Theater as a business

MARTINEZ, Calif. – Tonight at the Martinez City Council meeting, OnStage Repertory Theater Company will give the council a business update.

Even if it is a non-profit entity, because of circumstances surrounding the Campbell Theater, OnStage must operate like a business. More importantly, the City of Martinez is indirectly a stakeholder in the business success of the theater operation.

The City has been renting the theater at 636 Ward Street, in hopes of providing a cultural amenity for residents and visitors, and a foot-traffic boost for downtown restaurants, shops, and bars.

One reason the OnStage company is at the Campbell Theater is the failure of the Willows Theater, the previous sub-tenant. That theater company failed to make the theater operation into a positive cash flow situation in Martinez. They could not pay the rent and abandoned the property, leaving the city to pay rent on a vacant theater for about two years.

OnStage Repertory Theater Company was founded by Helen Means as a 501 (c) (3) in Pleasant Hill. The company was performing at the historic “Old Schoolhouse” until the city condemned the building. Five years ago, the OnStage company needed a new home and Martinez needed a theater operator willing to fill the void left by the Village Theater group.

It took time to get the property in shape and build an audience. OnStage now produces 12 plays a year, running two to three weeks each, according to Randy Anger, managing director. Two other theater companies, Plot Lines and Women of Words, book shows there throughout the year. There are also musicals, Improv, Star Quest, Martinez Has Talent, plus comedy performances in the schedule.

Production Manager Mark Hinds said, “It has become even more than that. We recently partnered with a high school band and split the profits. The school did not have to pay for the theater. They packed the house and went away with $240 for the band.”

Now the City, which Hinds said has been cooperative about issues with the building, is requiring OnStage to make quarterly reports to the Martinez Parks, Recreation, Marina and Cultural Commission.

Perhaps a closer collaboration between the two entities could take the theater operation to the next level in terms of revenue. The theater already has a robust group of community volunteers. Hinds credits the volunteers for the success they have had, but Bay Area community theaters are not known for their profitability. Several cities charge $1 per year rent to the theater company tenant, but those cities likely own their theater properties.

These reports will help highlight the remarkable amount of volunteer work that has gone into the theater operation and quantifies expenses, income, successes, and failures in terms of profitability.

Hinds, who is also on the OnStage Board of Directors said that the renewable one-year leases preclude long term planning and booking and also limit solicitation of donations. “A businesses may be reluctant to donate if they are not sure you will be there next year,” he noted.

This is a non-profit with all of the elements and issues of a business. Because it is a public amenity, public involvement and support is an intangible luxury that most businesses lack.

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