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Performing arts orgs emerge from the shaky economy

After two years of retrenchment, personnel turnover and falling endowments, Mississippi’s statewide performing arts organizations have emerged from the shaky economy with strong 2002-2003 offerings tailored to a variety of audiences, declaring themselves to be on stronger financial footings.

New Stage Theatre, Mississippi’s only not-for-profit professional theatre, almost closed its doors during the summer of 2001, citing financial difficulties — including overwhelming debt on its facility, the Jane Reid-Petty Theatre Complex. In 2001, a new president and CEO, Robert Reed, was hired to lead the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra after the resignation of John Sowell; in 2002, the group was on the verge of canceling their 2002-2003 season before signing a new labor contract with their musicians. The Mississippi Opera lost two general managers in the space of 18 months, with conductor Garold Whistler serving as general manager and artistic director for several months in 2002.

And difficulties haven’t been limited to groups that produce their own performances. Almost all non-profit performing arts organizations have had their difficulties in the past years, said Camp Best, executive director of Fondren Renaissance Foundation, presenter of the Fondren Renaissance Creative Arts Series, which brings various performers and events to the Fondren neighborhood in Jackson.

Mainstays of the Fondren calendar are Symphony at Sunset, Fondren ArtMix, Fondren Unwrapped and Arts, Eats and Beats, with other educational performances scheduled as venues and performers become available. A revived community theatre group, Fondren Theatre Workshop, performed an original musical adaptation of “Through the Looking Glass” in June at the Cedars to appreciative — if not overly large — audiences.

“For us, the challenge is always to do something challenging and creative,” said Best.

Not the least of those challenges is that the neighborhood has very few large areas to use for events — some outdoors events are held on the grounds of Duling School, others are held in the Cedars — both picturesque historical areas that still limit the crowds and the kinds of events the Foundation can offer.

Venue availability and suitability plague the professional organizations as well. Last year the Mississippi Symphony moved its Bravo! Series concerts from Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson to Galloway United Methodist Church — a move that MSO president Robert Reed said at the time was partly motivated by the costs of using Thalia Mara Hall.

The MSO has returned to Thalia Mara this year with a five-concert Bravo! Series and two Pops Series performances scheduled there for the season. Why? “The easiest thing to say is that Thalia Mara has always been our home,” said Reed.

While Galloway UMC was sizable, acoustically pleasing for more intimate performances, and an affordable alternative, the MSO’s return to Thalia Mara expands the available repertoire and allows more people to attend, Reed said.

The MSO has planned some performances, including an encore of “Mozart by Candlelight” from their Chamber Series, at the Belhaven College Center for the Arts (BCCA), opened last summer and inaugurated by the World Performance Series performance by pianist Stanislav Ioudenich.

The World Performance organization, founded by arts patron Thalia Mara, plans to begin a new of performances this season tailored to the BCCA, tentatively called the World Performance Concert Series, said Lee Ann Mahoney, executive director for the Thalia Mara Foundation. “We inaugurated the use of the space for professional purposes,” said Mahoney.

Venue issues helped bring the new series to fruition, Mahoney said. The size of the Belhaven facility makes it attractive to performers and audiences alike for the kinds of artists the foundation sponsors.

“Maximum ticket sales are going to be 800-900 seats — which is not good for a 2,400 seat hall,” said Mahoney. “It’s very disconcerting to everybody concerned — audiences and performers — and the performer feels most of it.”

The original World Performance series will remain at Thalia Mara, with an appearance by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra scheduled for September, Mahoney said. Ticket sales are expected to be brisk for the event. “It’s fairly easy for us to bring in our audiences when it’s a big name — a known quantity like Wynton Marsalis,” said Mahoney.

Selling tickets by appealing to a wide range of audiences is a theme echoed by most in charge of professional performing arts organizations, a situation New Stage Theatre is particularly conscious of when selecting productions to stage. “Some important criteria are plays that will bring a nice sized audience,” said Patrick Benton, education director and interim artistic director. Play selection begins with reading lots of plays, seeing what other regional theatres are offering, costs incurred producing the play, and achieving a balance between comedy and drama, as well as between new plays and old favorites

Even sold-out shows don’t produce enough revenue to offset the salary and production costs of most performances, said Benton. “Ticket sales count for only about half of the cost of mounting a production,” Benton said.

New Stage undertook drastic measures to return to solvency in 2001 — cutting all staff positions except for those in the education program, presenting a shortened “Intermission Season” in 2001-2002 with one- or two-person shows, and taking pledges to retire their accumulated debt.

Now the theatre has been able to add back staff, with a key hire being a full-time marketing director, Dawn Buck. Having a staffer dedicated to marketing ticket packages and working with sponsors has helped the organization’s finances enormously, said Benton. “Having that extra staff position was a wise decision on the part of the board,” Benton said.

The theme for this year’s Mississippi Opera season is “The Spectrum of Opera,” with selections ranging from Gilbert and Sullivan, Leoncavallo and Puccini, according to Alan Mann, hired as general manager in February 2003. Mann wants to begin attracting new audiences to the organization — one part of that plan is to have open auditions in September to attract Mississippi talent to this year’s production, while another is to present a wider variety of performances than the classical opera repertoire.

A start in that direction is bringing the first Gilbert and Sullivan performance in five years back to Jackson’s opera stage with a production of “HMS Pinafore” scheduled for November. “People who don’t like to go to Puccini will go to Gilbert and Sullivan,” said Mann.

“We’re diversifying our style of presentations to diversify our audience.”

Mann’s goals in managing the Opera and ensuring its solvency include putting in more budgetary controls, using more specific accounting methods, being cautious with spending and doing thorough long-range planning. Mann’s caution is evident in deciding to replace Bizet’s “Carmen” on the schedule with a twin bill of Puccini and Leoncavallo one-act operas. “Carmen is probably the most expensive opera in the mainstream opera repertoire to do. I didn’t think that was a good idea for my first year,” Mann said.

Reed simultaneously increased revenues and raised MSO’s profile across Mississippi with an aggressive program of “sole service” concerts last year — performances where the MSO is hired by an organization — in addition to their regular season performances in Jackson. “We played everywhere — from Hernando, Pascagoula, Vicksburg, Meridian, Columbus, Brookhaven an
d Mc
Comb,” Reed said. The heavier traveling schedule raised $138,000 in revenue, up from $31,000 for sole service concerts in 2000-2001.

That and various other belt-tightening measures allowed the organization to finish the year in the black, with $50,000 in income to ded

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