ORLEANS — The year began with the Academy Playhouse rolling out plans for a $4 million campaign that included a renovation and expansion of its historic theater that would increase accessibility. It ended with an announcement from the Academy of Performing Arts trustees that the theater would take an “intermission” for four months and its staff would be laid off.
“The idea and the need and concept to renovate that building is still a very important thing long-term for the organization, that's for sure,” trustees chair Peter Brown said in an interview. “That being said, over the course of particularly the last year and a half, we've seen a dwindling revenue situation with the theater. Our attendance has been off. That's really what caused the difficult financial situation we're in today from an operating perspective. So our decision was that to try to do some theater productions this winter would be very, very difficult.”
During the first four months of 2019, a consultant will be working with the Academy “looking at things we need to do to strengthen our board, expand and strengthen our volunteer pool, and very carefully look at what we're offering there,” Brown said. “We need to become a more relevant performing arts center so that in addition to doing the outstanding theater productions we have done over the years, we have to look at concerts, perhaps dance, and how better to integrate the school into the things we have. All of that aims toward looking at our patrons and things of current interest to them being able to expand our revenue base.”
Brown said he admires the diverse programming of organizations such as Cotuit Center for the Arts, Yarmouth's Cultural Center of Cape Cod, and Wellfleet Preservation Hall. At the same time, he's aware of the strong reputation the Playhouse has earned.
Artistic Director Peter Earle “has been a leader in the art community on the Cape for a long time,” Brown said. “I can't remember the total number of plays he's done; it must be 200 or more.” Earle was laid off along with Technical Director Geof Newton and Marketing and Communications Director Ellen Birmingham. Newton and Birmingham “have acted in many of our plays and we certainly hope they'll be able to continue” doing that, Brown said. Part of the planning process ahead involves finding ways to pay stipends to the actors who volunteer their talents.
Brown recalled fondly some of Earle's productions, including the recent “Spamalot” and “Camelot” combo (“incredible things”) and “Les Miserables.”
“We did that two years in a row in the summer,” Brown said, “and it virtually sold out. When Peter put that on the first time, we said, 'How can you do that?' Well, he did it using props, cameras and a great cast. It was a stunning show.”
Despite such successes, the board had to address the overall picture of declining revenues. “The ultimate boss in any business is the customer,” Brown said. “If I'm not reading your paper, you're not typing.”
Part of the work of the next four months will be to engage the board and the wider community in understanding what sort of programming is desired for the theater. The $4 million fund-raising campaign is on hold, but the trustees wanted to raise $30,000 by the end of 2018 “to get through the next four months,” Brown said. “Gas and electric and insurance need to be paid.”
Meanwhile, the Academy's performing arts classes will continue, with hopes of creating more opportunities in the future for students to use their talents at the theater. “We do recitals twice a year at the middle school,” Brown said. “Usually 600 people come to watch. The talent you see from these young people is phenomenal.”
Brown hopes the community will let the board know its thoughts about the future of the theater and become involved in creating those visions. During the “intermission,” he said in a press statement, “We intend to create a few events and open the doors to anyone who wants to come. The idea is to provide a fun, light evening with a focus on updates on where we are in this process. We may be closing for four months, but we do not ever want anyone to think we are closed. The Academy has always been about community and bringing people together. We do not intend to change the core of who we are; we will remain open and engaged with the Academy community.”