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Struggling Studio Arena close to making deal with Shea's Two would merge some operations

Studio Arena Theatre and Shea's Performing Arts Center are close to striking a deal to merge some of the struggling Main Street playhouse's off-stage operations with those of the big Broadway rental house just down the block.

The arrangement would help eliminate Studio's heavy debt while firming up its status as the region's leading producing theater, sources said.

Details of the proposal, which reportedly has been endorsed by both boards of directors and funders, including banks and foundations, are expected to be announced within days.

Kathleen Gaffney, Studio artistic director and chief executive, declined to comment. But Anthony C. Conte, Shea's president and chief executive, and Studio board Chairman Daniel Dintino confirmed that the Shea's executive committee is weighing a plan initiated by Studio to consolidate some of the organizations' functions.

The idea is to cut Studio Arena's costs "while allowing us to continue putting on the kind of professional performances we traditionally have done," said a Studio board member who requested anonymity.

The theater reached out to its neighbor, Shea's, after "a lot of soul-searching" and budget-cutting that still left it mired in debt, the trustee said.

"We realized that by uniting with Shea's, with input from the county, we could probably become much stronger," the trustee said. "It could be advantageous to both organizations without taking away from either."

Erie County gives Studio a substantial annual grant.

"We would only get involved if we could protect Shea's from risk -- not only financial risk but the risk of losing our focus," Conte said.

Studio Arena also extended feelers to Artpark about consolidating certain operations, on the theory that its fall-through-spring programming would complement the Lewiston arts center's summer season, both organizations confirmed.

But Studio was discouraged by various stakeholders from partnering with an organization in another county.

"That was something I did not look favorably on," one of the stakeholders said. "I tried to shoot as many holes in it as I could."

"We're not terribly enamored with the idea of merging with Artpark," another Studio funder said. "To us, Shea's makes a lot more sense."

Artpark is still open to collaborating with Studio Arena "as long as the plan is feasible, doesn't stretch us financially and doesn't interfere with our mission," said Christopher H. Brown, the newly elected board chairman of Artpark & Co., the nonprofit organization that runs the Lewiston center.

Several sources described Studio's money woes as "dire" but said closing down the Theater District anchor is unthinkable.

"Losing Studio Arena would be a terrible blow," one said. "That might sound like a huge exaggeration, until you consider that our rich and diverse theater community is one of our strongest assets."

"I'd never want to see our part of Main Street go dark," the Studio board member said.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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