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Theater struggles to go on Recent fundraising ensures two more plays; others are uncertain

Nearly a year after midseason financial problems put Studio Arena Theatre in jeopardy, the region's premier theater has again found itself in dire straits.

After ticket sales for the first two shows of Studio Arena's 2007-08 season came in far below projections, the theater came to the brink of insolvency.

Two weeks ago, in the face of an unthinkable closure, an emergency fundraising effort managed to pull in about $225,000 from a combination of foundations, theater board members and local banks, according to Studio Arena board President Daniel A. Dintino.

That money, according to Dintino and CEO and artistic director Kathleen Gaffney, will ensure that the theater produces at least its next two shows: the family-friendly Christmas play "Indian Blood," which is scheduled to begin in previews Tuesday, and January's "To Kill a Mockingbird."

After that, all bets are off. Staffers and board members are hopeful -- but can't guarantee -- that the theater will be able to produce the season's two remaining shows.

"At this point in time, we're planning on continuing through," Dintino said.

Meanwhile, ongoing negotiations that came to light in mid-November about a possible merger with Shea's Performing Arts Center are moving ahead, representatives from both organizations said. However, neither side would talk about the issues at hand, what type of merger would be involved, or when a deal can be expected.

Despite deep staffing cuts that went into effect in January, streamlined operations and various other cost-saving measures, Gaffney said that the current model on which the theater operates is unsustainable.

"This kind of operation, even with the cuts that I made throughout last year, having [only] one set designer and so forth, it's still too expensive," she said. "And the audience is just not, they're not coming."

Though Gaffney's contract expires in April, she said she fully intends to stay on and help to pull the theater out of its troubles. But she expressed frustration that her contract has not yet been renewed.

"A new contract, that's what I need," Gaffney said. "It's getting caught up in the middle of all this."

In the midst of disappointing returns, a glimmer of hope for the theater comes from its negotiations with Shea's. The leaders of both organizations said they hope the talks will result, at the very least, in a collaboration that will provide a stable outlook for Studio Arena.

An earlier proposal from Shea's in 2003 to provide certain services and to collaborate was declined by the Studio Arena board for undisclosed reasons, Gaffney said. She added that another potential collaboration between Studio Arena and Artpark had also been discussed in detail over the past two months, but that deal was struck down because of logistical and financial concerns about the organizations' being in two different counties.

Since news of the proposed association with Shea's came out, little has changed. Gaffney said she is 80 percent confident that some type of association will come out of the talks between the two groups, whether it is simply a combination of operational and support services or a more significant merger in the mold of a regional arts facility.

Gaffney pointed to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, in which one organization runs both the city's producing theater (the equivalent of Studio Arena) and its presenting house (a la Shea's).

"There are some precedents out there," Gaffney said. "They take a little bit of time to analyze and see what things we might be able to do well."

Anthony Conte, Shea's president, confirmed that the two groups were carefully considering a number of models around the country in order to determine the best approach to a possible merger.

"I would think something's going to come out of it. I'm not sure what at this point," Conte said. "We're looking at so many options that, frankly, it gets confusing at times. . . . We're trying to narrow them down a little bit and see what makes the most sense."

As for why the theater's first two shows turned in such disappointing results, Gaffney cited cost-cutting in the marketing department as a major factor. Her projections for the first show, popular playwright Tom Dudzick's "Don't Talk to the Actors," were based on seasons in which a much bigger marketing budget and staff were available.

"We cost-saved our way into a very difficult position," Gaffney said.

The theater's annual fundraising campaign, which by this point in the year would normally be well under way, is also on hold while the theater figures out what kind of organization it's presenting to potential donors.

Asked what individuals can do for the struggling theater, Gaffney made a plea to Western New York's art- and theater-going community. In a nutshell: "They've got to show up for the shows."
"We have all of this wonderful stuff," Gaffney said. "I was reading the paper yesterday about the new downtown hotel, and I want to be here for that, but unless the public begins to voice their support and show their support by coming, we won't be around."


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