The economic downturn has been felt at virtually every arts organization in America, but Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre Company has taken a bigger hit than most. As Producing Artistic Director Karyl Lynn Burns noted, Ventura isn’t home to a lot of corporate headquarters, and the big-pocket donors the company has found inhabit hard-hit sectors of the economy, such as real estate and banking.
During the past weeks, the company has been doing the difficult work of reconciling its ambitious artistic agenda with the reality of decreased donations. Under the direction of its new chief financial officer, Patricia Baldwin, it has cut its annual budget from $3.2 million to $1.8 million. This required revamping affects its current season, substituting smaller-cast shows for such planned productions as The Miracle Worker and The Tempest.
“I’m extremely confident that we can find good material that is affordable, and that we can continue to produce that material at the standard of quality we have in the past,” said Artistic Director James O’Neil. “I’m not disparaging one- or two- or three- or four-person shows. There are many good ones. But it’s also important to tell stories of scope. Hopefully this period [of austerity] will not last too long.”
“Our priority this year is to reduce expenses while maintaining artistic quality and integrity,” said Burns, noting the board has agreed to a two-year plan. “We’re not raising ticket prices. Employees of other corporations are also taking salary cuts. We’re mission-driven; we want to keep theater affordable and accessible.”
She added, “Our production budget will be frozen for next year. We might do fewer shows, but they’ll be the most compelling, exciting shows we can do.”
The company has several hurdles to clear before it gets to next season, however. First, it has to raise enough money to keep the doors open between now and April, when its cash flow will turn positive (according to the projections of its new two-year plan). Then it needs to get through the current season with a reduced staff, which is down to the equivalent of 10 full-time employees-all of whom have taken pay cuts of 10-40 percent.
The company’s annual holiday show, A Rubicon Family Christmas, will go on as scheduled, running through December 27. The rest of the season (subscriptions and single tickets are now on sale at 667-2900 or rubicontheatre.org) looks like this:
• Doubt (Jan. 30-Feb. 21): Jenny Sullivan directs John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a clash of wills between a priest and a nun. Two Rubicon veterans, Joseph Fuqua (Hamlet) and Robin Pearson Rose (All My Sons), play the lead roles.
• Trying (Mar. 13-Apr. 4): Joanna McClelland Glass’s fact-based drama about the relationship between an elderly jurist and his young secretary, originally scheduled to run this past fall, will star Robin Gammell and Angela Goethals. Sullivan directs.
• Crimes of the Heart (Apr. 24-May 16): Beth Henley’s dark comedy set in the Deep South, another Pulitzer Prize winner, will be directed by O’Neil.
The company will then present two short-run shows for current subscribers only. The first of these, In All Honesty, is a world premiere absurdist comedy written by Quinn Sosna-Spear, a 17-year-old Dos Pueblos High School student. The production, running June 2-13, will feature a group of Santa Barbara-based actors including Dan Gunther, Robert Lesser, and Nancy Nufer.
It will be followed September 1-12 by Address Unknown, a new adaptation by veteran director Moni Yakim of Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s Holocaust-era novel. Plans call for the 2010-11 season to open in October with a staged reading of The Tempest.
Baldwin, who devised and is implementing the two-year economic plan, served as managing director of Santa Barbara’s Ensemble Theatre Company for a decade beginning in 1993, and then spent three years as Rubicon’s financial director. Burns, who nudged her out of retirement to guide the company through this difficult period, called Baldwin “a tough, savvy manager.” She is being assisted by consultants from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., who are providing advice free of charge as part of a program to support struggling regional theaters.
“Our ticket sales are very strong,” Burns reported. “Our renewal rate is still more than 80 percent, which is very good. Our customers are very loyal.” But like most theater companies, Rubicon gets only half its budget from ticket sales and other earned income; the remainder must come from grants and donations. In addition, the company has to gradually pay down its $1.2 million long-term debt, which it incurred when it bought its building, a former church on Main Street in downtown Ventura.
“It’s going to be tough for a while,” Burns said. “But we have a good plan, and we feel that if we share that with members of the community, they’ll feel confident about us and help us with some bridge funding.”