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Money woes force troupe to get its act together

LENOX -- Tina Packer has played or directed many roles in her life. But one evening last fall, the accomplished actress and artistic director of Shakespeare & Company was driving toward the house of a company employee, reluctantly playing an unfamiliar part.

This night she was a CEO, downsizing her staff.

She went in the house and delivered the bad news. The next day, Packer laid off six more staff members, the first layoffs in the company's 27-year history. But the company had to make up a recently discovered $246,000 shortfall quickly, before the fiscal year ended in March. Several members of the staff, including Packer, took voluntary hiatuses of two to six weeks.

In the wake of the shake-up, the company is undergoing major changes. The budget was reduced from $4.5 million to $4 million, the season shortened, and the staff trimmed. Shakespeare & Company is selling off a chunk of the 63-acre property, purchased just four years ago, that has largely caused the financial troubles.

The company has also hired its first-ever executive director, Mark C. Jones, to handle the financial side of things.

Jones says that Shakespeare & Company was in severe trouble -- a combination of "slight overreaching" on its part by acquiring the new property, just at the point the economy began to tank.

The financial woes, Jones says, "wouldn't have closed them down, but would have forced them to terminate the season . . . while they figured a way out."

The land started out as a kind of godsend. In 2000, the company's longtime lease was due to expire at Edith Wharton's Lenox estate, the Mount, and wasn't going to be renewed. So when land became available close to the heart of Lenox, the company snapped it up. It was a steal: $3.6 million. Now there would be space for all the company's performance, educational, and training ventures, plus room to meet Packer's dream of re-creating Shakespeare's Rose Theatre and building a Renaissance village, both of which would be part of a center for Shakespeare studies.

"We knew we were entering into a much bigger picture," says Packer, sitting in the lobby of the new 418-seat Founders' Theatre. "On the other hand it gave us the possibility of doing a huge variety of things, and we could use the property to become a financial base for us."

The property, formerly owned by the National Music Foundation, came with buildings in various states of disrepair. In the past four years, the company has stabilized them and built two theaters, transforming a former gymnasium into the Founders' Theatre and the music room of an Italianate mansion into the 99-seat Spring Lawn Theatre.

Expenses quickly outstripped income, although ironically, 2003 was Shakespeare & Company's best season ever, with record revenues and a 25 percent jump in attendance. But at one point, the company carried nearly $6 million in debt, including the mortgage. Maintenance and utilities alone on the new place, says Jonathan Epstein, a company member since 1988, jumped from $65,000 a year at the Mount to $400,000.

"So now all of a sudden we're paying for things we never had to pay for . . . a backed-up sewer nobody even knew was there," says Epstein.

Packer acknowledges the problems were caught later than they should have been because of the chaos surrounding the move. Turnover in the financial office, with some accountants better than others, exacerbated the situation.

"It got complicated fast," says Packer. "When we started realizing what was happening, we knew we had to act fast and dramatically."

After hearing from consultants that no other large nonprofit theater group in North America had that kind of acreage -- most had 2 to 4 acres -- they decided last winter to sell off part of it.

The property, says Michael A. Miller, chairman of the board, "was an asset that turned into a liability that we're trying to turn into an asset."

The company took further measures: They pulled back on an expanded May through December season, settling this year on a mid-June through October run. Packer is hoping that compressing the season will bring in the same revenue, since audiences were small at either end of last season.

They also cut one show from each theater. That means fewer costumers, carpenters, and actors. The number of full-time employees dropped from 150 to 112 There are eight box office employees now, down from 18.

This season they're rerunning crowd-pleasers in the tiny Spring Lawn theater, one of which, "Lettice and Lovage," stars Packer, always a strong audience draw.

Meanwhile the board has been out hustling donations. The goal was $2 million; they reached $1.5 million, says Miller.

The layoffs, for the most part, weren't conventional ones. Like the Bard's own company, back in the 1500s, many of Shakespeare & Company's actors also perform administrative jobs, for which they receive separate salaries. So while the actors were laid off of those jobs, they could still draw Equity salaries for performing. Several of the laid-off artist-managers, as the company calls them, are back on the full-time payroll for administrative positions.

But for various reasons, personal as well as professional, some company members are working elsewhere this summer. Michael Hammond, an actor/manager, and actor Allyn Burrows, took roles at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. John Douglas Thompson is doing a show in New York.

Burrows, who's been with the company for 16 years, but was not one of those laid off, is sanguine about the whole thing. "I was never worried," he says. "We'd seen worse before at the Mount' we were operating on a much thinner shoestring."

As to whether he'll go back next summer, he says, "There's no bad blood; these are my people."

Thompson, a 10-year veteran of the company, says, "All the people in the company understood that it was going through a hard time but that it was taking the right steps to protect its future. Everyone realized we'd have to bring it down a few notches in order to bring it up later."

Hammond, who'd been with the company for 12 years, declined to be interviewed for this article.

It was a hard time for all, although the emotional effects were different for actors than for others undergoing more traditional layoffs.

"Theater company people walk around in tears all the time," says Epstein. "It's when people keep stiff upper lips rather than letting out their emotions, that's when morale is bad. And in the dark days of winter, some people were very closed down and `together'."

Shakespeare seems to have a line applicable to any situation, and this was no exception. Packer says the line that frequently came to her was from "King Lear": "The worst is not/ So long as we can say `This is the worst.' "

Shakespeare & Company is in better shape these days. The company has balanced its budget and has received several offers to buy about half the 63-acre parcel. "At present," says Jones, "our plan is to accept one of these offers, pay down a good portion of our debt, and consolidate our holdings on 25-30 acres of the property."

The company has also recently received several gifts totaling about $1 million that will help build new facilities, including a 150- to 200-seat theater.

Jones says that once those needs have been met, the company can return to its longer-term vision of the Rose and the Shakespeare center. A seasoned arts administrator who was formerly executive director of the Jose Limon Dance Foundation, Jones brings to the company financial savvy -- and an MBA vocabulary.

"We want to bring as much synergy to the various programs as possible," he says. "Also the campus, that has to be marketed and known as a community resource. . . . in an overarching and branding fashion."

Branding. That's a far cry from the usual theatrical talk that buzzes throughout Shakespeare & Company's home base. But it's a sign of the changes the company is going through, says Stephen Albert, a management consultant who focuses on the arts. He started working with the company 18 months ago and helped recruit the new executive director to the job. Jones's arrival "is symbolic of the company moving out from the brink," says Albert. "But there's still a lot of work to do." Catherine Foster can be reached at  

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