The State of Live Arts
An update from Executive Director Anne Hunter
April 24, 2023
I am reminded that every day brings a new dawn, and with it, a new opportunity to tell the story of this intrepid theater. Nowhere in America is there a place like Live Arts, where talented volunteers showcase the stories that capture the enduring themes of our lives.
Three years after the first COVID outbreak shut down most theaters across America, you’d think that Live Arts would be back to full strength. After all, we’ve been producing live, in-person performances since fall 2021.
The reality is that most nonprofit theaters across the country are NOT back to pre-pandemic levels. Live Arts is no exception. We, unfortunately, follow a national trend in these ways:
Only about half of our 1,200 volunteers have returned, making it a challenge to cast some shows and recruit production teams.
Season subscriptions and single tickets both are down by about a third.
Summer camp enrollment is half what was pre-pandemic due to smaller class sizes.
Youth and adult classes continue to be canceled for lack of enrollment.
Every show has been disrupted by COVID cases in the cast and crew.
According to a recent story in the Washington Post, most nonprofit theaters are anticipating “planned deficits” for the next few years. That was unheard of a few years ago. Theaters also set a new barometer for gauging financial success: “70 is the new 90.” That means a show is now expected to fill 70% of the seats instead of the pre-pandemic 90%. For a typical Gibson show, that’s a $10,000 hit.
Economic recovery funds, which were our lifeline during the first two years, have ended, but the compounding impact of lower ticket sales and higher operating costs has not. After two years of balanced budgets, Live Arts is facing a $150,000 shortfall at the end of this fiscal year (June 30).
OUR RESPONSE TO THESE CHALLENGES
We’re responding to this income gap by creating short-term bridges and long-term fixes.
In the short term, we cut costs by:
Giving up our auxiliary rehearsal space.
Reducing our staff size to 2008 levels.
Asking Board members to host tech dinners for each show.
Forfeiting some staff parking spaces.
But cost cutting is not enough. We must grow our way out of this budget imbalance. Initial changes include:
Expanding the size of summer camps.
Seeking additional institutional funding via grants.
Adding donation and sponsorship opportunities to non-show events.
In the mid-term, we are upgrading our antiquated theater lighting system, thanks to a $82,500 matching grant from the Perry Foundation. The spring 2024 upgrade will equip each performance space with its own dedicated systems, eliminate the need to scavenge equipment from one space to another, reduce our energy usage and expense, shrink our environmental footprint, and make it easier to recruit and train volunteer lighting talent.
Longer term actions include:
Applying for our first National Endowment for the Arts grant.
Increasing earned revenue by growing our Festival Fringe tech team contract with Worldstrides.
Expanding business sponsorship and playbill advertising revenue.
Adding education programs like Spring Break Camps and a Monologue Competition.
Initiating the planning phase for an endowment, thanks to a significant deferred stock gift from a long-time supporter.
These long-term actions grew out of “A Case for Change” developed last fall by our Board and leadership team to move the organization forward after the pandemic. The case identifies four areas that require Live Arts to rethink the way we make and fund theater: financial, human resources, societal, and infrastructure. In making the changes outlined in the plan, we position ourselves for a future of lean but balanced budgets; a large, diverse volunteer corps; a sustainable development program; and the funds to upgrade our aging infrastructure.
STEPS TO ADDRESS SPECIFIC CHALLENGES
We’re responding to the national volunteer shortage by lowering financial barriers to volunteering—by providing parking vouchers, snacks, and transportation stipends. We’ve shifted our schedules to accommodate people’s complicated lives, and we’ve adopted new norms—like intimacy coordinators and shorter tech Sundays—to make the volunteer experience more positive. We’ve also re-launched our Tech and Scenic Guilds, piloted general auditions to open up casting opportunities, and increased outreach efforts, especially in communities of color. Volunteer numbers are climbing and diversifying as we rebuild our volunteer base.
After a two-year hiatus in 2021, we are sending a 13-person tech team to Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland this August. This year marks the 25th anniversary of our Fringe team relationship with Worldstrides—something to celebrate! In addition to driving increased revenue to support Live Arts, many alumni of the program are expected to meet us in Edinburgh this summer for a Live Arts reunion.
Back stateside, we’re focusing on rebuilding audiences. Our inaugural WATERWORKS new works festival attracted an astounding 600+ submissions and will feature more than 50 engaging performances and events supported by nearly 100 volunteers. Next season, our subscription offering will include new “Educator” and “Under 30” packages to broaden our audience base. Building on our recent sold-out run of THE RIVER, we are on track to fill the Founders for our current show, BUYER & CELLAR. Finally, the cast is selected for our summer teen musical, HEATHERS, after capacity auditions.
We have known for a long time that theater fosters empathy, but a recent study confirms that theater education also improves essential 21st-century skills like communication, creativity, imagination, problem solving, and collaboration. It is no surprise then that demand for our youth summer camps is strong, with many camps selling out in the first few weeks. The camp program, re-envisioned by Education Director Ti Ames, recently earned a coveted Dominion Energy Foundation grant for innovation and inclusion—one of only five awarded in the Commonwealth. Thanks to support from Dominion and The Local, we plan to award $10,000 in financial aid this year for deserving students.
On the equity front, we’re grateful to our dedicated Board and staff who navigated the choppy waters of the last three years with a steady compass and unwavering faith. For the first time in our history, our Board is predominantly people of color (56%), and 31% of our staff are people of color. Progress on our equity initiatives is being shared via a social media campaign developed by our Board DEI Committee, which helped articulate our new vision of being “a welcoming home to all stories and storytellers.” The vision statement dovetails well with our time-tested mission of “forging theater and community.”
Artistically, it’s been two years of theatrical triumphs under the artistic leadership of Susan E. Evans. Every show has been well received, according to audience surveys, media coverage, and word of mouth. Next year’s “Expectations Season” will be unveiled at the Season Reveal Party.
OUR MONEY STORY
If you read the recent Stories of Transformation in our newsletter, you know that it takes more than $1 million to run this remarkable community theater. In a typical year, more than half comes from ticket sales, program tuition, and concessions. The remaining revenue is from grants, sponsorships, and philanthropic gifts from theater lovers like you.
This year, earned and contributed income was down, and pandemic-related expenses were up, creating the $150,000 income gap.
WAYS TO MAKE YOUR IMPACT
There are five ways that you can make a significant impact on the future of Live Arts over the next two months.
Make an extra contribution in April to close the $150,000 income gap AND ensure that we can continue to engage volunteers in telling the compelling and transformative stories of our time.
Help us meet the Perry Foundation challenge grant to upgrade our 40-year-old lighting system by making a restricted gift by June 30.
Purchase a subscription for the 2023/24 Season. New this year are special discounted packages for educators and theater-goers under 30! Subscriptions fund our season, and they are a great deal for you. Another added perk this year offers all subscribers 20% off additional tickets to Live Arts shows. Introduce your friends to Live Arts by bringing them to a show!
Attend the final show of this season, the hilarious BUYER & CELLAR one-man show, which runs through April 29 in the Founders.
Support the remarkable playwriting talent in our community by attending our first-ever WATERWORKS new works festival May 12 through June 3.
For the past 33 years, we have leaned into our mission of forging theater and community—by engaging thousands of volunteers, producing full seasons of thought-provoking, high-quality plays, and helping youth from all walks of life find their voice. This labor of love is possible because of the generosity of people like you. We invite you to help us sustain this treasured community resource by joining our growing circle of supporters, today. Thank you in advance for your continued passion and support for this remarkable place.