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Will the curtain fall on Wayside Theatre?

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Clockwise, from left, Aaron Mann, Dana Colagiovanni, Warner Crocker and Megan McShea stuff envelopes at the Wayside Theatre in Middletown on Thursday. The theater is having financial difficulties and is doing a mailing to raise funds. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Pledged donations fall through, but bills for expansion don't

By Candace Sipos -- csipos@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- After years of financial hardship, Wayside Theatre might finally have to close its doors during the same year of its 50th anniversary celebration.

Artistic director Warner Crocker said the theater needs to raise $90,000 in the next 45 days or the show cannot go on.

Since its inception in 1961, the not-for-profit professional theater has struggled financially, but the real downfall dates back to 2000, when theater officials started making plans to renovate and expand the building. They raised about $800,000 in commitments from patrons and businesses who were willing to support the $1.2 million project. Seven years later, when the construction actually started, the economy took a nosedive and so did the donors' pledges.

"We had over $600,000 of those commitments not come through after we had already started," Crocker said.

Byron Brill, former member of the theater's board, agreed to help make up the difference. Now Wayside owes Brill and the bank about $420,000, according to Crocker, and the theater has roughly $1.1 million in long-standing debt that can no longer be pushed aside.

In addition, the theater is the only not-for-profit professional arts institution in Virginia that is not funded by its home locality, Crocker said. Neither Middletown nor Frederick County have financially claimed it. Warren, Clarke and Shenandoah counties, all with populations served by the theater, aren't stepping up either.

"Wayside Theatre has been a victim of its geography," Crocker said.

Also, the donor base for these types of theaters has decreased by more than half since the recession hit.

The number of businesses that would donate to the not-for-profit industry have decreased by 40 percent, "while another 40 percent is still very afraid to donate that money because of an uncertain future," he added. The remaining 20 percent are being bombarded with requests from all the not-for-profits in their areas.

Another issue lies with choice of shows. If Wayside decides to run a very popular, historically successful show in the box office, ticket sales will increase but donations will fall, and vice versa. Crocker calls this the "double-edged sword."

"The larger issue really is can this community sustain a professional theater that offers high quality entertainment as well as amazing educational programs for the youth of the community," Crocker said. "We happen to believe that it can, but if folks either don't have the cash to make that occur or don't have the desire to see that occur, that tells us a lot about the future."

Actors who work for Wayside agree that the community would lose an immeasurable amount if the theater closes.

"I love this theater," said Ilona Dulaski, who has been an actor with Wayside for about 40 years. "It just sparkles ... you have especially talented people working together for a common goal."

Dulaski said the government is "killing the arts" by passing legislation such as one that did away with tax incentives for people who donate money to theater shows.

Dulaski will play the part of Ouiser in "Steel Magnolias," which is scheduled to run from Saturday to Sept. 24.

Thomasin Savaiano, another equity actress at Wayside, has been working at the theater for the past 12 years. At first, she only performed, but after staff cuts had to be made, she started working in the administration office.

According to Crocker, the staff fell from 17 people to 10 in three years. Just last week, two people were laid off.

"We all do about a hundred zillion jobs around here," said Savaiano, who also heads up the children's acting classes that she started 11 years ago.

She said the program has served about 1,000 children over the years, some of whom have gone on to become professional actors.

Savaiano knows Wayside is something special.

"We do really great work on this little stage," Savaiano said. "[Other actors] will come back even though they make a lot less money when they work here. ... We've made it through so much turmoil and so much hardship. [Closing] would be heartbreaking all around, and not just for the people who work here."

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