Studio Roanoke, which for three years has put Roanoke on the map as a venue for new plays, is closing. The Roanoke Times has the sad news here.
The theatre’s founder and chief patron, Kenley Smith, is moving to Nashville and plans to sell the building that housed the non-profit community theatre.
Faced with trying to mount a new season with no home and without what is surely its main donor, the board has voted to close.
Sadly, most theatre goers in the Roanoke Valley won’t miss Studio Roanoke, because most of them likely never attended a show there. Roanoke Valley theatre companies such as Showtimers and Attic Productions play to strong houses, but they perform the standards. (Full disclosure: My wife, Trina, is directing one of those standards, “The Sound of Music,” at Attic, opening July 26.) The market for new plays is quite small. Some shows at Studio Roanoke drew well, others did not, but even drawing well meant 30 to 60 people (which was a full house for most stage configurations.) On the other hand, if you look at the 990 tax forms for Studio Roanoke, you’ll see that ticket sales generated nearly $32,000 in 2009 and $28,500 in 2010 (figures for 2011 not posted yet.). With a different business model, you ought to be able to run a non-profit theatre on that kind of revenue. You just can’t do it on ticket revenue alone, though.
Theatre (other than maybe on Broadway) is non-profit for a reason; ticket prices come nowhere close to covering the expenses. When Mill Mountain Theatre was open (the first time around) and it was Michelle Bennett’s turn to do the curtain speech, she always pointed out that ticket prices only covered maybe half the expenses, so if anyone wanted to see act two, they better pony up. The line always got a laugh, but it’s true. Studio Roanoke survived as long as it did because of Kenley’s generosity. But a safer bet for the long-term is for a community theatre to build a larger base of smaller donors. That’s not easy to do, of course, but it is insurance in the event of unpleasant surprises such as this one. Studio Roanoke is hardly the first arts organization in Roanoke to rely too heavily on one donor, of course. When the heiress Marion Via passed away in 1993, there were lots of mainline arts groups in the valley that suddenly found themselves in a cash flow bind because she had often written checks to cover their deficits. Some became so accustomed to her doing so that they weren’t prepared for the day when she wasn’t around anymore.
I don’t know if anyone else will try to re-create a venue for new works in Roanoke. Hollins University, of course, is already doing this to some degree, but rightfully wants to promote its own MFA playwriting program, which leaves out some of us who aren’t affiliated with the program. In any case, if someone does try to raise this Phoenix from the ashes, creating a larger donor base should be one of the first priorities. There are creative ways to do this, besides just asking people for money. Attic, for instance, encourages patrons to sign up for Kroger cards; a certain amount of every purchase goes to the theatre. I’m not privy to the exact amount this brings in each year, but it seems a nice chunk of change. I also know it’s a painless way to contribute and helps give people a sense of ownership. The trade-off is somebody from the theatre has to stand up at each show and plug Kroger and hustle people to sign up for the cards or keep renewing the old ones they already have. However it’s done, fund-raising isn’t easy.
Needless to say, I’m disappointed, heartbroken even. In losing Studio Roanoke, the city has lost a little bit of the “cool factor” that the venue brought to downtown. On the other hand, if anyone had offered us a deal some years ago: You can have a venue for new works for three years but no more, we’d have surely taken that over nothing. In that spirit, we should be grateful to Kenley for supporting the venture as long as he did. In its three years of operation, Studio Roanoke produced some exciting new works — from nationally-known playwrights such as Jeff Goode of California and David Hancock of New York to local writers such as Kenley, Todd Ristau, Will Coleman, Chandler Davis, Ben R. Williams and, well, me. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity.
* The very piece performed at Studio Roanoke was a staged reading of my one-act, “The Angel of Brooklyn.”
* I also had shorter works performed in two Guerrilla Playhouse events, and had the chance to direct staged readings of works by Ben R. Williams (“Gentlemen of the First Water”) and Brian Turner (“Wild Turkey”) at other Guerrilla Playhouses. Those works included the 10-minute scripts “My Summer as a Mermaid” and “The Christmas Goat.”
* My 15-minute one-act “Deanna Dupes the Devil” had a staged reading on one of the theatre’s Big Idea shows.
* The theatre hosted a one-weekend only performance of the 40th Street Playhouse production of my one-man show about the Soviet space program, “Red Moon Rising in the East.”
* And, of course, this past season included my dark look at the Moscow theatre siege, “57 Hours in the House of Culture.” That show even drew Roanoke’s congressman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County.
That turned out to be the next-to-last show, I’m afraid. The closing also means my Christmas show, “Klaus,” won’t be produced — at least not there.
I think of the line from “57 Hours” where Ivan the usher talks about how that audience in Moscow died for its love of theatre. Sometimes, though, theatres die, too.