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Volunteers preserve live theatre despite limited budgets

February 25, 2019
In this Wednesday evening, Feb. 13, 2019 photo, director Jeanne Skattum, center, one of the co-founders of the Rochester Repertory Theatre, works with cast members during a rehearsal of the theater's production of "Avenue Q" in Rochester, Minn. The Rep, as it's called, is surviving into its 35th year. (Joe Ahlquist/The Rochester Post-Bulletin via AP)

ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) — To many of us, $100,000 might seem like a lot of money.

But when Greg Miller, former artistic director of Rochester Civic Theatre, announced recently that he had raised $100,000 to launch his own theater venture, he also said it wasn’t enough to get started and the project would not go forward.

When it comes to live theater, apparently $100,000 is barely enough to open the curtains and turn on the lights — or buy the lights, for that matter.

“I knew going into it that $100,000 wasn’t going to get him anything,” James Douglass, co-founder of Rochester’s Absolute Theatre, who has been involved in stage ventures here for the past 25 years, told the Post-Bulletin. “Everything you need to operate a theater — the lights, the microphones — is so expensive.”

“It’s a hard business, it’s expensive,” said Kevin Miller, executive director of Rochester Civic Theatre.

How then to explain the survival of the Rochester Repertory Theatre, which is in the middle of its 35th season? During all that time, several other theater ventures have come and gone.

“We really operate on a shoestring,” said Merritt Olsen, vice-president of the Rep’s board of directors. “Our annual budget is a little over $100,000.”

Olsen, who has managed theater companies in Iowa and South Dakota, moved to Rochester a few years ago and immediately jumped into the community’s busy stage scene.

“I was amazed to come into this town and see a theater like the Rep that has been able to survive for 35 years,” Olsen said. “It’s been a labor of love. We have a teeny-tiny honorarium for directors, but we’re riding a dream and the passion of a lot of very talented folks who have decided they’re going to keep this as an outlet for their creativity.”

Passion, though, doesn’t pay the bills. For that, the Rep relies on a combination of ticket income, donations and the efforts of dozens of volunteers who do everything from gathering props to cleaning toilets.

“Primarily how we stay afloat is a lot of passionate volunteers,” said Mark Masbruch, president of the Rep’s board. “It’s really the only way.”

The Rep and Absolute are in the same boat. Neither receives the kind of city funding that goes to the Civic Theatre ($200,000 in 2018), which also performs in a facility owned by the city. The Civic lists 24 corporate and individual gifts of more than $5,000 in its most recent playbill. By contrast, the Rep lists four and Absolute lists two.

“Rochester is a unique situation because the Civic is city-owned,” Douglass said. “I think it has stunted the growth of other theaters in town. We don’t have those advantages.”

Absolute, however, has been able to rent performance space at the Civic, which has one of the most flexible and advanced theater venues in the city.

Absolute pays its actors and technical staff a token amount. But like the Rep, Absolute relies on volunteers for much of its operation.

“It’s a lot of work,” Douglass said. “I think burnout is a problem.”

“The challenge you have,” said Olsen, “is keeping all these people over a period of time.”

Again, though, volunteers can only do so much. Eventually, the bills for everything from utilities to royalties come due. Even healthy ticket sales don’t guarantee financial solvency.

“The tickets just help keep your head above water,” said Kevin Miller at the Civic. “At the end of the day, it’s philanthropy. Engaging a donor base is the difference between surviving and mucking along.”

Local theater artists say they want every stage company to succeed.

“It’s really important that these other theaters survive and thrive,” Miller said. “The more people who have the tradition of going out to live theater, the better off the theaters are.”

Surviving and thriving — the Rep has shown it can be done, even on a shoestring.

“I think any time a theater survives for 35 years, you have to scratch your head,” Olsen said. “That’s way beyond the stats for theaters.”

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Information from: Post-Bulletin, http://www.postbulletin.com