Cash-strapped Theater Sees Surge Of Support

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Local Theater

Harwich Junior Theatre.  ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

WEST HARWICH Facing a budget crisis, the nonprofit Cape Cod Theatre Company – Home of the Harwich Jr. Theatre is hoping that a surge in donations will stem the shortfall before it becomes a showstopper.

Theater officials haven't specified the size of the deficit, which prompted them to lay off the organization's education director early this year, and forced them to pare back outreach programs. But two recent matching grants – one for $10,000 and one for $20,000 from the Davenport Arts Foundation – are reason for optimism, Producing Artistic Director Nina Schuessler said.

“They could substantially put us over the hump,” she said.

Recent years have been transformative ones for the 65-year-old organization, which changed its name, shortened its summer season, and expanded its offerings well beyond traditional children's theater.

“Theater's a risky business. It just is,” Schuessler said. The organization has traditionally relied too heavily on box-office receipts, she noted, and while last year was very strong, ticket sales lagged in the fall. It's a challenge for a theater that's already at a disadvantage among other community theaters.

“We don't sell alcohol with our shows. And we're not the sexy, edgy theater,” she said. There's another challenge for family theater companies, Schuessler added.

“The kids grow up fast. We have to reinvent audiences every five to seven years,” she said. Theater tickets are also discretionary spending for local families, who tend to stay home during tough economic times, she added.

The operation is an expensive one. The theater had four paid employees: Schuessler, a technical director, a part-time box-office manager, and the education and outreach director. The latter, Tamara Harper, was laid off in January after having spent 22 years with the organization. The box-office manager retired last year and her work has been taken over by volunteers.

The organization operates its 165-seat theater in West Harwich and its arts center in Harwich Center.

“We put a lot of money into that building to make it adaptable and accessible,” Schuessler said. And the stage was recently rebuilt at the theater. The organization has recently spent around $100,000 on building repairs and improvements, “just very basic, crucial needs. Not even counting when the pipes froze,” she said.

Concerns about the theater's finances came to a head in a board meeting on March 21. Among those who spoke was Rob Zapple, a supporter of the theater for most of his life. Zapple observed that the financial challenges “have been building for over a decade,” and he credited the board for focusing on the issue, but questioned “a series of puzzling actions” made by the board in recent months. His comments were published on the Facebook page “Betty Bobp's Harwich Junior Theater.”

At the end of the meeting, the board reversed a vote made last year that would have given the board, rather than the organization's full membership, the authority to appoint board members and officers. The initial change disenfranchised many members, Zapple argued. Other members are still uncomfortable with the effort to rebrand the organization from the Harwich Junior Theatre to the Cape Cod Theatre Company – Home of the Harwich Jr. Theatre. Schuessler acknowledged that many people have a fondness for the old name, but theater officials hoped that including “Cape Cod” in the name and de-emphasizing “Junior” would help draw larger audiences.

The friction has had another result: an apparent uptick in involvement by the theater's huge number of supporters and alumni. Many have taken to social media to urge one another to contribute, and to share photos and programs from productions from decades past. And two matching grants have clearly energized the organization's donor base, Schuessler said.

The first matching grant came from the Educational Travel Alliance, a company owned by Schuessler's brother, and the $10,000 match was achieved on April 12.

On April 7, the John K. and Thirza F. Davenport Foundation offered a $20,000 challenge grant, matching donations from new donors, grants or fundraisers through June 30. DeWitt Davenport, CEO of the Davenport Companies, said the foundation is glad to help the theater.

“We are confident the leadership will gain new traction to move forward with their community outreach, production and educational programs,” he said. In a news release, Cape Cod Theatre Company board Chair Delane Moser said the grant is a great way for people to help support the organization.

“Together with the board's new policies and rigorous financial governance measures, the Foundation's generous challenge – and the community's response to it – will go a long way toward helping the theater weather a difficult financial situation and better position the organization to continue to serve the Cape community for the long term,” she said.

Meanwhile, the theater is running a successful production of “Sister Act” through April 23.

“It's phenomenal. It's through-the-roof phenomenal,” Schuessler said.

Schuessler said she's hopeful that the organization will be able to re-hire staff and restore programs.

“People are donating. I know everybody's been working hard. So many alumni have come out for many, many years in support of the theater. I'm so proud of them,” she said. “Ours is definitely a family, and it's a 65-year-old family.”

 To contribute, click here.