Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Englert Follow-Up

Matt received a response from Nancy Mayfield at the Englert regarding the article in the Press-Citizen. Go to his blog to read the whole thing. An excerpt:
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors REQUESTED a statement from the Englert about how the new theatre might affect our operations. We have all known about the Coralville performing arts center for years and are not trying to halt its progress -- in fact, we hosted the fundraiser for it, "Circle Full of Stars." The intent of the letter was to emphasize how important it will be for both spaces to work together to best serve the community.
Two quick points:
1) If this is the case, the Press-Citizen should have metioned that Johnson County requested the letter. That does put a different tone on the story. For the Englert to send the letter unsolicited appears an attempt to sabotage the plans of the new theater. To send it in response to a request makes it an honest, even if misguided, opinion of the situation.

2) I completely believe Nancy when she says she supports the new facility. I also recognize that City Circle did rent the Englert for it's "Circle Full of Stars" fundraiser. But the letter itself doesn't support this viewpoint. If you look at it, it says:
At first glance the proposed theater may seem to make a positive contribution to that environment. However, we question whether the theater will actually produce that desired effect. We believe it will instead seriously jeopardize the future of another community performance space -- The Englert Theatre -- and thereby dilute the cultural environment of the Iowa City/Coralville area as a whole. . . .

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. Financial challenges that are already difficult will be made even more so by spreading the area's supply of performers and demand by audiences too thin. Even after the renovation and the success the Englert has experience since reopening, the people of Iowa City could still lose their last historic theater.

We urge you to consider our view that financially, logistically and practically, it does not make sense for the City of Coralville to create a new theater and community performance space at the expense of an existing nonprofit theater and community performance space right down the street.

As I read it, this is not worded as "we think it's a good idea, but are afraid it will hurt us in the long run, so let's sit down and figure out how to do this so it won't hurt us." It's worded more as "we think this is not a good idea because it will hurt us in the long run, so let's talk about not doing this." While the letter may have sparked dialogue, I don't think whoever wrote it meant to convey the same sentiments Nancy is espousing. Either that, or it was very poorly written.

3) If the authors of the letter were really trying to start a collaborative dialogue, why would they not ask Chris Okiishi - who is one of the signators of the letter as he is their board - for his input? Particularly as he is both an Englert board member and president of City Circle. Or why not at least give him warning that the letter was being drafted? I can understand a thought that his input might be tainted or biased . . . if the letter's purpose were to prevent the Coralville space from being built. That would put him in an impossible position. But if the point of the letter were to start a dialogue between the groups, wouldn't his input be highly beneficial?

4) Finally, I'm still not certain what they're meaning to accomplish by this "dialogue." Let's say Coralville builds the theater. I don't think Coralville will contractually preclude City Circle from performing elsewhere. Wouldn't that impact their ability to perform at public events (4th of July Parade) or even Contest? However, City Circle may well be the "resident theater" of the Coralville space, and not wish to rent from the Englert any more. What does the Englert think should be done about that? Should we require City Circle to rent from the Englert as well? Do they want to force the Coralville venue to raise the rents high enough that the Englert is competetive again? That would simply exacerbate the problem by putting them in direct competition, and precluding local groups from having an affordable venue. Again.

And let's say that in time, other local theater companies might choose the same route - renting from Coralville as it will presumably be more affordable. Can you blame them, given the high rents the Englert charges? Yes, I understand these rents are necessary for the Englert to remain financially viable after all the money spent on new seats and the like. But the theater companies need to remain financially viable as well.

In making the extensive renovations that they did - much of which was necessary but some of which was optional, though admittedly gorgeous - the Englert pretty well knowingly priced itself out of the local theater market. Eventually, when it came time to start renting the space out, they got around to telling ICCT and the rest of the theater companies about the new price scheme. They had to charge enough rent ICCT could no longer afford to be the "resident theater," and most of the local groups couldn't afford to rent there except for very high-dollar shows. All of this despite all the fundraising and money put into the Englert by these very same groups. The Englert presented that to the community groups as: "Well, we're sorry, but as a non-profit we simply can't afford to cut our prices, and we've got to do what's best for us." In time, the groups accepted that.

Can those on the Englert board against the new theater now understand this exact same sentiment, if that's thrown back in their direction? Yes, if local theater groups choose to rent elsewhere it may impact a portion of the Englert's bottom line. But when the Englert has priced itself out of much of this market. Now, at least City Circle has a chance to have a real home in a real theater. They've got to do what's best for them, and the Englert will simply have to suck it up and understand that. Just like they asked ICCT and the other groups to do just a few years ago. It would be rather sour grapes to cry foul.

Those are just my preliminary thoughts. I'll think on this more.

UPDATE: I've added a few things, but pretty much I've reached the same conclusions. I believe there are some on the board that support the City Circle project and have from the beginning. I believe there are some on the board who would love to tank the project, but in the face of this mini-outcry are suddenly muted. But then, if there wasn't drama, it wouldn't be theater, would it? I think the public's watching this issue (my hits spiked at about 10 times the usual these past few days) and the project will go through as planned, so I'm not going to worry about it unless the situation changes.

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