Georgia Shakespeare has canceled its October staging of Henry V, and, sadly, the future of the 29-year-old company is in doubt.
The problem, put simply, is cash flow. Earlier efforts to stabilize the company did reduce debt significantly and strengthen the business model, but Georgia Shakespeare needs money to produce its art and ensure a future.
The theater’s board and staff will be consulting with key supporters and community members this month to evaluate the company’s long-term direction and provide a recommendation by early October.
Georgia Shakespeare was founded in 1986 as a summer festival with productions that took place in a tent on the Oglethorpe University campus. Over the years, it became one of Atlanta’s more prominent cultural institutions, operating as one of two LORT theaters (along with the Alliance Theatre) and moving indoors to the Conant Center for the Performing Arts. The company focuses on “timeless stories now,” with contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare at the core of its programming.
The economy has been challenging for an untold number of performing arts groups since the 2008 recession hit; that includes companies specializing in Shakespeare. In mid-August, the 37-year-old North Carolina Shakespeare Festival closed for good, its board chairwoman citing solely the company’s “continuing challenge to secure adequate funding to sustain programming.”
“We’ve made great progress in recent years in creating a sustainable business model, and have operated in the black four of the last five years,” says Georgia Shakespeare Managing Director Jennifer Bauer-Lyons. “Each year we have strengthened our balance sheet, but our lack of operating capital has meant that we have remained a fragile organization financially. It is not enough to fix the business model. We also have to find a way to fix the balance sheet.”
In 2011, the company conducted a “Save Georgia Shakespeare” campaign that raised more than $550,000 from 2,000-plus donors, enabling the theater to stay open. The effort did not eliminate its substantial debt, however. Since then, leaders have taken several steps to help establish a sustainable business model: moving the summer schedule away from the rotating repertory model; selling tickets and tables to the popular Shakespeare in the Park in addition to offering free seating; and establishing partnerships with several metro universities.
In 2014, the company tried to emerge from the recession once and for all as a revitalized organization. To do so, leaders pursued two key strategies. First, they reinvested in the artistic programming and the patron experience by expanding and improving shows chosen for 2014 and using capital grant money to renovate the picnic grounds outside the theater. Then they began a $750,000 fundraising campaign to create operating capital, eliminate debt and create a working capital reserve.
“When it comes to our artistic programming and the picnic ground renovations, the response from our patrons has been outstanding,” says co-founder and producing artistic director Richard Garner. “Our productions this year have been widely acclaimed, we set attendance records at Shakespeare in the Park and our patrons have uniformly raved about the picnic grounds, which provide for a magical evening at the theater unlike any other experience available in Atlanta.”
More than 5,800 people attended As You Like It at Piedmont Park in just five (often rainy) days, with 1,642 people setting a single-show attendance record on Saturday night. The recent staging of the farce One Man, Two Guvnors was an artistic hit, nominated for Atlanta theater’s Suzi awards and attracted the first sellout at the expansive Conant theater in many years.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to the second pillar of our strategy, we have been unable to secure any significant strategic gifts for operating capital to improve the balance sheet and create the working capital reserves necessary for healthy operations,” Bauer-Lyons says.
“We’ve developed strong momentum with our programming and business model,” Garner adds, “but the organization needs to take the step of improving its balance sheet and creating appropriate reserves in order to continue producing the art that our patrons expect and deserve.”