Donations – the last line between encores and lack of local theater

By Tanika Ely

The great playwright William Shakespeare once said: “All the world’s a stage and all men and women merely players.”

This is particularly true for all of the proverbial actors who dedicate their time to keeping local theater alive. Groups such as the Champaign Urbana Theatre Company (CUTC) and the Pop Up Players have made it their goal to raise money to save local theater. The arts thrive in Champaign-Urbana’s versatile theater community, but must rely heavily on donations to pay a broad range of expenses. Without these donations, local theater companies couldn’t continue producing plays and musicals, according to representatives from CUTC.

Les Schulte, one of the founding members of the Pop Up Players, said he believed the survival of theater is important because it reflects “life as we know it.” Whether political or social, theater always has a message, and there is always something to be learned. He added that local theater provides a venue where people can come together and become more involved in the community.

That is a more immediate problem for the members of CUTC. The Busey Center in Urbana has served as a meeting place for board members and is especially valuable because they have been allowed to use the space free of charge. This is about to change since the center has been sold to new owners. Not only does the front room in the center act as their meeting headquarters, but they sometimes use the space for rehearsals. The back room is used as a storage unit for costumes and as an office for its part-time manager.

CUTC will no longer be able to use the front area for its purposes and the new owners are requesting that the group leave by the end of October, according to Wendy Harris, secretary and board member of CUTC.

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“We’re still trying to figure out what to do,” Harris said.

With little money available to rent space, CUTC could find itself homeless. CUTC used the Busey Center, owned and sold by Busey Bank, for the past five years, according to Jeff Goldberg, one of the founding members of CUTC and chairman of the advertising committee. He said that although they would be unable to use the space for free anymore, there is always the possibility of renting the space, but they are also looking for alternatives.

Money problems are not unique to CUTC or local theater.

Tom Mitchell, associate professor in Theater at the University and director of the Aristocrats at the Station Theatre, described funding problems as a national problem as well as an international one within the theater community. The Abbey Theatre in Ireland, for example, is cutting one-third of its staff because of a lack of funding, according to Mitchell.

The Station Theatre has been described by many as being more “cutting-edge” in its productions. A statement with which Rick Orr, founder and artistic director of Station Theatre, would agree. He also said the Station is fortunate because the Celebration Company, which owns the theater, does not have to rent space like other local theater companies.

“It’s like taking care of a home with utility bills,” Orr said.

They make their money through ticket sales, donations, grants and fundraising events. Most of the money is recycled and put back into theater productions and paying bills. Orr said he would like funding for community theater to be better. Orr said he believed that the lack of funding in Champaign-Urbana is because more people prefer to attend sporting events and do not have experience going to live theater.

Unlike sporting events, which appeals to a wide variety of people, community theater has its “own little niche.” Orr said he did not think funding limitations affect only community theater, but cutbacks in school funding and the arts hurt University students as well.

Harris does not necessarily agree that competitive sports is the only reason why funding is lacking in the arts and local theater.

“(At CUTC) we’re all volunteers and only have so much time to raise money,” she said.

Unlike the Celebration Company, CUTC must rent its space from the Virginia Theatre, which Harris said was not easy. They must also rent their own storage unit for props and equipment and then transport everything to the theater the night before the show begins. The rental price, the company’s largest expense, rose 70 percent to $8,000 a show, according to Harris. The Champaign Park District, which owns the theater, takes a percentage of the profits, up to $13,000.

CUTC spends an average of $45,000 a show, which includes theater rental, costumes, props, technicians and other expenses, according to Goldberg.

CUTC’s total income amounts to around $240,000 a year, which is roughly equal to their expenses. Their largest source of income is ticket sales, which account for 58 percent of total income.

CUTC holds regular board meetings to discuss issues regarding local theater. Although they are open to the public, people rarely show up, said Harris. Representatives from CUTC said they would like to see more young people become involved in local theater.

Many individuals directly involved with theater addressed the importance of getting more people active in the art. This could possibly bring about more financial support from the community.

Either way one looks at the situation, the solution to the theater’s financial difficulties is elusive.

Community theater members find it difficult to suggest any ideas for solving this widespread problem, but Mitchell said he thought it was linked to a common theme.

“It’s up to the community to decide if it wants to value theater more than it has in the past.”