Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Competition Bad, Monopoly Good

From an article in the Press-Citizen:

In a letter addressed to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, The Englert Theatre raised concerns about the proposed Coralville Center for the Performing Arts.

In a letter, dated April 9, the board questioned if the new center, scheduled to open in fall 2009, would threaten the financial viability of the Englert.

The letter asks: "Can our small geographic area support two theaters of similar size and mission within a couple of miles of each other?

"The new theater will have the effect -- intended or not -- of seriously jeopardizing the Englert's ability to remain open by directly competing for performers, donors and audience members."

The letter was e-mailed to the supervisors and was signed "Warm regards, The Board of Directors and Staff of The Englert Theatre."

I have a few points to make, in no random order, since I'm shooting this off quickly before getting to work. I apologize for the hasty writing, which always includes too many commas and sentences that go all directions.

Key quotes from the letter the Englert wrote:

After the Englert closed in 1999, hundreds of volunteers contributed countless hours and raised over $5.2 million to reopen Iowa City's last historic theater as a community performance space. It was a grassroots effort by ordinary people who had extraordinary vision, passion and commitment. . . .

Approximately $100,000 of our yearly revenue is generated by renting the Englert to various community groups. An additional $20,000 to $30,000 of revenue comes from collaborations with community theater groups and non-profit organizations. We anticipate that in the short term the new Coralville theater will take half or more of that revenue away from the Englert. Some organizations will use the new theater because the city requires them to choose it over the Englert (as with City Circle Acting Company) or it may be selected simply because of its novelty as a new building. Others may use it because a facility subsidized by the city may be able to offer a lower cost than our independent non-profit organization, which currently receives no city funding.
(emphasis mine)

1) The Englert started out as a venue for local artists, yes. However, in the process it became something quite different. I know Iowa City Community Theatre (ICCT), for one, started out thinking the Englert would be their new home and they could finally move out of the Barn and onto a real stage. They donated a significant amount of money to the Englert with the understanding that they wouldn't have to pay much rent and be the "resident theater" for the venue. However, things got messed up somewhere along the line. There may have been a contract signed back in those early days to that effect - I know people who saw one, but no one has been able to produce a copy. And the Englert ended up charging fairly astronomical fees, making it impossible to do anything but the biggest musicals in the venue - musicals being historically the biggest money-makers. Not only that, but last I heard they charged $100 to "use" their concession stand, plus all profits from concessions went to the Englert, not the theater group. And even if the venue didn't charge high fees, the number of potential seats drive up the cost of purchasing the rights to the most musicals. Bottom line: any shows that even have the possibility of making enough money to afford the Englert as a venue must be chosen very, very carefully if these small non-profit theaters wish to avoid bankrupting themselves by losing money on the shows.

Local groups have used the Englert: City Circle, ICCT, and now Catalyst have done a few shows there, sometimes more than one per year. But they can't afford to do it on a regular basis, and so far Dreamwell can't afford to do it at all. This is a shame, because edgy, alternative material - or just even your average non-musical play - has about zero chance of being performed there by local actors. We simply don't have the funds. City Circle is performing here, there, and everywhere. Dreamwell is doing the same, since it lost it's space in the Old Capitol Center so soon after it had settled there: Arts A La Carte and the Universalist Church have been two recent venues. Not even City Circle Shorts (formerly known as the New Play Festival) - a showcase of locally written short plays with no royalties whatsoever - could be performed in the Englert. Which is a damn shame, and I can say that this year without bias because for the first time I didn't have a play in it, or perform in it. An entire evening devoted to local art, and the Englert is not a viable option. So much for being a community venue.

2) City Circle is in need of a space. Oakdale Auditorium isn't really viable anymore, for several reasons. Their Stephen Arnold Studio is pretty much unusable, since it and the area around it is now part of the whole River Landing renovation. They've taken to creative methods for hosting shows, playing them in the Children's Museum in the mall, the Marriott or once in the Coralville pool. They've also used the Englert, but it's just not economically possible to do so for the smaller things like the New Play Festival, or any non-musical plays. So the city has graciously agreed to build them a space. Cool. It will also be smaller than the Englert, negating some of those royalty fees. Even cooler. I presume there's even enough of a rent break that they might be able to do all their shows there. How cool is that?! That's pretty much what the Englert promised ICCT back before they got delusions of grandeur.

3) Sorry, my bias is showing. The misunderstanding early in the process of renovating the Englert has led to some hard feelings on the part of some local performers, who worked their asses off raising funds for the project. I wasn't there at the time, but I know plenty of people who were, and I'm rather vicariously annoyed on their behalf. These were the people the Englert cited as raising all that money for renovation. The time and effort they spent trying to save the Englert, only to feel like they were turned on once the project attracted real money . . . . To their credit, the Englert has done quite a bit to try to mend fences, and as far as I can tell everything was pretty much water under the bridge in the past year or two. The Englert became the place to do the big shows, and the local theaters kept looking around for viable places to do the rest of the repertoire, accepting that instead of a community venue we basically got a mini-Hancher to rent out. Until now, that is.

You're honestly going to praise the efforts of the local theater community in helping to raise millions to create this venue, and then simultaneously bitch because these same people might have a choice to go elsewhere at lesser rates once you've totally turned your back on the very vision you enticed them with in the first place?
(Side Note: When I have more time, I'll start pulling the quotes from old Press Citizen articles. [See the update below for my first efforts.] I may not have been there at the time, but I've researched this well - the entire project was publically billed by the Englert itself as a community performance space at the time fundraising occurred; it wasn't until later that they decided to go the mini-Hancher route. There's a bunch of old articles out there somewhere with the quotes to prove it, I've just got to find the links either in my Side Notes archives or back on the former blog).

I predict there is going to be quite a buzz in the theater community by the Englert's attempt to assert a monopoly on good performance space. The old resentment is going to surface, and for good reason.

I'd advise the Englert board to rethink this position. If not, I seriously hope the Johnson County Board of Supervisors gives them a smack down for trying to interfere with Coralville's plans. Complaining because someone else is trying to muscle in on your high-priced show? What is this, the theater mafia?


UPDATE: Because I just can't leave this alone . . .

Go here to read Dweeze's old article back when Eric Kerschner had to resign from the Englert due to some of the fallout between local artists and the venue when the "vision" suddenly changed. He was there at the beginning of the fundraising and is one of the people who got shafted. Some quotes:
First, there weren’t promises. There was an agreement. A contract. Some of the terms of that contract have been honored by the Englert. Some haven’t. But if push came to shove, I am confident we could prove the existence of that contract in court. Second, there was a reason that the amount we offered per ticket worked out to be so much higher than the flat rental rate. That’s because that ticket price would have included funds for rehearsal time. Finally, we were upset not because he refused to honor the terms, but because by his words and deeds he showed that he didn’t think we were a particularly worthy organization for the facility and that he didn’t think community performers in general were appropriate. . . .

We, the performing artists of the community, realize that the things that were talked about when the project first started have changed. We realize that goals change, that things that once seemed realistic might not now be realistic. We understand that fact. We are willing to adapt. What we want, though, is a fair and open discussion about these things, not handshakes and press statements designed to get people off the Englert director’s back. We want results, not glad handing.

I was also on the ICCT board at about the time the Kerchner thing went down (though I left shortly thereafter and haven't been involved there since except as an actor) and can attest to the nasty attitude and public pressure to just forget about the promises made. I've also found some of the old articles by running through the old blog's post list. Go here, here, and here to read the rah-rah articles from back when the Englert was looking for funding by billing itself as a performance space for local artists. One key quote from June 2003:
It will be the Iowa City Community Theatre's residence, as well as being available to all other troupes. There will be lectures, readings, radio broadcasts, slide and travel presentations, dance performances, auctions, fashion shows, meetings, weddings, receptions, fundraisers and award ceremonies. Not to mention all types of music performances, including "popular operas."
(Emphasis mine.) Kinda seems to lend credence to the claims of ICCT members that they were misled, no? But it's funny - last I looked ICCT was still out at the barn (thanks to the Johnson County Fairgrounds it is affordable), hauling their stuff in and out every summer so they can bring the cows in for the county fair. Or how about this one from August of 2000:
The Englert is envisioned as a low-cost venue for more than 50 community-based performing groups that have been identified as probable users.

(Emphasis again mine.) Pardon me while I snort pop out my nose.

I'm also hoping Nelle will weigh in on this one, as she has been involved with ICCT for years (in fact, she cast me in my first show when I returned after a gagillion-year hiatus from acting), and has much more first-hand knowledge.


Speaking of theater, check out the very excellent production of Little Women by City Circle acting company, being performed at . . . the Children's Museum.

Meanwhile, back at the barn, Man with a Load of Mischief is opening soon at ICCT.

I've been a little lax posting details of new shows and auditions, since Matt's very awesome Iowa City Theater Blog is now available for all the latest updates. Check it out for more details, and reviews by local artists. I know there's talk of getting together a 24-hour play thing sometime soon, so you might want to keep an eye out if you feel like writing, directing, or acting on the fly.

UPDATE UPDATE: I guess the Stephen Arnold space is not as unusable as I thought, according to an email I've received. But still, I don't think it's appropriate for a majority of the shows - too small, and it needs a serious cleaning.

(NOTE: I changed this around a bit to put the Englert quotes higher in the post. Like I said, I'm sorry this isn't more coherent, but I'm trying to write this on the fly and actually earn some money this morning. The balance isn't working in my favor so far, and I don't feel I can justify the time it usually takes me to flit back through and clean up all my convoluted sentences.

And thanks to State 29 for the link - I've deliberately kept this a much lower-ranked, and much more personal, blog than the old one for anonymity/career purposes, but the numbers come in handy when you've really got something to say.)

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE: Matt weighs in - he was there from the beginning as well.

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