The show must go on … but it ain’t cheap.
The St. Petersburg City Theatre came dramatically close to lowering the final curtain this year. When the 92-year-old nonprofit’s coffers ran dry in 2016, the board of directors went into survival mode: All four paid employees were discharged. Directors, lighting designers and set builders were told there was no money to pay them. Volunteers took on extra jobs.
With monthly expenses exceeding $7,000 and creditors banging on the door, the theater somehow managed to squeak by, even putting on an abridged season of shows for 2016-2017.
“We paid off all of the debts, and we have money in the bank now,” says Sharon Cook, who served as president during that tenuous time. “But we couldn’t see how to do it another year the way we did it the previous year.”
The 58-year-old building on 31st St. S. was paid for long ago, but it’s in need of repair — a new chiller system for the functional-but-ancient air conditioner will cost $150,000, and the leaky roof needs a $75,000 replacement.
For years, the theater had an executive director who paid the bills — royalty fees for plays, staff salaries, city utility services — as they came in. This pay-to-play gambit always seemed to work, although why the theater’s bookkeeping system failed, nobody can say. When the most recent executive director was let go, an audit revealed that no funds had been mis-allocated, as was first suspected.
The St. Petersburg City Theatre simply ran out of gas.
The first cries for help went up a decade ago, when it was still known as the St. Petersburg Little Theatre. State, county and city arts grants were drying up fast — the trickle-down effect from America’s sagging economy. And no community theater, ever, has lived long and prospered on ticket sales alone.
As time passed, the belt was drawn tighter, until there was no belt left.
“I think it was taken for granted for a long time,” theorizes Lisa Marone, vice president of the 2017-2018 board. “No fault of anyone’s. But as downtown St. Pete got so much recognition, this was just surviving. They own the building and they own the land. There was never any real push to go beyond, I think.”
Marone was one of a group of citizens, with little or no community theater experience, who pleaded with Sharon Cook’s board to give them a chance at revitalizing the place. The outgoing board, Cook told them, was tired — shoring up the business was hard work, especially on an all-volunteer basis — and doubted whether it could be done.
But Marone and fellow advocate Mardi Bessolo put on such a convincing argument that they were voted in — with Bessolo, who came equipped with a strategic “save the theater” plan — named board president.
The idea is to raise the St. Petersburg City Theatre’s profile through a constant, chatty presence at area charity events, and on social media — and to focus on fundraising. The new board is on the hunt for sponsors.
The 251-seat theater can also be rented out as an event venue. “When you’ve been around for 92 years, and you’ve done theater productions, you just aren’t necessarily thinking about having some music come in,” Marone says. “I think it just didn’t change with the times.”
Both Bessolo and Marone think of the St. Petersburg City Theatre as one of the jewels in the city’s cultural crown. And although there have been decades’ worth of Agatha Christie, Neil Simon and Rodgers & Hammerstein productions — entertaining thousands, if not millions of local families — community theaters are perceived by some as antiquated and unnecessary.
The newly-appointed president and vice president would beg to differ. Both have children enrolled in the St. Petersburg City Theatre’s summer camps — the only program that continued to turn a profit when things got tough — and, like so many parents before them, have seen a tremendous rise in their kids’ self-esteem and socialization skills.
And it’s fun.
They want to emphasize the community in community theater, and that means direct community support; increasing membership numbers is another priority.
“Eighty-five percent of your support is going to come from individual memberships, from people,” explains Marone. “We have members, but it’s a low number. So our focus is going to be on increasing the membership — and the awareness. That’s the way things get done; we’re going to talk to everybody about it.”
In the meantime, there will be no 2017-2018 season of plays. All the passion and energy of the new board is going into building a strong foundation for the “new” St. Petersburg City Theatre. They call it a “regrouping.”
Marone’s vision is for the theater, with bright new commitments from the community it’s served for almost a century, to rise again, phoenix-like.
A cockeyed optimist? Time will tell.
“With the positivity in me, it’s so hard to say that yes, there’s a possibility the theater won’t make it,” she says. “Because I don’t want to believe it. I have to walk in that positivity, in that belief that we’re going to keep it going.”
Learn more about St. Petersburg City Theatre at spcitytheatre.org.