Crisis at the Colony — What’s Next?

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The Colony Theatre is sounding an alarm.

A dire message greets anyone who enters the theater company’s website. It says that $49,000 must be raised within the next two weeks in order to open the Colony’s next show, The Morini Strad, on November 17 as scheduled. And another $500,000 must be raised by the end of the year “in order to discharge our obligations, produce the final two shows of the season, I’ll Be Back Before Midnight and Falling for Make Believe, and ensure that we will be here in the future.”

The Colony message contends that “the quality of our shows remains stellar — this year we received nine Ovation Award nominations, including the coveted Best Season.”

But beyond the merits of particular shows or even seasons, the fall of the Colony would be a disaster for LA theater in general.

The Colony Theatre

The Colony is a prime example of the movement during the last two decades to make LA theater more thoroughly professional, by creating mid-size spaces where Equity contracts provide something approaching a living wage, as opposed to the paltry fees offered under Equity’s 99-Seat Theater Plan. Only when Equity contracts are used — when even rehearsals are paid gigs — does theater take first priority as a full-time job in actors’ lives.

Perhaps even more important for anyone who appreciates an adventurous theater scene, the Colony devoted its entire current season to doing premieres of one kind or another — in other words, plays that are new to at least the LA area.

For the Colony to go under during this season — of all seasons — would warn other midsize producers in town that they had better play it safe, that they should program only familiar titles that will ring a Pavlovian bell among potential ticket buyers, and that they should do only small-cast shows. This could have a devastating impact on the effort to produce exciting, eye-opening productions on professional contracts throughout the entire mid-size theater sector.

Allow me to imagine an example of the kind of play-it-safe season that might result from this woeful state of affairs:

1. Mark Twain Tonight (everybody had to read about Tom and Huck in school, right?)

2. A one-man Christmas Carol (for the whole family at the holidays!)

3. Ella! (a new solo show/concert starring an Ella Fitzgerald impersonator and a pianist, as long as it attracts a Black History Month-oriented grant)

4. Will Laughs! (a compilation of scenes from Shakespeare’s comedies, arranged for two actors, as long as it can be milked to attract school groups)

5. Proof (pushing the financial envelope with a cast of four, but maybe it will attract young, alienated twentysomethings)

6. The Last Five Years (a musical with only one man, one woman, one pianist).

Louis Lotorto and Peggy Goss in “Blame it On Beckett.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

Actually, those offerings wouldn’t be too far removed from the formulaic season that’s discussed in one of the funniest moments in Blame It on Beckett, the new and sprightly satirical comedy about nonprofit theaters that the Colony offered just a few months ago.

Of course many of the larger advantages of working on an Equity contract are reduced if casts shrink to the sizes of those in this fictional season I’ve outlined. Sure, the few actors who get those jobs would benefit, but the total number of actors receiving those benefits would be so small as to void most of the effect on the overall theatrical eco-system.

Meanwhile, let’s get back to the real-life Colony. In their statement on their website, artistic director Barbara Beckley and executive director Trent Steelman reveal that the two of them have “forgone our salaries for many months, wiped out our personal savings, and maxed our personal credit cards in an effort to keep us alive.”

Their salaries in the 2010 tax year (the most recent year for which Colony tax returns are currently available on GuideStar, a website that analyzes nonprofits) were $36,767 for Beckley and $46,272 for Steelman. It’s quite apparent that they were hardly becoming rich at the Colony, even before they stopped taking their salaries.

Barbara Beckley

Beckley also told me in an email that the company has cut other costs “in every possible way, including laying off staff and reducing our production runs from five weeks to four. We also got even more creative in delivering inexpensively the production values we’ve always been known for.”

So why has the Colony run out of money?

In their statement, Beckley and Steelman write that “because of recent changes in the environment and problems with the economy, it has been very difficult to attract new subscribers, making us highly dependent on single-ticket sales. Unfortunately, these have plummeted.”

Could at least part of the “plummeting” be due to the all-premieres factor of the current season? Although Blame It on Beckett, for example, is a hilariously sharp-witted play, no one had previously heard of it, and the title sounds almost bound and determined to scare off those who are afraid of the unknown.

Rebecca Mozo and Alan Mandell in “Trying”

Beckley, however, disputes this. “Our most successful show in the past 10 years was Joanna Glass’s Trying with Alan Mandell, which was a Los Angeles premiere that ran in 2007, before the recession. In fact, it did so well, we brought it back for a special engagement the following year. On the other hand, our 2005 production of The Glass Menagerie did only average business. The primary variable affecting sales in the last few years has been the general economy.”

However, let’s look at one revenue source the Colony statement doesn’t even mention — grants and other donations.

In the program for the Colony’s most recent production (the one-man American Fiesta), only two organizations are listed in the highest level of Colony donors ($25,000 and up). And only one of them is a fairly well-known foundation — the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation. Go to the Parsons Foundation website, and you’ll learn that it gave the Colony $35,000 in 2010, on top of another $35,000 six years earlier.

Larry Cedar in “American Fiesta.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

By contrast, if you look in the latest program for A Noise Within, another mid-size nonprofit theater that’s not very distant, geographically, from the Colony, you can read that the Parsons Foundation and six other donors gave “leadership gifts” of $250,000 and above to the campaign that raised $13.4 million for the company’s new home (as of Sept. 1).

Below that level, you’ll find 13 organizations that gave between $100,000 and $250,000 to A Noise Within, eight who gave between $50,000 and $99,999, and 12 who gave between $25,000 and $49,999. That’s 32 organizations that gave more than $25,000 to A Noise Within (within the time frame reported in its latest program), compared to only two who gave at least that much to the Colony.

On the next level, donors who gave $10,000-$24,000, A Noise Within lists 39 contributors. The Colony has only three.

I have no firsthand information about the quality of the Colony’s attempts to get donations. But I offer three reasons — largely unrelated to the quality of the grant applications — why this quest might be easier for A Noise Within than it is for the Colony.

First, let me repeat — the Colony often does new plays (or at least plays that are new to this area) while A Noise Within does classics. This isn’t to say that A Noise Within’s “classics” are necessarily the tried and true — right now, for example, it’s doing Cymbeline and The Doctor’s Dilemma. Yet although you may never have seen these plays, you have heard of the writers — Shakespeare and Shaw. The fact that these are two of the lesser known works from these two giants of the theater makes them even more enticing to some of us than yet another production of these writers’ Greatest Hits would have been, and that same combination of the known and the unknown might appeal to some prospective donors.

A Noise Within has a well-known educational component. The Colony has none. When I asked Beckley about this, she replied, “Most grants are project-oriented, and lately the strongest contenders have been educational programs. We don’t have the resources for that at this time — we use our resources to get plays on the stage.”

The fact that A Noise Within was building a larger theater might actually have helped it raise money during the recent economic crisis. Many donors like to give to something solid and durable, such as buildings, as opposed to ephemeral theatrical programming — which, of course, is the main reason these particular buildings exist. This phenomenon has been widely dubbed “the edifice complex.” It will be interesting to see if A Noise Within can keep the donations flowing for its programming on the same level that it established for its building.

Trent Steelman

Still, the Colony would seem to have one advantage in the search for donations over just about any other competitor — it’s the most prominent performing arts nonprofit in the city of Burbank.

Some midsize theaters seem to gravitate to smaller municipalities within Greater LA in part so that they might stake claim to being the pride and joy of a particular city — as opposed to just one more arts organization within the city of LA. When the Colony moved into Burbank from an earlier 99-seat LA address, there must have been high hopes along these lines. And perhaps some of them have come true.

The city of Burbank is the Colony’s landlord, and Beckley tells me that the city has been “terrific. Our agreement with them has never been for direct financial support other than reduced rent, but they have been tremendously supportive in their advocacy.”

OK, so now is the time for the community of Burbank to be tremendously effective in its advocacy.

The city created a Cultural Arts Commission in 2010 — at its website, I learned that Beckley is one of its (unpaid) members. The website gushes about Burbank’s support for the arts: “Already known as the Media Capital of the world, Burbank bursts onto the scene as a vibrant, cultural arts destination for all ages! The goals are simple: to introduce and support cultural arts, provide quality art experiences, and offer exciting arts-friendly venues and businesses for every generation.”

The Colony Theatre interior

Perhaps it would be awkward for Beckley, as a member of the commission, to advocate directly for her own organization. However, when I read the minutes of the last few commission meetings that are online, I saw no mention of any discussion about the dicey financial condition of the Colony. Shouldn’t that be Topic A at the next meeting?

If not the commission, someone else should call attention to the Burbank movers and shakers that their community’s performing arts scene may be about to lose what appears to be its most important professional institution. Sure, there are a few other theaters in town — Garry Marshall’s smaller Falcon is also above the 99-seat level.  The long-lasting Victory and the newer Banshee and Grove are among those that work on the 99-seat level. But none has the professional ambitions and achievements of the Colony.

If Burbank is truly “the Media Capital of the world,” why can’t some of the studios and TV/film production companies that are headquartered in the city help support the Colony in its season of need, not only because of its inherent worth but also because theater provides a foundation for so many people who enter the TV/film industry?

I’m not a resident of Burbank, but I go to “beautiful downtown Burbank” primarily to visit the Colony. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Now is the time for Burbank to stand up on behalf of its leading performing arts attraction.

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Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.