How The Closing of a Theatre Company Went from Sad to Ugly

How The Closing of a Theatre Company Went from Sad to Ugly

Chris Peterson

  • OnStage Founder & Editor-in-Chief

I'll be perfectly frank with you, I find it incredibly sad to see a local theatre company shut its doors. I am of the belief that more theatre is needed in this world, not less. But I also know, that theatre is a business. Lights need to be kept on, rights need to be acquired, sets need to be built and that means tickets need to be sold. 

That also means that in some cases, for many local theatres, rent needs to be paid. 

In an art form that sometimes both figuratively and literally sings, "We're not gonna pay!", in reality, that's not the way it goes. As Bohemian as we may think the industry is, money is everything in theatre.

Whenever a local theate can't meet the financial demands of the landlords and are forced to close, our instinctual reaction is to blame the "greedy fat-cats" who own the property.

But what if the issue isn't as defined as that? What if the fault is with the theatre company themselves, for making terrible business decisions? What if it would've been better to shut their doors years ago instead of just now? 

It's important to look at these issues from all angles before playing any sort of blame game. 

Such is the case going on in Warwick, RI where it was announced Tuesday, that the Ocean State Theatre Company would be closing just ten years after opening in 2007. The reason for their closure was laid out in a statement from Andrew Cohen, Chairman of the Board of Directors for Ocean State, that read:

“Ocean State Theatre Company is proud to have a group of individuals who have tirelessly supported the organization. We also have a great team, which has been working diligently to find a path to success to meet our obligations. Time just ran out. We are eternally grateful to the supporters who have been there for us, our fellow artists, our audiences and our backers. We will always be proud of first re-opening the shuttered Theatre By The Sea in 2007, and the development of our current location in 2012, offering an additional quality theatrical venue to the State of Rhode Island.

Mr. Cohen added, “It was a heartbreaking decision for those of us who are passionate about OSTC, particularly after what is undoubtedly the best artistic season we have ever had."

So in an explanation to their subscribers and the public, it was the failure to maintain financial obligations from their landlords which are causing the theatre's closure. Cut, dry and implied that yet another big bad landlord is shutting down a theatre.

For a state as small as Rhode Island is (you can fit it 221 times inside Texas), a theatre closing is devastating for their arts community. We even shared our sorrow on our own social media pages yesterday as well.

That was yesterday. Today things have certainly escalated.

It's been reported that this morning, the landlords, Mutual Properties, have filed a motion to sue Ocean State Theatre Company for back rent plus additional costs. The amount listed in back rent is $860,908. The landlord is also seeking interest, costs and attorneys fees which bring the total to over $1 million. 

While this might seem like a landlord pouring salt on an open wound, there is more to this than meets the eye. In a statement provided to this blog, Stephen Soscia, managing member of Mutual Properties stated: 

“We regret the decision made by Ocean State Theatre to abruptly close its doors. We worked cooperatively with them for the five years they were our tenant, and on several occasions, restructured their 21-year lease to de minimis rental amounts to meet their cash flow. In short, we afforded them every opportunity to restructure their obligations which today exceed one million dollars, and assist them with a smooth, seamless transition to insure their future success. In the end, however, they were unable to do so. As their single largest donor, we were surprised by their abrupt closure as we had been informed that they intended to remain through July of this year, and then would relocate to another location. Several attempts to meet with artistic director, Amie Turner, yesterday were unsuccessful and we later learned she was on route to North Carolina. Mutual Properties remains supportive of a vibrant arts community in Rhode Island.”

The plot thickens. 

While it would appear from statements from OSTC that they were victims, it's apparent from Mutual Properties that they may have been just a bad tenant. Given their financial history, this might be proven to be true. As it's been reported that tax filings from 2014 show the theater was more than $2.2 million in debt at the time. 

So while OSTC's productions might have been top notch (which I can attest that they were), it's anyone's guess what was going on backstage in the business offices. While I have the utmost sympathy for any theatre that is forced to closed, I do not feel bad if the closing is a result of poor fiscal decisions on the part of the theatre. 

If your company is in serious financial peril ($2.2 million definitely qualifies as such), then costs need to be seriously re-evaluated. It starts with show selection, casting (I'm told OSTC regularly cast Equity performers), materials, ticket pricing, etc. From top to bottom, every budget line needs to be heavily scrutinized. Whether or not that happened in the case of OSTC is not known(I don't have their books), but their closure is a good indicator. 

I also take issue with the fact that, as of right now, it's not clear if season ticking holders will be refunded. In Tuesday’s news release, the theater said all patron records will be retained until they can determine “what remediation will be offered.”

There's no determination to be made, refund your patrons. You took money for a product you couldn't deliver on, refund your patrons. Don't make another poor fiscal decision, refund your patrons. 

I fully understand that getting a theatre, especially a local one, from operating in the red to black is hard. It takes time. That means you need to be conscious of your costs and have the right people monitoring it.

But if you're a theatre company that is in the "reddest of reds." (which $2.2 million sounds like it is), then you have to bring in smart people to run the accounting or consider closing up shop and dealing with the fallout. Continuing to operate in the red for years should never be an option. 

While this news doesn't impact the quality of the productions or the joy they caused for the audiences that saw them, this certainly reveals a theatre's closing isn't always as one-sided as we think. 

Art isn't easy. Any way you look at it. 

~~~~~

Chris Peterson is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of OnStage, a theatre blog based in the Greater New York City Area. While OnStage was founded in May of 2014, Chris has been an active blogger since 2008 in both travel and politics. He has also worked in the theatre industry for the past 20 years. He can be reached at onstageblog@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @Chris_OnStage

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