Photo Gallery: The Colonial

PITTSFIELD --The historic but financially precarious Colonial Theatre, rescued from potential insolvency by the Stockbridge-based Berkshire Theatre Festival in November 2010, is making slow but steady progress toward economic stability, according to the Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG), now in its fourth year of merged operations.

But Artistic Director and CEO Kate Maguire acknowledged formidable challenges ahead because arts organizations face headwinds as potential donors, especially foundations, prioritize gifts to nonprofits helping the disadvantaged.

For the year just ended, BTG attendance held steady compared to 2012 -- about 45,000 paying customers for the 760-seat Colonial, 25,000 more for the 400-seat Fitzpatrick Playhouse and its smaller sibling, the Unicorn Theater, with 120 seats.

Based on tickets sold, the Colonial -- reopened in 2006 after a $21.6 million renovation -- is on an upswing, at 62 percent of capacity last year, up from 57 percent in 2012 and a low of 46 percent in 2009, before the merger with BTF.

Annual performances at the multiple BTG stages totaled 275 last year, with 165 on the BTF campus in Stockbridge and 110 at the Colonial, about the same as in 2012.

Maguire anticipates adding several performances to Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" at the Colonial this summer, as well as expanding the run of the August community production, "Seussical." Extension of the BTF schedule in Stockbridge also is planned. Rentals of the Colonial to outside performing groups are increasing.

Since ticket sales cover only half of the Berkshire Theatre Group's budget, Maguire focuses on contributions to secure the organization's future.

"The red ink continues to decrease, but I don't think we're going to be at a balance yet," she predicted in a recent interview. "It's going to take time." The Colonial's long-term debt of $144,000 remains unchanged.

Last year's annual appeal drew nearly 1,300 new donors who contributed $50 each, Maguire said. Total results are still being tallied.

"We keep raising the goal post," she said. "We keep trying to help people understand what it means to support these buildings, because we're not there yet in dollars raised to keep this organization growing."

"In order for us to take more risks and to grow internally, we need to bring in more income, and that's the truth," Maguire emphasized.

"The other truth is that the general conversation in this country is about inequality and how to combat poverty," she said. That leads to hard choices, especially at foundations solicited for large grants. "The answer is, ‘I'm sorry, we can't give to the arts this year. We have to give to homelessness, to food pantries.' "

But BTG programs at area schools, especially those targeted for youngsters at risk, do generate financial support.

The annual "A Christmas Carol" production and the late-summer community musicals such as last summer's "Peter Pan" demonstrate how the Colonial is filling the gap created by a decline in arts education at many schools, Maguire said.

Attracting a broad, younger audience to BTG stages has been a top priority for the artistic director-CEO, working with programmer Simon Shaw.

An eclectic, diverse approach is needed "to bring in as many people as we can, and people have different tastes," Maguire noted. "I'm trying to cast a broad net. How do we keep pulling and tugging at people so their comfort zone is in this space, whatever the genre is? That's a long process to go through with people."

Maguire depicted the Colonial as a performing arts center presenting a wide range of styles, with quality as the common thread. "It's the center, the hub, the home for performing arts in the region," she declared.

"Populist" is the term often attached to the 110-year-old South Street playhouse -- "I don't have a problem with that word, it feels like the people's home to me. ... We're reaching more theatergoers as a result of the merger." Maguire claims "one of the youngest audiences around, and that's because of the programming decisions we've made."

Asked to define success, she said: "I love that this place is becoming a home for young people. I feel like that is only going to strengthen the path into the future. I also am very mindful of the legacy of the Fitzpatricks and what's been created in Stockbridge and that those two stages are known for a high level of quality, not just here but across the country."

"I will feel successful when the future has been secured financially for these buildings," she added. "I'm making steady progress and I'm well aware that it's a long road. I know that working in the arts, in the not-for-profit field, is always difficult."

On a personal note, Maguire cited the recent passing of her mother. "I recognize how fortunate I am to be working in an arena where all we discuss is what it means to be human and, in so doing, we discuss what life itself means," she stated. "It's life-affirming to be here."

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