Monday, June 15, 2015

The odd story of Centerstage and Federal Way - what would You do?

From For All That at Centerstage (Michelle Smith-Lewis)
Suddenly, at the end of May, people began hearing a plea to save Centerstage Theatre in Federal Way because their renegotiation to manage their Federal Way-owned facility had abruptly been halted by the City-side. The message was to let the City of Federal Way know how important Centerstage was to the community and to encourage the City to start negotiations again, OR Centerstage, if unsuccessful, would have to immediately close.

Many hundreds of people, including me, and numerous Seattle folks, used a simple email link to tell the City of Federal Way just that. Centerstage is a unique company in a very un-arts-filled area of the county with a high level of sophisticated theatrical endeavors.

But many sophisticated theater companies in the Seattle area survive un-homed and tweak their budgets accordingly. So, was there more to the story? 

I do not wish to turn into some deeply investigative journalist on this one, but I did make inquiry to Alan Bryce of Centerstage. I also include here, an email response from Brian J. Wilson, Chief of Staff to the Mayor of the City of Federal Way, who ended up answering the hundreds of emails.

His email:
May 26, 2015
Dear Centerstage Supporter:

Thank you for taking the time to e-mail your support for Centerstage here in Federal Way.  We have received over 500 e-mails from Centerstage supporters over the Memorial Day weekend.  It is clear there is a great deal of support for Centerstage and theater and arts here in Federal Way.

The City is in negotiations with Centerstage for use of the City owned Dumas Bay Theater complex.  The current three (3) year contact to manage the facility ends on June 30, 2015.  Negotiations are continuing and it is the City’s desire to reach an agreement that is beneficial for Centerstage and the city of Federal Way. 

The City has a long history of significant financial and in-kind support for Centerstage including the award of arts and tourism grants, and theater management fees for operations.  The City also has the obligation to ensure a strong and viable Dumas Bay Facility where appropriate maintenance and operations are addressed and the full potential of this facility is realized. 

The City is committed to interest based negotiations towards an agreement with Centerstage to ensure quality theatrical performances in a venue that is well managed, maintained, and sustainable in future years.

Thank you again for expressing your support for Centerstage as the contract negotiations progress.

Brian J. Wilson
Chief of Staff, Mayor’s Office
City of Federal Way
A bit of backstory:
The "Dumas Bay Theater complex" houses the Knutzen Family Theatre. Centerstage, founded in 1977, has produced shows at the Knutzen Family Theatre since 1998. In April 2009, the City of Federal Way awardedCenterstage the contract to manage the Knutzen Family Theatre. The contract was renewed in April 2012 and was to be renewed this year. 

Centerstage is paid a "management fee" of $75,000, which they incorporate into their budget as annual income. While I know that helping others rent the facility is part of their management of the site, I don't know all the specifics of what is required.

I am also told that if Centerstage did not manage the facility and then had to rent the facility to do all its planned programming, it would cost them approximately $45,000. Losing the contract with the City would then result in a de factor budget buster of $120,000/year, a pretty big hunk of any budget, I'd think.

I asked Alan Bryce, artistic director, if my assumptions were correct from what I was reading. I asked for more understanding. Alan says, "Very early on in my 11 years at Centerstage, I approached the City and asked for a new relationship...based on the models of Kirkland and Everett...where the City employs a nonprofit company to manage a city-owned performing arts facility. Since nonprofits can manage more economically than government, eventually, seven years ago, the City of Federal Way saw the advantages and issued an RFP. It was a competitive process and Centerstage won the contract.
"Our duties are of course, primarily to produce our own shows. This is a de facto reality. Even though the city wants to make the facility available for other groups, the reality is that there are few groups in our market who need, or wish to use the Knutzen Family Theatre (of the dozen groups originally envisaged to use the Knutzen back in 1998, only one remains in existence - Centerstage). 

"Nonetheless, Centerstage does handle rentals - there were 70 days of rental usage in 2014. We are also responsible for custodial and maintenance of the facility. The relationship with the city has been a very strong one during our six management years. We efficiently managed their facility, they saved money. 
"I believe that the outpouring of support in our email campaign came as a bit of a wakeup call to those within the city who did not realize how much Centerstage is valued in our community."

Different options:
What about the idea of paring down a season or other economies, I asked, that other un-homed companies do to preserve their budget and stay in business?

Alan says, "It would have taken it us back to the pre-contract days when I saw that the reality was that there is no way a theatre company operating at the Knutzen could possibly be independently viable. 
"(1) Our market, although we have developed a faithful core audience, is suburban with a changing demographic - from more affluent middle class and older people to immigrating less affluent persons, gentrified out of Seattle to south King County. Also, our 30% Korean population, whom we welcome, nonetheless does not have theatre-going traditions. Centerstage has addressed this demographic change with the help of City of Federal Way Tourism Enhancement grants (about $6-7k per year) and has battled the decline of traditional theater audiences within the City by attracting non-Federal Way residents to our performances. 

"In 2004, when I arrived here, 70% of our audiences lived in Federal Way. That number has done a perfect 'about-face.' 70% of our audiences now come from OUTSIDE city limits. So we have kept our nose above water by replacing our local, disappearing audience. But sustaining audience numbers has been a constant battle here.
"(2) Location, location, location. The Knutzen Family Theatre is in a beautiful location...but a terrible marketing location. It cannot attract what we call back in England 'passing trade.' There are still long-term residents of Federal Way who are not aware of the building's existence. (Notes: Bryce is British and the theater is really not easy to find!)
"(3) Where do we market? Without a radio station or TV station that primarily serves this market, our core local focus has to be the Federal Way Mirror. The Mirror is actually a very fine local newspaper and we have an excellent relationship with it. But various surveys have shown that very few of our audience members actually look there to see what is playing. So figuring where to place our advertising dollar is a real challenge.
"(4) Cost of show vs. ticket prices. Our annual pantos at Christmas cost about $45,000 to produce. In order to attract family audiences, youth tickets have to be extremely competitive - $10/head. So, with 234 seats, you just have to do the math to see how difficult it is to even begin to have a show pay for itself.
"(5) Salaries and overhead. And then we have to pay the three people who work here every day in life.
"So yes, with all these financial pressures, losing the contract and paying rent is a total non-starter. It doesn't take a mathematical genius to figure it out. Our annual budget is about $300,000. It could not be done.
"And having said all that, hopefully this is now all irrelevant. I DO believe that the folks at the City have seen the light and we shall be moving onward."

There you have more information about the unique relationship Centerstage and Federal Way have. So, what would you do if your company were in a similar circumstance?