The nationally recognized theatre in West Palm Beach specializing in developing new plays was crippled by the poor economy, its leaders said. It curtain fell because of faltering donor support, meager sales for the coming season subscriptions and even worse advance sales for a musical slated to open in ten days. "We're out of the business; we're done," said Michael Gepner, the director of marketing who was audibly shaken during a telephone interview Monday.
The closure is a seismic event in South Florida culture. While small companies have folded during the past few years and most companies are struggling financially, Florida Stage was one of the pillars of local theatre consistently producing quality work and seemingly well-financed.
It mounted more than 150 productions — each receiving its world premiere or having only its second or third production. Playwrights were invited to come hone or overhaul their works during rehearsals.
Among the nationally known writers whose work bowed there: William Mastrosimone (Benedict Arnold, Dirty Business), Deborah Zoe Laufer (End Days, The Last Schwartz, The Gulf of Westchester), Nilo Cruz (A Bicycle Country), Lee Blessing (Black Sheep) and Steven Dietz (Yankee Tavern). New musicals that began at Florida Stage included Heaven Help Us!, I Love A Piano, Beguiled Again, Cagney!, At Wit's End, Backwards in High Heels and Dr. Radio.
Founder Louis Tyrrell and his staff were devastated, Gepner said. Tyrrell wrote in statement, "Most of all, we appreciate the audience that has been there for us throughout these last 24 years. They are the reason Florida Stage was able to exist. They, our cherished patrons, are the reason we were able to birth so many new plays that have gone on to thrill and astonish audiences around the country. For this, we are eternally grateful. For having to draw our curtain, we are heartbroken."
Some of the problem lay in the theatre's move last summer nine miles from its longtime home in the Plaza Del Mar Shopping Center in Manalapan to the 289-seat black box Rinker Playhouse in the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.
"We couldn't build a new audience fast enough; we couldn't build a new donor base fast enough and our established audience base didn't come along for the ride," Gepner said.
There had been signs of trouble for several months including an ever-worsening cash flow problem that emerged early in the season and never disappeared. Vendors were paid later and later. The company's debt reached $1.5 million.
Several people who generously underwrote the company with donations for years now started balking, some citing personal losses from the Bernie Madoff scandal.
The advance of season subscribers, at one time topping 7,000, had dropped to less than 2,000 so far for the upcoming season 2011-2012.
Ticket sales for this season had fallen off from about 60,000 to less than 40,000, partly due to a reduced season dictated by its initial arrangements with its Kravis landlord that still needed to use the Rinker during the first year.
The falloff in subscription audiences this past season seemed to be about 15 percent and much of that seemed to be the theatre's longstanding Boca Raton audiences. Administrators surmised that many subscribers lived close to the Plaza Del Sol or in Boca Raton and saw Florida Stage as their neighborhood playhouse rather than then regional theatre home of new work. They did not want to deal with the traffic and hubbub of downtown West Palm Beach.
But the company had been cutting costs. The operating budget of $4.1 million — one of the largest in the region — had been sweated down to less than $3 million, much of it by slicing staff.
As recently as two weeks ago, administrators were optimistic about the long-term survival of the company, although upfront about the fiscal challenges. Fifty-six percent of the non-subscribing ticket buyers this past season were first-time patrons. Administrators believe that showed the move and the marketing was attracting a new and presumably younger audience with a future.
Gepner said at the time that the company had always anticipated it would take three full years to return to its recent subscription levels and that the staff had developed specific strategies for getting there.
On June 6, Gepner said, "We had been fighting the battle for a long time and I don't know that any of us wanted to admit the hill was getting bigger, not smaller."
Perhaps the final nail was the advance sales for the return of the musical Ella, slated to open June 19 — only a handful of tickets were sold despite considerable marketing. The initial production of the show, featuring an actress impersonating Ella Fitzgerald, had been one of the most successful shows in the theatre's history and was often requested by subscribers for a revival.
The move to the Rinker last summer saved Florida Stage about $200,000 in operating costs, offset by about $500,000 in retrofitting costs. But the new performance space alienated many long-time subscribers. The new space only had a few handful more seats, but the intimate feeling of the Manalapan auditorium was gone. The much larger space with a high ceiling allowed for larger sets and lighting designs. But it meant that while some people sat closer to the stage, many others sat further away on risers like those found in a basketball stadium.
Many audience members also did not respond well to some of the work presented this season.
Still, staffers were talking Monday about the resurrection of the kind of theatre that Florida Stage mounted.
"I was talking to Lou and we're just going to let the dust settle and then figure out how to continue," Gepner said. Gepner wrote, "The history and impact of Florida Stage will live on as a legacy to Palm Beach County culture. The world-class artists who have graced its stage with their remarkable talents — from playwrights to actors, directors, designers, and the team of theatre professionals who are the true unsung heroes of the theatre — they will move on to create memorable theatre art wherever they go. And perhaps a new audience can be found and developed for the kind of thought-provoking new work for which Florida Stage has become renowned. Time will tell.''
(Bill Hirschman is the founding editor of floridatheateronstage.com.)