DOWNTOWN — Desperate for cash and facing possible eviction, officials with the Santa Monica Playhouse, a performing arts venue that has called the city by the sea its home for more than 50 years, are asking for help to the tune of $15,000.
Chris DeCarlo, co-artistic director of the playhouse on Fourth Street and an employee since 1964, said the threat of eviction is “serious” as the playhouse is behind on its rent, a symptom of the sputtering economy that has made donors more reluctant to give and patrons harder to come by.
“It’s always been hand to mouth, but these days it’s a little bit dire,” he said. “The bubble could burst at any time.”
DeCarlo said ticket sales at the theater only make up 35 percent of its revenue, with another 35 percent coming from the educational programs the company puts on, both of which are down from past years. The rest must be made up through donations from individuals and rentals on the facilities.
In addition to producing live theatre, the playhouse also has a strong educational component, offering theatre workshops and programming for youth, often going into public schools to use the arts as a way to help students build self esteem and build problem-solving and leadership skills.
Staff at the playhouse, who are mostly part-time or volunteers, put out a plea on the playhouse’s Facebook page last week and have been reaching out to previous donors and loyal fans. The goal is to raise enough funds to get through the winter as the spring and summer usually provide enough activity to get the nonprofit over the hump.
Landlord Jules Kievits, a local attorney with offices adjacent to the playhouse, confirmed the theatre company is behind on rent but would not elaborate.
“They work hard and they’re good folks,” he said of his tenants.
The playhouse isn’t alone in its struggles to keep its doors open.
Jessica Cusick, the cultural affairs director for City Hall with over 20 years of experience both in the public and private sector, said securing funding for the arts is always challenging, but the pressure has been intensified by the economic woes plaguing the nation.
“Many foundations that are traditional sources of funding for the arts have yet to return to the level of giving prior to the economic downturn,” she said. “In addition, discretionary spending on items such as theater tickets or acting classes also has yet to return to pre-2008 levels.”
Cusick said losing the playhouse would “have a significant impact” on the cultural landscape of Santa Monica.
“Not only would it put an excellent, long-standing theater company out on the street, it would compound the recent loss of the Powerhouse Theater and give our community fewer choices when it comes to live, local theater,” she said.
The Powerhouse Theatre in Ocean Park, which was operated by the Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble, hosted its last performance in September.
The plan for survival has to include getting more “butts in the seats,” said Robert R. Scales, an expert on regional and community theater and the associate director of the USC Emeriti Center.
“You have to create a buzz,” he said. “I’ve been to several shows lately in small theaters in Atwater Village where they have a couple of new theatres and the seats were filled. It has nothing to do with size, but of the quality of production and getting the word out.
“I haven’t heard anything about Santa Monica Playhouse.”
Scales said a way for smaller theatres to draw attention to themselves is to partner up with one another so they can pool their limited resources together.
Santa Monica Playhouse has done that, joining the L.A. Stage Alliance, a nonprofit that for a fee (smaller companies pay $300 annually) helps community theatres secure affordable advertising rates and sell tickets online, while also providing professional development and advocacy.
Neal Spinler, the communications and branding manager for the alliance, which has been active since 1975, said advocacy is particularly important today with budgets coming from both the state and federal levels, making it difficult for smaller companies to stay afloat. (The alliance is finally debt free, Spinler said.) He said many nonprofits will be making pleas this time of year for donations.
But will those pleas fall on deaf ears? Spinler said if a theatre group does not have a strong education or community-service component, they might. More donors are looking to give to nonprofits that provide a benefit to the community other than discounted performances.
“You are also seeing a lot of investment in the administrative side … rather than just putting money into the theatre side,” he said. “They are investing in better business practices for the arts, which is interesting because in the past many funders stayed away from that.”
It seems those who love the arts aren’t interested in funding the next production, but rather putting theatre companies and other arts institutions on more solid ground so they can sustain for years to come.
Right now, DeCarlo and others at the Santa Monica Playhouse are just hoping for another few months.
“It’s been pretty good, but not great,” he said of the response to the 11th-hour fundraising push. “We’re still praying things come in before … the end of the year.”
For more information on the playhouse, its productions, services and how to donate, visit santamonicaplayhouse.com.