VERO BEACH – Most people think of theater in terms of artistry and entertainment, but at the end of the day – and the season – it is a business as well as an art form.
“There are always two sides to this business, the financial and the artistic,” said long-time Producing Artistic Director Alan Cornell. “We probably had our best season ever on both sides of the equation.” Cornell said revenue was up 35 percent in one year and he has heard more and more people in the community talking about the theatre and its productions.
“It seems like wherever I go, someone will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I saw that show. You guys are doing a great job.’ It is really rewarding that the theater is becoming a focal point in people’s lives,” Cornell said.
Nearly 52,000 people attended main stage performances during the past season, according to Managing Director Jon Moses, who oversees the theater’s finances. The attendance number represents a 16 percent jump from the previous season’s attendance of 44,504 and a 37 percent increase over the audience in 2008/09, Moses said.
The second stage, which went unused in the 2009/10 season, attracted another 4,500 patrons.
“This season was a blockbuster success,” said Ray McGowan, president of the Riverside Theatre board of directors. “We put on a series of big Broadway shows that were very successful and achieved record revenue and attendance. We are blessed to have an artistic director who can stage and produce these kinds of productions, and this is the platform we will be using going forward.”
The theater’s success comes just a year after a season that started beneath a cloud of doubt and diminished expectations.
Riverside’s main stage season had always been highlighted and supported by one big Broadway-style musical.
“Traditionally, musicals put the most people in the seats,” said Cornell. “In the recent past, we had done great productions of ‘La Cage Aux Folles,’ ‘Chicago,’ ‘Damn Yankees’ and a string of others that were very popular with our audience, but by the beginning of the 2009/10 season we had gotten to the point where, financially, it seemed almost impossible to produce anything that size.”
Cornell said it could cost between $600,000 and $700,000 in direct production expenses to put on a big musical.
“The risk of spending that kind of money, given how ticket sales were going and how the economy was doing, was a terrifying prospect,” he added.
The theater’s board of directors told Cornell they looked forward to the Broadway-style productions, despite his concerns about finances.
In response, Cornell asked some the theater’s more devoted patrons if they would be interested in contributing to the direct cost of a show.
Sixteen patron producers stepped forward and contributed $10,000 each, which went directly toward the cost of producing “42nd Street.”
“It took some of the sting out of the expense side,” Cornell said.
The lavishly staged show featuring 30 mostly-New York actors McGowan calls “real song and dance people” became the biggest hit in Riverside Theatre history.
“We sold out five weeks, which was unheard of,” said Cornell. “People got really excited about seeing that kind of work on this stage.”
According to Moses, “42nd Street” cost $617,000 to produce and brought in $900,000 in ticket sales. Add in the patron producer money and it was a lifesaver for the theater.
“42nd was very important to us.” said McGowan. “It pointed the way toward what we did this year and what we plan to do going forward.”
Cornell said the theatre productions broke nearly every single box office record for each of the production slots.
“It has changed everything,” he said. “For the first time in a long time, the theater is actually coming close to a breakeven point this year.”
Looking forward to the 2011-12 season, Riverside Theatre plans to bring in “Boeing-Boeing,” “The Full Monty, “The Music Man” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”