With fresh blood at the helm, Arizona Theatre Company survives its midlife crisis.
“It’s a large ship to steer,” says David Ivers, newly named artistic director of Arizona Theatre Company (ATC), describing the state’s only fully Equity producer of plays and musicals, a company that serves both Phoenix and Tucson.
As the new captain of that ship, Ivers moved to Phoenix over the summer from Cedar City, Utah, where for the previous seven years he was artistic head of the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
ATC was a ship that nearly sank before he could take the helm. Last year, to the shock of many in the state’s theater community, ATC announced it would have to close prior to its 50th season in 2016-2017, unless $2 million was raised in new donations. This happened in the middle of another transition: the end of David Ira Goldstein’s 25-year stint as artistic director and the search for a replacement.
ATC had already taken steps to save money in recent years, producing shows with smaller casts and ever-lessening production costs. How much more could it shrink the budget in an effort to appear fiscally responsible to donors whose cash was so desperately needed?
It was at this point that the company’s strategy went full-reverse. Instead of announcing a 50th anniversary lineup of two-person plays and one-man musicals, it shouted from the rooftops that it was going big, with a season requiring more than double the number of contracted actors than the year before – 66 as opposed to 28 – and anchored by a huge musical, Fiddler on the Roof.
The result? They raised the necessary money, and the 2016-2017 season was one of the company’s most profitable ever, resulting in a 15 percent increase in subscriptions and an incredible 45 percent increase in single ticket sales.
“It’s counterintuitive, but it’s been proven that it works,” says Goldstein, who turned over ATC’s artistic reins to Ivers on July 1. Goldstein’s reputation was on the line along with ATC’s existence, as the company’s product had been essentially his brand since he was named artistic head in 1992. Like many organizations, ATC had done well prior to the 2008 recession. After that, though, digging out from the debris of lost donations and decreased ticket sales meant hard work cutting costs without sacrificing quality.
Nonetheless, disaster loomed in the summer of 2016, and many thought the curtain would fall forever on a company that had served two cities for half a century.
Then came that crazy idea to go big or (literally) go home. Where did it come from?
“Tom Hall,” says Goldstein. “He’s the unsung hero here.”
Hall, a management consultant, was a follower of the ideas of Michael Kaiser, a man known as “the turnaround king” for bringing struggling arts groups out of the red. Hall surveyed ATC thoroughly, then brought in arts manager Billy Russo to steer things in a new direction.
“What we needed to do was produce an ambitious 50th anniversary season. That would be key to any turnaround,” says Russo, who served as the company’s acting manager in 2016. “And we needed to be confident in our ability to raise money.”
Central to any big season is a big musical – “they cost a lot of money, and they make a lot of money,” Russo says – and to do Fiddler on the Roof, ATC had to hire 29 actors and an orchestra of 12, more personnel than it had employed in any single production in more than a decade. Russo had every confidence it would work. And it did, spectacularly.
“The company now has an operating surplus of over $800,000. There’s still work to do, but that changes the situation drastically,” Russo says.
Russo was brought in as ATC’s full-time managing director with Ivers’ arrival.
Ivers, who says he is “still on a learning and listening tour” of ATC’s offices, will guide the choice of season repertoire and casting, while Russo charts a financial course.
Goldstein has been named ATC’s artistic director emeritus, which means he’ll occasionally direct a play. (Goldstein will stage the coming season’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank.) And ATC’s 2017-2018 will once more include a big musical: Man of La Mancha.
Waiting in the Wings
A preview of Arizona Theatre Company’s Phoenix shows in its 51st season: The River Bride – November 16-December 3, 2017
Man of La Mancha – January 5-28, 2018
Outside Mullingar – February 15-March 4, 2018
Low Down Dirty Blues – April 5-22, 2018
The Diary of Anne Frank – May 17-June 3, 2018
For more information, visit arizonatheatre.org
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