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High drama How did the area's most prestigious theater sink so low financially -- and where does it go from here?

The arts are one of Buffalo's most valued assets. So it came as a jolt to some last week when it was revealed one of the city's cultural pillars, Studio Arena Theatre, was taking drastic actions to stay afloat.

Some of the factors that have pummeled Studio Arena, however -- from reductions in donations and shifts in cultural interests, to aging audiences -- are also confronting other arts organizations throughout the country.

Still, the realization that Western New York's oldest, largest and most prestigious theater had fallen on hard times arrived in the middle of the theater season with a thud. Studio Arena is the only local regional theater, which means it's a professional company that uses union actors and stagehands to produce its own season.

"They are the flagship theater in Buffalo," said Vincent O'Neill, Irish Classical Theatre's artistic director. "As Studio Arena goes, so goes the theater scene, so it's important for all of us that it survive and become stable again and move forward."

Equity actor Christian Brandjes said if Studio Arena were to go dark, it would result in a loss of prestige for the area, as well as a decline in quality theater.

"Losing a regional theater would be a huge setback for this city, if only because having one defines you as having a certain kind of cultural significance," Brandjes said.

Kathleen Gaffney -- the theater's artistic director since April 2005, and chief executive officer since last November after Executive Director Ken Neufeld's departure -- announced a new, belt-tightening strategy last week to overcome a $1.4 million debt. In the process, 14 employees were given pink slips.

As it turns out, the theater was warned for some time of its eroding financial condition, but refrained until recently from taking drastic action.

The Erie County Cultural Resources Advisory Board, which makes determinations on which arts organizations are to receive county grants, stated in a report after a June 2005 meeting with theater representatives that "without major changes, [Studio Arena] won't make it through next year."

>A continuing deficit

More recently, the advisory board blasted the theater in its "2007 Final Observations" report.

"The Studio Arena Theatre has been unresponsive to past evaluations," the report said. While there has been talk of a new model, mergers or reorganization, nothing has happened. . . . They continue to do business the way they [have in the past]."

The report found the theater's "financial picture shows a continuing deficit, and their accumulated deficit is overwhelming. Their financial predictions are unreliable, leading to concerns over financial credibility."

Hal Payne, chairman of the advisory board, said Studio Arena's mounting debt threatens its ability to survive.

"There has been enough concern about the level of debt and the fact that Studio Arena itself is not in total control of when that debt might be called due," Payne said, "to [worry] about the viability of Studio Arena as an ongoing entity."

"However, we have enough faith in the new management and in the new model for operations at the theater that we are willing to recommend county funding for the 2007 period."

Payne said a committee is now meeting with Studio Arena representatives on a monthly basis to ensure it meets quarterly benchmarks in order to receive county funds this year totaling $200,000.

Gaffney said Studio Arena did what a lot of theaters do -- they held out from making big changes under the belief that a hit show would turn everything around.

"The villain in this was an institutional mind-set. It was, 'It's going to get better. We can earn our way out of it,' " Gaffney said.

"I would say we have made a habit of overprojecting based on hope."

She also laid some blame on the theater's programming under her predecessor, Gavin Cameron-Webb, who served for 13 years. While she applauded his first five years on the job, she said the seasons he assembled after that were largely uninspired.

"I was aghast at some of the choices. These looked like choices of somebody who didn't care," Gaffney said.

>A national problem

Studio Arena, theater professionals say, is hardly alone among regional theaters going through difficult times.

Officials at the Cleveland Play House, which is co-producing the classic "Of Mice and Men" next month at Studio Arena, said that like at its Buffalo counterpart, fundraising and attendance dropped off markedly after 9/1 1.

"I certainly understand the situation at Studio Arena and sympathize deeply, because it's not just a Buffalo problem. I think it's indicative of the struggles that many, many nonprofit theaters are having," said Michel Bloom, the theater's artistic director.

"Every audience, no matter what the art form is, is graying unless it's a pop culture art form," Bloom said.

Susan Medak, the League of Resident Theaters president and managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theater in Berkeley, Calif., agreed.

"This is a particularly unforgiving time, and the margin of error is so slim that it is requiring all of us to be scrupulous about how we move forward."

Medak said there are forces at play in the culture -- particularly the use of new technologies -- that are not well understood, but nonetheless are having a profound affect on attendance.

"People are less socially engaged than they have been at any time since the founding of the nonprofit theater movement in the late 1950s," Medak said.

She also believes the disparity in the growth of incomes is an overlooked factor.

"While culture has often been thought of as elitist, in fact our audience has been very middle class for the most part. And the declining income of the middle class, I think, has had an impact," Medak said.

Meg Quinn, artistic director of Theatre of Youth, said she sees many of the same issues. Subscription sales are way down, she said, because people now want to pick and choose their entertainment options.

"Everything shifts," she said. "You have to see it coming or it catches you off guard. You have to adapt and at the same time preserve what you value," Quinn said.

Quinn said she hopes Studio Arena's situation will be a catalyst for the Buffalo Theater Alliance -- the membership organization for local theaters -- to pay more attention to societal changes and how to respond to them.

"I think it would behoove all of us to have some conversation about the bigger picture," Quinn said.


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