Theaters are high cost, high reward

March 13, 2011|By Spence Perry

The smartly but casually dressed crowds moved quickly by on city sidewalks. The shops were busy, the restaurants doing good business. The notice on the marquee read: Metropolitan Opera 2 p.m. Symphony 8 p.m.

Was this Broadway at 65th Street, home of the Lincoln Center in New York City? Nope. This scene was in downtown Gettysburg, just off the square on a lovely day last October.

This is a scene repeated at theaters all across southeastern and southcentral Pennsylvania, at the Weinberg Center in Frederick, Md., at the performance spaces in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va.

Here in Hagerstown, the career of the much-loved Maryland Theatre has been more problematic. There have been capital investment shortfalls, operational funding and staffing issues. And all the while the theater has lurched from mildly good times to horrendous passages.

What are the detectable differences between community theaters that work well and those that have difficulties?

First, the theaters that work well have strong and continuing support from local government. It is almost impossible in this era to have a municipal theater with no municipal support. It is from this source that the costly capital improvements are most likely to be funded.

Many of the more prosperous theaters have ties to local colleges or universities. The LeVan Performing Arts Center (Gettysburg College), the Luhrs Center (Shippensburg University), the Shenandoah and Shenandoah University facilities are examples.

The successful venues also have large and consistent private-sector support, particularly from families of individuals with a continuing interest in the performing arts. While locally controlled businesses still have important roles, the slow erosion of this sector here resulted in somewhat less support from this sector. National firms do offer aid, but it is not likely to be as generous or as responsive as that of local businesses.

Because of their relative financial stability, the successful theaters are able to sponsor full "seasons" and summer of performances, offering both variety and consistency, enabling prospective audience members to either plan ahead or be spontaneous in their participation. This approach tends to increase ticket sales and widen appeal.

The Maryland Theatre, building on its base, could become a consistently successful venue but it has not been able to do so alone and, in fact, it cannot do so alone.

State, city and county governments must rethink their relationship to the theater.

Their support must be generous! These sources have become somewhat more forthcoming in the last two years, but just as importantly their support must be maintained over time.

The theater must maintain existing associations with local educational institutions and seek out new ones — including Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, Hagerstown Community College and Kaplan University.

These relationships must go beyond an occasional event or an annual rental agreement. The theater's relationship with the MSO must be rethought. The Maryland Symphony Orchestra is by far the largest theater customer and would be hard-pressed to continue should the theater not be available.

The theater has, from time to time, had large and generous givers. They have, however, been oriented toward capital projects rather than funding ongoing operations. Apart from the endowment level given, the theater has problems attracting more modest givers.

Most people who attend a theater event feel they have made a contribution to the theater in the price of their tickets. They have, but so small as to not make the big difference the theater needs. Consistent fundraising is needed if the theater is to survive, and this requires deadly serious, mature governance.

It can be done. The Majestic theater at the LeVan Performing Arts Center (Gettysburg), the Luhrs Center (Shippensburg, Pa.), The Capitol Theatre (Chambersburg, Pa.), the Weinberg Center for the Arts (Frederick, Md.), the Carlisle Theatre (Carlisle, Pa.), as well as theaters in Lancaster, Pa., Hanover, Pa., and Winchester, Va., all point the way.

What we as a community must do is accept the necessity of a local theater as being essential to our cultural life. We must be realistic about the cost: high — The Majestic and Luhrs $15 million plus; the Capitol more than $5 million but payable over time.

We must help The Maryland Theatre generate the cooperation and enthusiasm crucial to this long-term task.

Spence Perry is a Hagerstown resident.

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