Paper Mill Playhouse Searches for Financial and Artistic Stability

Special Features   Paper Mill Playhouse Searches for Financial and Artistic Stability
 
It's a time of transition for the rudderless, debt-stricken resident theatre known as the State Theatre of New Jersey.
The Paper Mill Playhouse
The Paper Mill Playhouse

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The recent securing of a bank loan of between $2 and $3 million has made sure that the financially troubled Paper Mill Playhouse of Millburn, NJ, won't close its doors anytime before the end of 2007. That stroke of good fortune notwithstanding, the future of the nonprofit — known for its splashy musicals and for being the Official State Theatre of New Jersey — still holds many more questions than answers.

Those questions include: Who will replace Michael Gennaro, who left the Paper Mill last fall, as the theatre's new artistic leader?; What artistic model will bring the subscription level back to its former count, please audiences and put the company back on sound financial backing?; In what ways can the town of Millburn and the Paper Mill better sustain one another?; And what role should Broadway-bound commercial productions play in the theatre's future?

These matters have kept the minds of the Paper Mill staff and board busy night and day since early April, when financial crisis descended on the nonprofit like a sudden storm. At that time, the theatre announced that it might close its doors if $1.5 million could not be raised to support the launch of its next scheduled production, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Donations poured in, and a bank loan was pursued. But clouds hung over the theatre throughout much of April.

"We were basically week to week," said Millburn mayor Daniel Baer, who has worked hand in hand with Paper Mill chairman of the board Kenneth Thorn to keep the company afloat. "It was a constant search for money. We just got to the point where we had to find out what to do from both a short term and long term point of view rather than just hunting and pecking." That conviction to look ahead led Baer to ask a local business leader to back a loan for the theatre. "To my mild surprise," said Baer, "this individual said no doubt about it, no strings attached, I will back that loan between $2-3 million." (The donor has asked to remain anonymous.) With that money offering some breathing room, Paper Mill on May 14 unveiled of a four-point strategy. Among the plan's facets is the loan itself, the Board of Trustees and the town and Millburn taking a more forthright role in the preservation of the theatre, and an administrative reorganization.

"Out the crisis has emerged a new consensus from the board and the community about how important Paper Mill is, and how we need to find a proper economic model for it to continue," said Thorn.

A Fall From Grace

For observers who only knew Paper Mill as a one-time crowd-pleasing producer of sold-out musicals, its sudden fall into near bankruptcy came as a shock. In the mid-80s, the theatre had a subscription base of 45,000. But that had dropped in recent years to 19,500, less than half the previous mark. Among the reasons given for the free fall are: increased competition from the Broadway musicals of a newly scrubbed-up Times Square; the more-challenging, but less audience-friendly fare offered under recent artistic director Michael Gennaro; and Paper Mill's unwillingness or inability to either send shows on to Broadway runs or join forces with Broadway-bound productions.

"Subscriptions dwindled dramatically over the years that I was there and I think a lot of that had to do with New York becoming a wonderful tourist spot again," said Roy Miller, who was with the Paper Miller from 1991 to 2004 and is now a commercial producer, with the musical The Drowsy Chaperone to his credit. "Everyone's going to Broadway. That's given Paper Mill a big challenge. Sixteen years ago when I started there you could not get a ticket no matter what it was. What they had was less competition. New Jersey Performing Arts Center [in Newark] didn't exist at the time. A lot of people were reluctant to go into New York. There was a high crime rate then."

And while Miller applauds Gennaro for putting "an enormous amount of bells and whistles and red flags on a number of administrative things to stop the bleeding and get the spending side of the budget down," he added that "I think everyone would agree there was a turnaround in the programming when [former artistic director] Angelo Del Rossi left. A lot of the big classic revivals — Follies was the best known — ended. To go from those productions to smaller casts, there's no question there's a difference in what you saw on stage."

Gennaro's tenure featured off-beat musicals like Harold and Maude, Tennessee Williams' lesser-known Summer and Smoke and a pop-music-filled production of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by avant garde-friendly director Tina Landau. They were not popular with Paper Mill theatregoers.

Focusing on Success

To bring the theatre back to artistic health, the Paper Mill staff intends to focus not on the failures of the past, but the successes.

"We have not done as good a job of putting shows on the stage that fill our seats in our theatre," said Thorn. "We need to go back to the shows in recent history that have been successful. We need to emphasize those shows over other shows." Managing director Diana Claussen and acting artistic director Mark S. Hoebee are in full agreement. Hit shows of the recent past that they point to include A Wonderful Life, a musical version of the famous holiday film, which was staged in 2006; the recent Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which played to 80 percent capacity; and a new version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical Cinderella.

What these shows all have in common is broad family-audience appeal. "The plan for the new vision moving forward is geared toward what we believe to be the changing dynamic of the people who live around the theatre and support us," explained Hoebee. "Many younger people are moving in, people in their 40s with families. We're gearing toward more broad-based, inter-generational entertainment; a little less toward unknown pieces. We're trying to go for title recognition. We trying to respond to feedback we've been getting."

Cinderella, he said, is exactly the sort of show Paper Mill needs more of. "The new book appealed to the younger, hipper kids and the traditional music appealed to our older subscribers. That hit the nail on the head for us. We need to look for titles like that."

Hoebee and Claussen expect to announce Paper Mill's upcoming season in early June. Another important component to it may be a co-production with another regional theatre or with a commercial producer looking to bring a show to New York. "We've been in discussions with several commercial producers about projects for the future," said Hoebee. "We've always felt it's a good opportunity for both sides for us to be involved in new works that have a long life."

Miller indicated that, sometime in the future, he himself might be one of those commercial producers. "I'd love to help them out," he said. "Let's get a show that I can take to Broadway and we'll work together again." He also advised that his peers begin to think of Paper Mill in a different light. "Ten, fifteen years ago, my commercial colleagues were very wary about doing a pre-Broadway show at Paper Mill for obvious reasons. You don't want critics to come out when you're working on a show that's not ready to be reviewed. So you went to San Francisco, you went to Seattle. Now you have the Internet and you can't hide no matter where you go."

Thorn mentioned that he is talking with Broadway producer Bob Boyett about Paper Mill presenting the musical version of the '70s sitcom Happy Days, which is scheduled to play Goodspeed Musicals' Norma Terris Theatre this summer. If all works out, it would be the first show of the Paper Mill season. Hoebee and Claussen confirmed that talks were underway. Such a opener would certainly jibe with the Paper Mill's new dedication to broad-based family shows.

Previous reports have had the upcoming season featuring a new presentational musical version of Frankenstein; the sentimental musical comedy Meet Me in St. Louis; the popular plays The Miracle Worker and Steel Magnolias; and the musicals Kiss Me, Kate and Little Shop of Horrors. Those selections could not be confirmed as of press time.

Which Comes First — The Leader or the Budget?

It's difficult to raise funds for a theatre company with no clear leader — just as difficult, in fact, as it is to attract a top caliber artistic director to a theatre with an uncertain future. And therein lies one of the central conundrums of Paper Mill's planning process.

"Ken Thorn did a great job on putting a gigantic band-aid on Paper Mill," said Miller, "but until they focus on their vision going forward in a dramatic way, I think any organization is going to constantly deal with the financial challenges. There needs to be a vision and a leader to drive that vision."

Thorn said the search for a new head was underway when it was sidelined by the sudden financial crisis. Now that the loan is in place, the theatre can resume that process. But Thorn emphasized that the search must run in tandem with the pursuit of a workable business model. "That artistic person is going to want to know they have the financial resources to do the work."

"As we reach out to the artistic leadership, they're going to influence our business model," he added. "It's kind of circular. They're part of the same process."

Thorn also stressed that the position of artistic director isn't the only important job that needs to be filled. "We have to put new leadership in place," he said. "Our chief financial officer is no longer with us. We have a consultant on development. A number of jobs need to be built."

When asked if a future Paper Mill staff might include a dedicated director of development, Hoebee responded, "We're in the middle of administrative restructuring, so it would be premature to talk about that at this time."

A New Relationship With Millburn

Whoever the new artistic leader of Paper Mill is, he or she can look forward to a much closer relationship with the New Jersey town the theatre calls home. Most people interviewed for this article agreed that the company and Millburn had a fairly decent rapport, but that the two entities were not the partners they might have been.

"When I first got here," said Claussen, "several people reached out to me from the business community. That's how I began to meet the business leaders and political leaders. I was struck by how surprised people were that I was so willing to participate in this community and that they felt there had been some kind of gulf between Paper Mill and Millburn community. One of my efforts in the last couple years was to build bridges between the businesses and the theatre. I think that set some staging for when we hit our crisis. There were some key staff and board member who had gotten to know the new mayor, Dan Baer. Now the challenge is to find interesting cross-promotional opportunities and find way to market each other."

When the crisis hit, Baer has already begun work with Thorn on a marketing strategy involving Paper Mill, Short Hills Mall, the Short Hill Hilton, and the Downtown Improvement District. Baer has already helped the theatre immeasurably by enlisting the help of the citizen who backed the multi-million dollar loan, and he intends to assist in many other ways.

"We're looking at a number a strategies right now," he said. "We could purchase property. We could back a loan from the Essex County Improvement Authority. We have the power to buy the Paper Mill." The city's purchase of the theatre would result in a much-needed windfall for the nonprofit. Millburn could then lease the theatre back to the Paper Mill at a nominal rent.

Baer said such decisions would be made in the coming weeks. "Our number one priority is to keep the Paper Mill alive." Millburn has good reason to ensure a healthy Paper Mill. While Baer couldn't say how much income the town would lose annually if Paper Mill closed, he did indicate it would be a sizable amount. "It's a major assert for our downtown. They feed off each other."

Baer, however, no longer fears the imminent disappearance of Official State Theatre of New Jersey. "I think the theatre's pretty much guaranteed it will be existence for the long term. We hope the theatre looks at itself and decides what it will be in the future."

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