Lunchtime Theatre Musings: Pasadena Playhouse Financial Woes

We have been Pasadena Playhouse subscribers since the 1987-1988 season, when we received a season subscription to the playhouse as a KCRW subscriber premium. This was when they were still renovating their mainstage, and productions were up in the Balcony Theatre (our first production was “Down an Alley Filled with Cats”; I also remember “Death of a Buick” up there). It was the season after the successful musical “Mail”, and shortly after the reopening of the Playhouse after a long period of decline. We’ve been with the Playhouse during the Susan Dietz and Lars Hansen era, during the abortive attempt to establish a regional circuit with Santa Maria and Santa Barbara. We’ve been there through Paul Lazarus, and during the current (seemingly successful) era with Sheldon Epps as artistic director.

I mention this because of an article I uncovered during today’s lunchtime reading. The LA Culture Monster blog (lat_cultrmnstr) “Monster Mash” alerted me to an article in the Pasadena Star-News about the Pasadena Playhouse’s financial woes. Evidently, their new managing director, Stephen Eich (who just came over from the Geffen), discovered bank debts of $1.5M carried over from the early 1990s (i.e., the aforementioned Dietz/Hansen/Lazarus era), including year-old accounts payable to vendors of between $600K and $700K. He is attempting to “right the ship” (so to speak): paring staff, increasing fund raising, and attempting to better communicate the importance of the institution. The article noted that the playhouse has 7,500 subscribers, and ticket sales account for 45% of the $7 million budget, with the remainder coming from contributions, concessions and rentals. The article also noted that donations and pledges from the 31-member board have brought in $550,000 in the past month. The funds will go to vendor debt reduction, as well as a survival plan to see the playhouse through the end of the year.

I’ll note that when the boom was still going on, the Playhouse had some ambitious plans, including creating a multi-theatre complex encompassing the former J.H. Biggar property.

There are a few interesting observations here. First, none of the depth of this financial problem has been communicated to subscribers. This is the first I heard of it. This isn’t a good way to treat your subscribers, especially as ticket prices at the Playhouse have been dramatically rising in price over the last five years. In fact, I was hearing grumbling from some long time subscribers sitting near us about the increase in price when we attended Saturday night. Another factor in the problems might be the programming instability. Productions are being announced, and then cancelled and replaced (again, with little notice to subscribers). This hinders the ability to market the season and draw in subscribers, and donations. For example, in June they promised a seven-show season, and then cancelled down to six shows, with little clear communication about the funds they collected for the seventh-show.

We have renewed for next year already (the announcements went out in June), but having read this article, I’m going to be keeping a closer eye on the Playhouse and its stability. The institution does good artistically; I’m hoping the new executive director can bring some stability.

ETA: More info from the LA Times.