Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Theatre Obit: San Jose Repertory Theatre, 1980-2014

Me and my son at the
opening of the new
Rep theatre in 1997
San Jose Repertory Theatre closed their doors and declared bankruptcy last week. The fully professional, equity theatre has been having financial problems for years. They lost almost half of their subscribers in the last 8 years and burned through a 2 million dollar bailout from the city.

I am very saddened by the theatre’s demise. It feels like I have lost a relative or friend. I worked at the Rep twice in my career for a total of 12 years. The first was beginning in its third season in 1983 for seven years. Then again I worked there in 1995 for five more years. During this second stint, I help plan and move the company into the new theatre space that the city had built for them. I left the company in 2000.

Standing in front of the new gift shop
in 1997
I was fortunate and blessed to have numerous jobs at the theatre: marketing, box office, business office, systems manager, facilities and front of house operations. Two of the most interesting and fun opportunities I had was setting up in the new theatre and running the bar/concessions stand and a performing arts gift shop called "Curtain Call at the Rep".

San Jose always has had a hard time supporting cultural arts. The San Jose Symphony Orchestra folded in 2001; San Jose Civic Light Opera/American Musical Theatre of San Jose closed suddenly in 2008. Both organizations had been around since the 1930’s.  Most of the current arts groups, especially the performing ones, struggle with donations and financial stability. But all the blame can’t be placed on the lack of cultural support from the community. Eddie and I believe that the theatre made several serious missteps in the last 20 years that lead to its demise.

1) Development & Donations: Back in the go-go 90s, the Rep cultivated a slew of corporate sponsorships and donations. But their individual gift giving was just average. When the dot-com bust came and the 9/11 downturn arrived, corporate giving dried up practically overnight. And they had not cultivated enough high-giving individual donors to help see them through.  Local theatres that have made an emphasis on individual giving that has help them through lean times include TheatreWorks, San Francisco Playhouse, ACT, and Berkeley Rep.

The Rep auditorium
2) Programing & Play Selection: While San Jose is the 10th largest city in the US and 3rd largest in California, it is relatively conservative and perceives itself as a practical, mid-size town. The last two artistic directors continued to program plays that alienated their audience. Instead of selecting broadly appealing shows that would have local support, they presented edgier and more experimental productions that would probably be more successful in communities like Berkeley and San Francisco. Local theatre companies that have successfully programed more broad-based, appealing shows include TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley and Marin Theatre Company. Each of these theatres presents classic shows as well as compelling new works that reflected and enhanced their audience as well as the local community.

San Jose Rep lobby
3) Edifice complex: In 1997, the Rep moved into a brand new, architectural landmark theatre space that was built by the City of San Jose and with some theatre funds. While the rent to the City was only a $1 a year, the maintenance, upkeep and running the facility was the theatre company’s obligation. They were on the hook to pay all the expenses. The company had a very hard time financially managing the complex facility. The theatre not only had the auditorium but administrative offices and some shop spaces. And it still had to rent a separate facility to house the scene shop. It was the classic money pit the sucked up cash and resources.

Hopefully a new theatre group will emerge and find a way to survive the San Jose arts dilemma.

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