Theater groups question rental costs

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Thursday, April 4, 2013

— Audience members at tonight’s Bower City Theatre Company production of “Spring Awakening” might be surprised to learn the popular theater group plans to go on hiatus.

For the past two years, Bower City has packed the Janesville Performing Arts Center with such shows as “The Producers” and “White Christmas.”

The theater group says that even with successful shows, it can’t make ends meet. It says part of financial burden comes from the cost of renting the performing arts center space.

Earlier this year, JPAC released its annual report showing that it turned a $40,000 profit, setting off a round of complaints from some theater supporters. When local theater groups were struggling, some asked, why should the center be making money?

JPAC Executive Director Elizabeth Horvath said she wants to see all the local groups be successful, but to do that she has to make sure the theater stays open.

Today also is the day JPAC announces its major fundraiser for the year: Irish Fest with headliner “Gaelic Storm.”

Money matters

It costs $1,000 a week for local groups to rent JPAC.

Horvath said it costs $4,500 to $5,000 a week to keep the center’s doors open, and that’s why she has to do everything she can to raise money for the center. That includes mounting fundraisers, intensifying marketing efforts and recruiting and keeping hundreds of volunteers who serve as ushers, bartenders and house managers.

Theater rental is among myriad expenses totaling $10,000 to $30,000 or more that local theater groups pay to mount a show.

Show rights range from $3,000 to $4,500. Script and music rentals cost about $500. Then there are costumes, music, makeup, microphone rental, set construction, stipends for musical and technical directors and choreographers and a variety of other miscellaneous costs.

“A show usually costs us about $13,000 to $17,000,” said Becky Weber-Johnson, president of SpotLight on Kids.

That’s not counting the hundreds of volunteer hours that go into each show and the greatly reduced office rent that comes courtesy of Jackie Wood, the owner of Olde Towne Mall.

Bower City board member Sue Conley said her group’s shows cost between $27,000 and $30,000.

A set can cost the group between $600 and $2,400. Hiring musicians can cost between $8,000 and $12,000. Renting sound equipment is about $2,000. Postage and print advertising is about $3,000. If they pay someone to design marketing materials, that’s another cost.

The number of weeks a theater group needs to rent JPAC depends on the complexity of the show, Weber-Johnson said.

A group such as Bower City needs significantly more time to work out choreography, direction, music and set elements.

The center also charges $2 to $3 a seat for each ticket sold. Exceptions are made for complimentary tickets and for large Janesville school groups that attend SpotLight’s shows.

Financial frustrations

Conley said Bower City can no longer afford to do shows at JPAC.

“We’re going on hiatus,” said Conley, who also serves on JPAC’s board. “We’re going to try to work with JPAC to figure out what things can be done—what needs to change so all groups can be successful there.”

Weber-Johnson said the board for SpotLight on Kids is considering its options, too, but she isn’t convinced her board would be able to find a less expensive venue.

“We wouldn’t even be able to consider using Craig High School if we didn’t have a friend of the board who was on staff there,” Weber-Johnson said.

The high schools usually require groups to pay for a staff member to be present during rehearsals.

Of course, the taxpayers subsidize the high school theaters. And it’s unclear if high school auditoriums provide a less expensive option.

At the Edgerton Performing Arts Center, which is attached to Edgerton High School, a nonprofit theater group that charges for its shows pays $52 an hour to rent the space for rehearsals and anything else connected with a show’s production, said Paul Tropp, arts center coordinator. During performances, the rental fee is $100.

In addition, the Edgerton School District takes 5 percent of all sales, including ticket sales, concessions and donations.

The school doesn’t have a ticketing system, so groups have to find alternative ticket outlets such as grocery or music stores.

“It’s not going to save anybody anything to come here,” Tropp said.

Unless the theater group happens to be from Edgerton.

The auditorium was built as a part of a school referendum more than a decade ago, and the school board pledged the auditorium would benefit the whole community.

If half the cast or half the sponsoring group is Edgerton-based, then the rental fee drops to $32 an hour.

Theoretically, a sponsoring group with half its members being Edgerton residents could put on a show with all out-of-town actors.

Working together

This is the first time in nine years the Janesville Performing Art Center is in the black, Horvath said.

It is also the first time the center has had a season magazine, a glossy marketing piece featuring profiles of user groups and the season’s line-up. A new $25,000 ticketing system gives groups information about where ticket buyers heard about their shows and provides valuable marketing information.

The center’s website is new, and for the first time, the center has a Facebook page.

“We have groups that request upgrades to the facility, and groups that request cheaper rental fees. We’re trying hard to find a middle ground,” Horvath said.

But it all takes money.

“The minute they tear something historic down, they yell, but they don’t want to pay for it,” Weber-Johnson said. “The community really needs to embrace the beauty of what they have there, to recognize the value it brings to the community and support it.”

Last updated: 10:29 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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