Bad Box Office

After a disappointing expansion attempt, Arizona Theatre Company is forced to cut costs

The show must go on for the Arizona Theatre Company, despite an underperforming expansion effort that resulted in painful budget cuts.

ATC started a new fiscal year July 1, and this year's budget of about $7 million is nearly 7 percent less than last year's, according to Kevin Moore, ATC managing director.

Moore said that in December, he and others realized the company was facing "a significant shortfall" at the end of the season.

The main reason? ATC--which mounts shows in both Tucson and the Phoenix area, with occasional performances in other parts of the state--had expanded performances into the Mesa Arts Center. ATC is unique among the country's fully professional theater companies in that it splits its operations between two cities.

"Those ticket sales were not doing well; they weren't doing anywhere near what we expected," Moore said. "We were looking at one point at about a $400,000 shortfall in December."

Senior staff and the ATC board got together to come up with cost-cutting measures so they could balance the budget during the season that recently concluded. The company decided to ax one of its three shows from the Mesa schedule, and instead redirected all those performances to the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix.

"That proved to be a good idea, because we made up some of that revenue that we were going to be missing in Mesa in the Phoenix run," Moore said.

ATC also chopped supply and labor expenses.

"The big thing this year was that every staff member had to take a one-week, unpaid furlough," Moore said.

He admitted that ATC employees weren't thrilled about that decision. "Nobody wanted to do this, but it was one of those things, though, that I have to tell you--it was either that or face a significant shortfall at the end of the season," Moore said. "Of course, there was grumbling. No one liked it. But, luckily, I have to say that most people put on a brave face about it and, you know, made it through the season. We are actually poised to end the season at zero or a positive balance."

Missy Paschke, ATC's marketing and audience development manager, said she was willing to take one for the team.

"Yes, it's frustrating, and, yes, it's hard, but what else is there to do?" Paschke said. "It's one of the best arts institutions in Arizona, and if the people who love it and dedicate our lives to improving it have to take a week without pay, then so be it. That's what needs to be done."

Moore said ticket sales in Tucson and Phoenix are good, despite Mesa's lackluster performance.

"The big thing this year was this Mesa experiment," he said. "And we're not going back there this coming season that we just entered into. We just decided it was just too much of a strain."

Last season's Mesa ticket sales stood in contrast to the season before, their first in that city. Income and expenses broke even that year, Moore said, and they had about 7,000 new theatergoers come through the door.

But even though sales tanked last year, Moore doesn't feel the attempt to move into Mesa was a mistake.

"You have to take a risk," he said. "We saw an opportunity for this brand-new performing-arts center in the East Valley, and we have a lot of ticket buyers in the East Valley. We thought we would be able to see bigger growth there."

ATC's upcoming season will feature a book musical, a type of plot- and character-intensive production that was particularly popular in the mid-20th century. Moore said they hadn't tackled one since My Fair Lady about five years ago, because they're expensive to produce due to their large casts and extensive orchestra.

"We're doing The Pajama Game this year, which is a good, old-fashioned book musical," he said. "I'm really excited about it. I think it's going to be great."

At the end of the season, they'll be putting on The Clean House, which just closed on Broadway about six months ago. They've got Jon Jory, a famous director who started the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., some 32 years ago, on board for that.

"He was the artistic director at Actors Theatre of Louisville for many years," Moore said. "He did Pride and Prejudice for us, and he did Twelfth Night this past year, so we're really fortunate. We're one of the few theaters that are able to lure someone with a name like Jon Jory to work with us. He's great."

One thing's for sure--you won't see that big name at the helm of any ATC productions in Mesa soon. There's been a lot of speculation about why Mesans weren't coming to shows, Moore told the Weekly.

"You know, I'm just not sure they were interested in these plays necessarily," he said. "We'd like to go back, and we may do that sometime--we really may. But we're just not going to do it this upcoming season, for sure."