It’s that time of the year when miserly Ebenezer Scrooge and sweet Tiny Tim electrify the Hartford Stage with their heart-warming story, like they have these past 15 years. But now, in honor of the theater's 50th anniversary season, the production has redesigned costumes, more special effects, and new lighting.
The holiday cheer is much needed. The multiple award-winning Hartford Stage, like its counterparts nationwide, has struggled through the tough economy.
Michael Stotts, managing director, said audiences have tightened their budgets and cut back on the number of plays they saw. “On an annual operating basis it has been very challenging,” he said. “I think it’s been harder in Connecticut than in some other states, and I think it’s taking us longer to recover. We’ve seen a decline in ticket sales. We’ve seen a small decline in contributed revenue, but at the same time, we’re seeing all of our costs go up. Our challenge really is to diversify our revenue stream as much as we possibly can in what is going to, I think, continue to be a very challenging economic environment.”
Ticket sales declined by 25 percent for five years through the downturn. Stotts said the theater institution will still break even this year, though, in part due to cost savings through salary freezes, eliminating positions, revising health insurance policies, and renegotiating leases and vendor contracts.
Despite these measures, Stotts said, Hartford Stage did not compromise on artistic integrity. “We tried as much as possible to find the expense savings on the operating side of the budget, and not the artistic side,” he said. “I’m very proud, actually, that during the down period, we were able to hang on to large shows, [a] large number of actors, the costumes and sets, and the physical production values. It was not as noticeable that we were struggling, because the quality of production was maintained.”
Stotts said the economy is starting to turn around. After years of decline, the theater saw a ten percent increase in subscribership last year. He credited this to new projects and to the new artistic director, Darko Tresnjak, now in his second season.
So, what’s the magic formula? I asked Tresnjak. He doesn’t really like that word – it sounds measured and limiting. For theater to truly work, Tresnjak said, excitement and diversity in programming are absolutely necessary, from drama to the occasional musical. "We try and balance things between revivals and new works," he said, "like the piece we did with [Mikhail] Baryshnikov [in Man in a Case] last year, which was a departure for our audiences. But that’s kind of on the high art end of the spectrum. Then on the other hand, [there is] 'A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,' which is a very good piece of populist entertainment. I think our audiences deserve everything in between.”
In 2007, Hartford Stage launched a campaign to raise about $26 million to renovate its theater and build its endowment. Those fundraising plans were put on hold when the crash hit in 2008. Stotts said the worst is over now. "We took a pause then in our campaign," he said. "We were able to raise close to $11 million, but we took a pause to see what would happen with the economy. Of course, things have not changed. We actually did some of the work that we were intending to do with the money that was raised, and just now we are starting to regroup, and figure out how to go about doing phase two."
Smaller companies have stopped corporate funding, but Stotts said the big donors are holding steady. With plans in place for a strong rebound, the show not only must go on, it appears that it surely will go on.