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Theater Closings Hit Atlanta

February 5, 1991

ATLANTA (AP) _ In 1987, Atlanta’s Academy Theatre, which had bounced from one location to another for 31 years, moved into what founder Frank Wittow called its permanent home - a new building with three performance spaces.

It turned out to be its permanent and last home. Burdened by heavy debts, the Academy was forced to shut down last spring without completing its season.

The building was taken over by Atlanta’s largest theater company, The Alliance, which has a $400,000 debt of its own.

″If we don’t run it, it’s going to be a parking lot,″ said Kenny Leon, the Alliance’s artistic director. ″If we come out even, that’s all I care about.″

With costs rising and public and private financial help dwindling, coming out even is a trick Atlanta’s arts community would like to learn. Knowing things are worse elsewhere is small consolation.

Around the country, at least 15 major theaters have closed in 1990, according to Fedapt, a New York City-based consulting organization that works with the performing arts. They include: Actors Theatre of St. Paul, Minn.; Philadelphia Theatre Company; Ruth Foreman Theatre, Miami; Playmakers, Tampa, Fla.; Alaska Repertory Theatre, Anchorage; Directors Theatre, Los Angeles; Gas Lamp Quarter Theatre, San Diego; and the Chelsea Stage (formerly Hudson Guild Theatre), New York City.

Atlanta’s Academy was reorganized as the Phoenix Academy and is operating - but without a home. Some of the other theater companies that were shut down also are operating again.

And theaters aren’t the only arts institutions suffering from a troubled economy. Most of the nation’s symphony orchestras and dance companies also have fallen into debt or face harsh financial times.

Fourteen Atlanta groups, ranging from theater companies to chamber music players, decided finding ways to cut costs wasn’t enough and sought help from Fedapt.

″There is no quick fix,″ cautioned George Thorn of Fedapt. ″Every arts organization I know is attempting to function 30 to 50 percent above its available financial and human resources. Some are accumulating horrendous debt.

″The result is an increase of human debt or burnout. Just look in the eyes of arts professionals. We need to ask ourselves what are our essential programs and bring into balance what we must do with our human and financial resources,″ he said.

Tom Bacchetti, executive director of the Atlanta Symphony, said his organization’s debt declined a little last year. But, he said, ″Our funding drive did not make its goal for the first time in a decade.″

Some Atlanta companies are trying new approaches designed to increase their income or strengthen themselves in other ways.

The Alliance, which has 21,000 season subscribers, has begun an ″adopt a board member″ program. Letters have gone out to board members informing them they’ve been adopted by an Alliance staff member.

″People will see how we hang lights and get to try their hand at it,″ Janece Shaffer, an Alliance spokeswoman said.

The Atlanta Shakespeare Company is trying a form of dinner theater, billed as ″beer and the Bard,″ with food and drink optional.

While the 1996 Summer Olympics figure to boost Atlanta’s arts, it’s too soon to make any specific commitments, said Atlanta Organizing Committee spokesman Bob Brennan.

He said the committee that will stage the games will spend $29 million on cultural events, beginning with $5 million in 1993, but plans are still being formulated.

″We will tap the enormous talent and energies of the Atlanta arts community,″ Brennan said. ″We would be foolish if we didn’t.″

Meanwhile, city officials are trying to get a better idea of what the Olympics committee will do before it acts on a ″blueprint for the arts″ submitted by local arts leaders. The blueprint calls for increased funding and renovation of certain facilities.

Economist Donald Ratajczak said theater attendance in Atlanta is hurt by a long-distance commuting lifestyle.

″The average Atlanta commuter travels 22 miles a day, the longest in the country,″ he said. ″People spend so much time commuting they don’t have time for anything else.″

Rita Carter, managing director of The Theatrical Outfit, says the arts community can’t wait for the Olympics. The Outfit, located in an old building surrounded by lots cleared for a major development that didn’t come off, is considering a move to a new space it hopes theatergoers will find more attractive.

Leon said the Alliance is hiring fewer out-of-town actors and has trimmed its expenses. But he cautioned, ″If we try to make arts organizations function the way IBM functions, we’re headed down a dead-end street.″

IBM’s Jim Deupree concurred.

″But you can apply some of the principles,″ said Deupree, the company’s account development director for the South.

Deupree is promoting a plan involving joint fund raising and soliciting joint bids for printing and dry cleaning contracts.

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