Olney Theatre Center on the road to fiscal recovery

(Stephen Baranovics) - Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company performs the piece \"Frida,\" choreographed by Anna Sokolow, in July at GALA Hispanic Theatre. The company will present a full season despite funding cuts.

They’re not popping the champagne corks quite yet, but artistic director Jim Petosa and managing director Amy Marshall say Olney Theatre Center is on the road to fiscal recovery.

“For us, it’s a huge change from where we were 18 months ago,” says Marshall, explaining that donations and grants to the theater grew by $1.5 million, from $1.1 million to $2.6 million, between 2009 and 2010. “Our major donors at Olney really stepped up for us last year,” she says.

Petosa and Marshall say that the theater, an upper Montgomery County landmark that began as a summer stock house in 1938, finished its 2010 fiscal year with a balanced budget but is still dealing with $6 million in debt from an earlier major construction project. (Unlike most theaters, Olney has a fiscal year that corresponds to the calendar year.) Budget cutbacks, higher ticket sales and fewer but more audience-friendly shows helped the company reach the goal. The current production of “Grease,” for example, has been extended a week, to Aug. 28.

The theater received a $500,000 grant from Montgomery County’s Arts and Humanities Council, half awarded in 2010 and the rest this year. It also received $150,000 from the state of Maryland. The grants were to help the company start paying its construction debt.

That debt represents the remaining cost of the $12 million construction project for Olney’s new main stage, which opened in 2005, plus improvements to the 14-acre campus. The 2008 recession hit, and grants and donations unexpectedly decreased. As private donations started to climb again last year, Olney had a dip in ticket sales and subscriptions that Petosa blamed in a June 16, 2010, Backstage story on the theater’s scaled-back marketing efforts.

At that point, he and Marshall trimmed their season from eight plays to six with longer runs of highly accessible shows. Petosa says it’s a matter of “doing material that has broad enough appeal that we could . . . maximize the potential of the money we’re spending on the productions. And that, in concert with this influx in contributed income, along with the state and county support, has put us in probably the best financial picture we have been in in years.”

“I think it was probably a ‘village’ of people who provided counsel to Olney to help them weather the storm and come out on the other side,” notes Suzan E. Jenkins, executive director of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County. Jenkins says she worked with Marshall and Olney’s board on the sales-boosting programming changes and fiscal belt-tightening the theater needed to do to qualify for the half-million-dollar grant the council gave Olney last August, to be used toward paying some of the principal of its $6 million debt.

Marshall and Petosa say that if their fiscal years continue to end breaking even, or with a surplus, they’ll be able to start paying down the principal with Olney’s earned income, as well as grant monies. Long-term plans to sell four acres of land held by the theater for debt reduction are still on the back burner.

“Strategically, there are other efforts afoot, including finding a donor to name our new main-stage space, which is not so new anymore,” Marshall says. Ideally, she says, a $5 million donation would get the stage named.

“People feel like we went through a really tough period of time and we can see the other side of it,” says Petosa.

GALA trying to do more with less

Artistic director Hugo Medrano says GALA Hispanic Theatre is tightening its belt after recent cutbacks in the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs program grants. For GALA, the cutback amounted to nearly 12 percent of its $1.7 million operating budget. But the theater is still presenting a full season at Tivoli Square, plus its educational programs in the Columbia Heights neighborhood.

“I don’t want to give up [on] the excellence of our seasons, with the dreams that I have about the season, the plays that I want to do,” Medrano says. The company, he says, has stepped up fundraising efforts and asked actors and designers to “charge less, try to do more work in less hours. . . . So far, we have been successful with that attitude.”

All plays in GALA’s 36th main-stage season will be performed in Spanish with English subtitles, with the exception of “i put the fear of mexico in ’em,” which will be in English with Spanish subtitles.

GALA’s 2011-2012 season:

●“¡Ay, Carmela!” (Sept. 15-Oct. 9), a 1986 play by Spanish writer Jose Sanchis Sinisterra, in a translation by Nilo Cruz and Catalina Botello. Guest director Jose Luis Arellano-Garcia will stage the piece, about a vaudeville duo during the Spanish Civil War. Director Carlos Saura’s 1990 film was adapted from Sinisterra’s play.

●“Ana en el tropico/Anna in the Tropics” (Feb. 9-March 4) will be the area premiere of the Spanish-language version of Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer-winning play about romance and jealousy among workers in a 1920s Florida cigar factory and how they’re affected by hearing Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” read to them. Jose Carrasquillo will direct.

●“i put the fear of mexico in ’em” (April 11-29), by Matthew Paul Olmos, will be a world premiere, staged by GALA’s associate producing director Abel Lopez. The comedy follows an American couple visiting Tijuana and their fraught encounter with a Mexican couple.

●“Puerto Rico . . . ¡fua!” (June 7-July 1), a 1970s piece by writer Carlos Ferrari, recounts the history of Puerto Rico in songs and sketches. Medrano will direct.

Follow spot

●Matthew Gardiner, 27, moved up another rung at Signature Theatre in July to become the Arlington-based company’s associate artistic director. He’ll take on more responsibility for the theater’s overall vision, which is focused particularly on new musicals, alongside artistic director Eric Schaeffer. Gardiner will also play a lead role in day-to-day operations. He was named resident director in June 2010 and was the company’s assistant director-choreographer for four years prior to that. He most recently staged “Art” and “Side by Side by Sondheim” at Signature. Next season, he’ll direct Signature’s world premieres of the “The Hollow,” a musical, and “Really, Really,” a drama, and the local premiere of the musical “Xanadu.”

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

 
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