Circle in the Square, which seemed to be on the mend from financial problems in summer 1996, announced that it was suspending operations June 17.
Producing Director Gregory Mosher and Executive Producer M. Edgar Rosenblum both resigned, effective the same day. Chairman of the board Theodore R. Sayers resigned in May.
The company has been a major force in New York theatre since the 1950s, first Off-Broadway in Greenwich Village, then on Broadway in a theatre with an unusual thrust stage on West 50th Street. Theatregoers who took Circle memberships in 1996-97 can at least take heart that the Roundabout Theatre Company, whose midtown space houses both a Broadway and Off-Broadway (Laura Pels) Theatre, is offering them the opportunity to purchase $10 tickets to at least three of the shows in through Roundabout's 1997/98 season. Circle members should fax -- (212) 869-8817 -- or mail their name, address and a copy of their membership card to the Roundabout Theatre: 1530 Broadway, New York, NY 10036. The idea is to keep nurturing an audience for not-for-profit theatres, and to keep encouraging subscriptions in an era when upfront money is important to theatres.
Circle In The Square suspended operations and declared bankruptcy in August 1996 with the resignation of one artistic director, Theodore Mann, and the suspension of another, Josephine R. Abady. But when Mosher and Rosenblum came aboard late in the year and hosted the American premiere of Pam Gems' Stanley, which closed in late April and was nominated for three Tony Awards (but won none), it seemed that the theatre was on an upswing. Gems' drama had won four Olivier Awards in London, including Best Play and Best Actor.
In February, Playbill On-Line reported that Circle In The Square seemed on its way up, thanks to a "membership" plan that was more flexible than standard seasonal subscriptions. Spokesperson Michael Borowski said at the time that the theatre had gained 20,000 "members" (their word for "subscribers") thanks to a deal that allowed people to purchase $37.50 subscriptions. This enabled them to buy $10 tickets to any performance during the season. A special offer in several newspapers and magazines (the Village Voice, Time Out) geared towards arts-loving readers who might not necessarily see much Broadway theatre, even allowed them to waive the $37.50 preliminary membership fee. For all that, a $1.5 million debt and bankruptcy far outweighed the new life being felt on 50th St. Mosher told the New York Times, "With the albatross of Chapter 11, we could not raise money." Mosher and Rosenblum are hoping to set up a fund to reconstitute the theatre, but their financial analyst, Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., told the NY Times they'll have a sisyphean struggle ahead, because investors won't want to pay off a mountain of old debts, not to mention add money for new productions.
Before the suspension, Circle had built to 20,000 subscribers, yet that still wasn't enough. Playbill On-Line asked Mosher (June 19) what he'd learned during his tenure at Circle that he didn't already know going in.
"I now know there's an audience that wants to see stimulating theatre and will come if they can afford to. That's a highly debated subject -- is there a young audience, or is it doomed to play only to geezers? We found out you could get young people -- people in black clothes -- to come and check it out. We analyzed these 20,000 members statistically. They confirmed what our eyes were telling us, because their average age was in the late 30's; traditional theatregoers were not the lead component in our audience. We had good penetration in ethnic couples and singles, and our non-traditional advertising was enormously effective. Stanley played at 85 percent capacity at a $25 average ticket price. The $10 tickets excited not only audiences but funders and artists, because they were excited to play for that young audience. People were hungry to write and direct and have their plays done there. A whole group of important American actors, writers and directors were stimulated by the idea of working that particular theatre. We refined what we did at Lincoln Center in 1985. There it was just a question of getting people in seats; here we went after and got a younger crowd."
Mosher continued, "With Stanley we learned that the space works -- a much debated question. We found out it's the same type of theatre as London's Cottesloe [where Stanley first played] -- one of London's most desirable theatres. A curse was lifted off the space."
Moshe said, "We also learned the funding community - corporations, foundations and individuals -- were willing to commit large sums of money to a Circle In The Square season."
And yet -- "The one thing we learned -- and only in the last eight weeks was that the future of Circle In The Square could not be solved on stage. It'll be solved not in the playhouse, but in the courthouse. There is an IRS claim of well more than $2 million against the previous administration. Hey, I was just hired to do plays. I didn't go to the bankruptcy meetings, I wasn't involved with that end of it. But the theatre had run up deficits -- and I'm not counting the not-for-profit subsidies, when donations make up for what ticket sales can't do. This is more like closing the year without, say, paying a FedEx bill. And over the course of 20 years, the debt run up by the corporation was inherited by us."
But is $2 million really such an insurmountable sum? "It is when the money's all going to the government. People were willing to give the theatre huge sums of money, more than they'd ever given before. But we discovered the guy ready to give us a million would give it to support a production by Mary Zimmerman, but not if he knew it was going to the IRS. You can't pull $2 million out of the economy, donators want to know how much of their money would be going to pay off old debt."
So this week we simply threw the matter back to the courts and won't touch it until the lawyers hash it out. The board voted, with complete support of management to throw this back in the hands of the lawyers. It could take two months, it could take two years. At that point, it'll be time to go back and produce -- or turn it into a skating rink."
But why resign rather than tough out the battle? Mosher answered, "The board voted to suspend operations and not incur expenses, so there was nothing for me to do. Now it'll be management in exile -- kind of like Charles DeGaulle. And yet legally it's easier, cleaner to resign and function as a private citizen. As a regular guy, I can legally become invoved with a group that would be the new leadership of the theatre. I care as much now as I did at this time last year that the theatre not go under.
"In my whole life in the theatre -- about 20 years now -- I've never encountered this experience where you hook up artists and audience and funding and still can't make it. It wasn't about the ticket prices; we could get Peter Brook directing Christ and the Disciples and it still wouldn't pay off the debt."
Mosher says he had an "amazing" season planned for 1997-98 but can't discuss it on the advice of counsel. "We were getting ready to announce it ten days ago -- we were thinking of doing it in a subway or on a streetcorner -- lots of fanfare. And then in the middle of the night, I thought `who are you kidding?'" The producer/director's current plans are very much up in the air, though he jokes he wants to be like "Richard Holbrook -- the guy who went to Bosnia to hammer out a peace agreement. I want to be where the bullets are flying."
As for Circle In The Square itself, the Skyscraper company owns the building, which is still leased to original partners Ted Mann and Paul Libin. Circle In The Square was counting on Stanley to be the first step out of a long-term financial mess that nearly sank the company for good in 1996. Rosenblum left CT's Long Wharf Theatre to take a senior producing position at Circle and Mosher came aboard when Abady was jettisoned and Mann decamped.
"It's an impossible task," Mosher had cheerily admitted in an autumn 1996 phone conversation with Playbill On-Line. "The odds are incredibly long, but that's why I felt the need to do it. Four years ago, I left Lincoln Center Theatre -- at the height of its popularity. We had critical and commercial success, but it wasn't fun anymore. It was getting repetitive, maintaining that success, and the challenge was over. It was much more satisfying when things were difficult."
Mosher reflected back on when he was first asked, by then-Mayor John Lindsay, to head Lincoln Center Theatre. "We did many, many lunches, and he was basically begging me, but there was no way I wanted to do it. But then he told me, `This isn't just about the theatre. It's like politics, this is public service. Fulfilling a basic public trust.' I came on in 1975."
"But Circle In The Square is going to be different from Lincoln Center. This is the 90's, so we need to take unusual steps, to explore the possibilities of the future of theatre in New York City. You know, four years ago, when I left Lincoln Center, I took a lot of heat for saying the theatre might be dying. And I admit, that came at a moment when I was losing interest. But I still stand by the statement. Look at radio drama. If you told people in the 1930's that radio drama would disappear in this country, they'd've looked at you like you were crazy. They had Jack Benny, the Shadow. Then came television ... Now theatre people tend to be smug and lazy, `Oh, the theatre will always be around, it'll always be important.' That's just not necessarily the case. We need to protect it, and re-invent it."
A clue as to the insurmountable obstacles Circle faced came when Mosher said, "We have so much preliminary work, and it's so behind-the-times here. We have two computers and they're not even compatible with each other. And you can't run a theatre on 6,000 subscribers."
Jose Quintero and Theodore Mann founded Circle In The Square in 1951 as New York's first non-for-profit theatre. Over the years, the theatre built a reputation on doing plays by Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, performed by such luminaries as Jane Alexander, George C.. Scott, Nathan Lane, Mercedes Ruehl and Al Pacino. The latter's help was also a godsend to the theatre, as his benefit performances in Hughie, Salome and Chinese Coffee (now being filmed) brought quick cash to the theatre.
Ironically, last season another Circle closed for the same financial reasons: Off-Broadway's Circle Repertory Theatre, which shrank over the years due to mounting debt and a wavering sense of purpose.