Despite a recent report by WAVE 3 that the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival is in financial trouble, incoming board president Allen Harris says the company as a whole is financially sound.
Kentucky Shakespeare has struggled this summer. Producing artistic director Brantley Dunaway and the company’s administrative staff elected to defer their paychecks one week during the run of “Much Ado About Nothing” so the cast, including members of Actors Equity union who must be paid, could get paid. Two staff positions were slated for furlough between now and September, and some positions will move from full-time status down to part-time.
Harris and Dunaway attribute these shortages to the festival’s historic cash flow issues–for the last ten years the organization has experienced cash shortages during the summer months when income has been sparse. Historically, the organization would borrow money to pay summer expenses.
“We pay it down and borrow back, pay it down and borrow back. Some years, you can pay back more than others,” says Harris. “We’ve gotten to the point now where we’re just not comfortable fluctuating debt like that.”
Harris says that practice will end when this summer season closes. The 2013 Shakespeare in the Park summer season will be fully funded by February 1 or it won’t open. Harris says the board is determined to make their goal.
“I don’t intend my first year as president to be the first year in 54 years the park is dark,” he says.
Harris says the board is putting together a fundraising plan, and Dunaway has been meeting with prominent community members to work on a plan to gather commitments for the funds, which Harris expects will be a combination of underwriting and gifts.
The company has produced free Shakespeare in Central Park productions every summer for 53 years. The summer season’s budget ranges from $350,000 to $400,000. Harris says the festival won’t stage cheaper productions—or any productions—if they don’t raise the funds by February.
“It’s all go or nothing, because we’re committed to being a professional theater, not a community theater. And in order to do that, our production costs are going to be at a certain level,” says Harris.
Dunaway says those higher production costs include marketing and the expense of hiring professional designers (scenic, sound, lighting and costume) and directors.
“In the past ten years, we haven’t used professional directors, meaning directors who direct for a living, besides Curt Tofteland, who was the artistic director, and myself,” says Dunaway. “We haven’t used union directors.”
Funding the season in advance will allow the organization to direct proceeds from the company’s robust education program, which currently pays for about half of the summer season, to expanding the organization’s educational efforts.
“We can’t expand or improve under the previous model,” Harris says.
And expansion is in the works. In May, Kentucky Shakespeare implemented an ambitious five-year strategic plan to begin building a destination model festival—an indoor, ticketed repertory theater program to run May through October, in addition to the free plays in Central Park that Harris says are the theatrical core of the organization.
“Going forward, the way we grow into the destination model is almost entirely dependent on a ticket sales model,” says Harris.
“By building up a ticketed sales model, that will eliminate the cash flow problems,” he adds.
The strategic plan calls for gradual growth. Harris says the festival won’t go from zero to five ticketed shows in one year. They’ll likely start with one production, but he doesn’t know when that first ticket will be sold.
“It’s possible that it’s next summer, but it might be 2014,” says Harris.
Dunaway says the ticketed productions will then make free productions in the park viable, thanks in part to union pay rates for repertory productions. Kentucky Shakespeare pays Equity actors $625 weekly, plus pension and health benefits. Dunaway says to add a second show during the same contract period would cost only $75 more.
“We designed the destination model to include the free show,” says Dunaway.