Playhouse Merced needs cash

MERCED -- Playhouse Merced is in danger of closing its doors in February unless it gets at least $15,000 from donors in a month.

Attendance at shows remains strong, but the nonprofit group has lost major sponsors and faced cutbacks in donations in recent months, board President David Zacharias said Friday at a news conference.

"We need some serious help," he said.

The company blamed most of the diminishing donations on the housing downturn and poor economy, and said one business also told the theater it wouldn't contribute because it was giving money to Modesto's Gallo Center for the Arts instead.

Playhouse Merced has been one of the busiest theater companies in the region, staging a dozen musicals and plays a year in its two adjacent Main Street venues. Actors and audience members come from throughout the valley, including the Modesto area.

The 14-year-old nonprofit group has 300 season ticket holders and attracted a respectable attendance of 14,539 in the 2006-07 season, which ended this summer. It is on track to draw similar numbers this season, staff members said.

But as with all arts groups, ticket sales cover only a portion of costs. The company has cut back by downsizing its staff, reducing stipends for performers and designers, and using local talent rather than out-of-town artists. This season's budget is $619,500, down from $638,196 the previous season.

Just a few years ago, the company was flush with money after receiving a major bequest. The group used the cash to invest in a $100,000 renovation in 2002, replacing plastic chairs with comfortable stadium seating. Playhouse Merced also hired highly skilled talent from around the country to work on the productions. In addition, the company won a three-year, $100,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation to attract more Latino audience members. The goal at the time was to become a major regional theater, such as Sonora's Sierra Repertory Theatre.

Andrew Neufeld, vice president of the Playhouse Merced board, said the company thought that by making those investments, it would bring in more money, but it didn't work out that way. Meanwhile, loyal supporters started having financial troubles.

"The people who have been generous in keeping us afloat are stressed," he said, adding that some companies are severely cutting back their operations.

Now the playhouse is scaling back its ambitions and concentrating on being a good community theater with local talent. It is searching for grants and is investigating providing theater classes for Merced schools to pick up some extra money.

The playhouse also would like to bump up attendance at its youth conservatory musical theater classes, which now enroll 39 students. In 2003, the playhouse reported enrolling 91 students in conservatory courses.

Nancy O'Bryan, the playhouse's administrative director, said the theater company provides a valuable service in educating youth.

"It's not just entertainment," she said. "It does so much more for a community than putting a show on a stage. It's not an alternative to the movie theater."

Rob Hypes, the theater's acting artistic director, said young people tell him all the time how participating in theater allows them to express themselves and gives them a place to socialize.

Although the theater needs $15,000 to $20,000 to get past February, it really needs $100,000 to finish the rest of this season through June and continue to next season, Zacharias said. Community members have supported the theater, and he said he hopes they will continue to do so now, as they would other nonprofit groups.

"Feeding the hungry is very important," Zacharias said. "Feeding the cultural end is also very important."

To donate to Playhouse Merced, call 725-8587. Find out more about the company at www.playhousemerced.com.

Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at lmillegan@modbee.com or 578-2313.


Playhouse Merced might not be able to stage these remaining shows in its 2007-08 season if it can't pick up some donations:
  • "Crazy for You" -- Jan. 11-27; musical about Bobby Child, a well-to-do 1930s playboy, whose dream in life is to dance.
  • "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" -- Feb. 1-17; musical about the truths and myths of romance in the modern age.
  • "A Streetcar Named Desire" -- Feb. 28-March 16; Tennessee Williams' classic about a Southern woman whose life has been undermined by her romantic illusions.
  • "Varmits, Gals and Daring Deeds: A Stageful of American Tall Tales" -- April 4-20; world première commissioned for youth conservatory students.
  • "Biloxi Blues" -- April 18- May 4; Neil Simon's autobiographical play about an army recruit in World War II.
  • "Some Enchanted Evening" -- May 2-18; musical tribute to songwriting team Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
  • "Guys and Dolls" -- May 30- June 15; oddball musical romance set in Damon Runyon's mythical New York City.
  •   Comments