Saturday February 2, 2013

PITTSFIELD

In its third year as part of the Berkshire Theatre Group, the Colonial Theatre has regained its financial footing but still faces significant fundraising challenges.

That's the bottom line report from Artistic Director and CEO Kate Maguire, who offered a generally upbeat assessment of the merger first announced in November 2010 between the then-fiscally ailing Colonial and the long-established Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge. The partnership became official in June 2011.

"The merger has been as positive as we had hoped for each organization," Maguire told The Eagle. "It allowed the BTF to present musicals here, move the ‘Christmas Carol' production to Pittsfield in this space that offers us artistic breadth."

Although the merger has produced larger audiences for all three Berkshire Theatre Group stages in Pittsfield and Stockbridge, augmented by musical events in The Garage, a performance space in the Colonial lobby, Maguire emphasized that expanding the base of donors in order to increase fundraising remains a priority.

"The Colonial needs to increase its contributed revenue in order to break even," she said. "That's the goal. The amount of red ink is decreasing, but the board is creating a plan to eliminate the small amount of debt that continues to nag us."

From its $21.6 million renovation completed in 2006, the Colonial is carrying bank loans and lines of credit of $144,000, Maguire reported. That's a dramatic improvement from the $337,000 debt load reported by the theater's previous management in late 2010, before the merger was completed.

"We are still living in a period where fundraising levels seem to have dropped, so the battle really is in helping people understand what the theater means to the community," Maguire said. "It's our responsibility to reach audience members so they realize all that this theater brings to the community. That's the challenge."

Only half of the Colonial's bottom line is fed by ticket sales, comparable to most other performing centers, especially newer venues.

Maguire pointed out that the 780-seat theater's ticket sales are on the upswing, with 270 to 280 performance dates booked annually, including events at The Garage and daytime presentations for students.

Paid attendance at the Colonial in 2012 totaled 45,000. The Berkshire Theatre Festival's two stages in Stockbridge attracted 25,000 theatergoers, compared to 29,500 in 2011 and 30,500 in 2010. In addition, 17,000 students were served through the Colonial's educational activities.

The Colonial sold 57 percent of its available seats last year, a distinct improvement from 48 percent in 2010 and 46 percent in 2009.

"We always want to do better on ticket sales," Maguire said, noting that the Colonial's presence in Pittsfield has helped fuel customer traffic in downtown restaurants and shops.

"We've got a young, vibrant audience thanks to The Garage and our work in education," Maguire said. "We've opened doors to the community in a stronger way." She also cited increased attendance by patrons from north and south Berkshire.

The combined operation has also saved money by merging computer and phone systems and by achieving "efficiency in staffing," she added.

Overall, Berkshire Theatre Group summer revenue increased by 13 percent last year compared to 2011, according to statistics provided by the management. Revenue, attendance and ticket sales at the Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge gained as much as 25 percent last summer compared to the previous year.

Other bright notes included a 37 percent increase in ticket sales, with a doubling in revenue, for last summer's production of "A Chorus Line" compared to the Colonial stage's 2011 musical, "The Who's Tommy."

After one year of presenting musical acts, The Garage turned a profit for the Colonial, according to the year-end review released this past week.

The Colonial celebrates its 110th anniversary season this year, having opened as a vaudeville stage in 1903; the Berkshire Theatre Festival is marking its 85th season. It was established in 1928 as the Berkshire Playhouse at the former Stockbridge Casino, which was dismantled, moved and rebuilt at the current location just north of town.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto