By Josette Keelor
MIDDLETOWN - The seats were as full as they normally are for a performance at Wayside Theatre on Wednesday night. But it wasn't a typical night out at the theater.
Volunteers stood at the auditorium doors passing out programs titled, "A Town Hall Meeting: To Talk About the Future of Your Theatre."
Should the historic playhouse close its doors at the end of March, before the end of its 51st season, the cast and crew won't let it be from lack of effort.
The main problem, Artistic Director Warner Crocker told the crowd, is "Wayside Theatre has historically not been able to make its case to its community that it needs ongoing annual support."
Every play needs to be successful and the theater has to meet its fundraising goals each year, he said.
"The theater is set back by any bump in the road -- a snowstorm or terrorist attack or anything that affects any and all of us," he said, later affirming, "This historical cycle cannot continue."
The Wayside Foundation for the Arts Board of Directors first alerted the community of the theater's dire situation on Jan. 7. It was facing the prospect of having to close its doors if it could not raise $90,000 in 90 days. But if the board can't also foresee the theater being able to pull in another $250,000 each year from donations alone, it will have to change the way it serves the community, such as by scaling back on the plays it produces, the educational programs it offers or the level of talent it can attract.
In the first five weeks of its campaign, a Feb. 6 press release for the town hall meeting stated that the theater had pulled in $38,000. So far, Wayside has raised $62,000. It has until the end of March to raise the remaining $28,000.
Bill and Virginia Groah of Reston came out Wednesday night to gain "a better understanding of the finances and what's happened," Mrs. Groah said.
"We've been season ticket holders for 10 or more years," she said. Her husband remembered the first play he saw at Wayside was "The Lion in Winter." The Groahs also have season tickets to three other theaters: Winchester Little Theatre, Shenandoah University's summer and winter seasons and the Reston Community Players.
Tom Madden, who drove to Middletown from Manassas, is also a season ticket holder.
"I'm here because it finally got my attention that we could lose this place," he said. Manassas, he said, no longer has any professional theaters.
"This is a true professional theater and that's something that I appreciate," he said.
Molly MacLagan, Wayside's education director, said she hoped community members would ask tough questions of the director and board members.
Malcolm Barr, moderator and former board member, said at the start of the meeting, "The value in tonight's meeting is in what you say to us rather than in what we say to you."
"Your feedback it going to be so important," he said. "It always has been."
The first question of the night, posed by Len Sherp of Front Royal, was one also on the minds of the Groahs before the meeting began: what is the "absolute bottom-line" plan if Wayside either cannot raise $90,000 by the end of March or cannot foresee being able to raise the necessary $250,000 annually to keep the theater going?
Bottom line, as board President Byron Brill put it, "If everybody can do just a little bit, our future is secure."
Board member Bill Sirbaugh later added that the goal is to be able to encourage regular donors -- "Because that says that they value what we do in the community."
It doesn't take a lot, they assured.
Crocker pointed out, "If half of last year's 20,000 [theatergoers] donated $20 -- $200,000."
Part of the problem, he said, has been educating the community on the theater's expenses, which people often are surprised to learn includes housing actors. The theater already has cut staff, combined job descriptions of its remaining staff and chosen to perform shows that use smaller casts.
It's not enough.
An average show grosses between $35,000 and $42,000 to produce, Crocker said. A good show brings in $48,000. The theater offers seven a season. And that doesn't cover the cost of advertising and keeping the theater heated and paying year-round staff.
Ticket sales bring in $470,000 annually, he said. Personnel costs $450,000.
When he tells people, more and more often these days, that ticket sales cover only the first act of a play, he said, "We haven't even factored in scenery, royalties."
One of the biggest difficulties Wayside has faced is pleasing its audience, Crocker admits. Those who love the theater's frequent guitar musicals -- a big part of Wayside's patronage -- tend not to buy season tickets. But season ticket holders don't want to see guitar musicals, like last summer's "Hank Williams: Lost Highway" or the current "Smoke on the Mountain: Homecoming," he said. The theater needs both kinds to survive.
"It's a double-edged sword that we fight all the time," he said. The theater will accept and consider whatever ideas the community has, in particular alternative ways of helping out, such as through volunteering or making the staff aware of grants it might not already have or know about.
Everyone can help in some fashion, Crocker said, but mostly, right now, the theater needs donations.
"Annual is the key," Crocker said. "Annual donations help us plan."
To contact Wayside Theatre, call 540-867-1776 or visit www.waysidetheatre.org.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or email@example.com