since opening—including targeted gifts to allow the company to install seats, air conditioning and new PA system—the majority of its slim operating budget is supported through revenues from productions, says Martin, co-founder and managing director.
“I never liked the feeling of having to be constantly asking, asking, asking for money,” he says, while allowing that the company does still depend on a certain amount of contributed income. “Our model is to try to keep costs down, and quality high, so we can earn a larger percentage of what we need.”
“But we also want to keep tickets prices as low as possible,” adds Bartolucci, “so we know we can’t get 100 percent of our budget from ticket sales. We still have to rely on the kindness of, not strangers, but supporters. . . . Just not as much as some companies do.”
Spreckels Theater Company, which operates two theater spaces out of the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, though definitely part of a nonprofit agency, is not a nonprofit in the traditional sense.
“We’re a whole lot different from other theater companies in the area, because we’re a department of the city of Rohnert Park,” says managing director Gene Abravaya. “We are funded by the city, so many of the concerns that other theaters have, we don’t. That said, we have a budget that must be approved each year by the city council, and we are responsible for operating within our means.”
A piece of that budget calls for the theater company—which is part of an overall community-center operation that includes a significant rental arm—to earn a certain amount of money each year from a combination of rentals, ticket prices and fundraisers.
“We operate with the idea that our shows are a community service and, as such, are not required to charge more than $26 a seat,” Abravaya says.
Compare the $26 ticket price for Titanic to 6th Street Playhouse’s $35 maximum ticket price for its upcoming musical Red Hot Mama, or Lucky Penny’s $38 maximum price for this December’s Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical. That price cap assures that, for a theater of its size, Spreckels is among the most affordable in the North Bay.
“That’s part of our mission,” Abravaya says, “to present theater as a community service, and as such to make it as affordable as possible for everyone.
“Personally,” he adds, “I think that’s what every theater tries to do—but each one has to accomplish that according to whatever challenges they happen to have.”