Bryce McDonald, producing director at Cumberland County Playhouse, believes the nonprofit theater is more important during the ongoing health crisis than ever before.
“We see the need,” McDonald told the Chronicle. “With the election, COVID, the flu — people can disappear for two hours. That’s theater’s job. And we owe it to our county to continue to offer that as best we can.”
With theaters dark across the state, only the Playhouse and a Memphis venue have been staging shows five-six times a week in recent months.
“We’re selling out,” McDonald told the Crossville City Council last week. “We’re seeing new patrons. That’s important to us, and we don’t want to lose that.”
Current capacity restrictions allow the Playhouse to sell 115 tickets for shows on the Main Stage and 75 for the Adventure Theater, which have regular capacities of 500 and 225, respectively.
The Playhouse relies heavily on income from ticket sales, which make up about 70% of its revenue each year. And between canceled shows and unsellable tickets, they estimate a loss of $1.25 million compared to last year.
The Playhouse had also anticipated a busier season in 2020, with popular shows like Cinderella, Newsies and Little House on the Prairie set for the summer season.
About 40 employees have been laid off since March. Remaining staff took a 25% pay cut.
With it appearing COVID-19 could continue to pose challenges into the new year, McDonald said current plans were to extend the time the Playhouse shuts down from late December through April.
“We don’t foresee anything changing,” he said.
They’re working to get the rights to stream some productions and offer those during the winter.
Sponsorships and grants are allowing the theater to remain operational at this time, McDonald said, but there are concerns about ongoing costs.
“We’ve applied for everything we can in the grant world,” he said. “We’re continuing to try and do things without looking like we’re begging people to keep us open.”
The Playhouse has launched a new fundraising campaign, Playhouse Strong, encouraging people to donate $25 and “buy” an unsellable seat.
So far, that has raised $13,000.
Donations can be made online at ccplayhouse.com.
McDonald said this effort has attracted new donors and let people know that donations large and small all help.
“Every amount helps,” McDonald said.
They have also received pledges or donations to raise funds for utility costs through the end of the year.
They are also launching new merchandising options, like T-shirts and DVDs of the popular PBS documentary on the Playhouse’s history, “Bright Lights, Little City.”
But it could be difficult to maintain the theater until it can fully reopen.
McDonald asked if the city would be open to helping the theater if it became necessary in the next several months.
“Would we have access to that budgeted money this fiscal year to get along?” McDonald said. “We’re trying everything in our power to fight for ourselves to keep ourselves open for the sake of Crossville and the arts.”
The city of Crossville supports the Playhouse with an annual donation, budgeted at $50,000 in the 2020-’21 fiscal year.
“It’s an economic driver to bring people to our area to come here and spend money, and it brings people here to retire, and it improves the quality of life,” Councilman Rob Harris said.
Data from last year shows 57% of Playhouse patrons come from outside Cumberland County, making it a popular tourist draw.
While Harris said he knew the Playhouse leadership would not ask for additional funds unless they needed it, he wanted the council to consider making funds available.
“They’re taking a lot of steps to try to take care of things without having to ask for money from us, but if push came to shove and they needed money,” Harris said.
Harris reminded the council changing the budget requires three readings before taking effect. He asked they be mindful of those time requirements, in the event the theater found itself in a “tight spot.”
The city’s general fund is performing better than budgeted, as sales tax collections continue to be strong in the community. Much of the funding for the Playhouse had been earmarked from the hotel-motel tax, which is designated for tourism development costs. That fund has about $101,000 in cash, with $85,000 committed. Collections average about $12,000 a month.
“There’s $15,000 unencumbered there,” City Manager Greg Wood said. “In the next few months … you can expect at least another $20,000 there.”
City Finance Director Fred Houston said the Playhouse could request a lump sum of their budgeted funds instead of the quarterly payments the city makes.