Facing a down economy, some local stage groups are tightening their belts. Others have shortened their seasons. Now one of the city's oldest small theater groups has both given up its long-time home and announced a six-month hiatus.
Such moves by the board of Open Stage Theatre have cost the troupe its producing artistic director. David M. Maslow, who led Open Stage for the past two seasons, resigned this month.
"We really just needed to pull in our horns," said board president James S. Kelly. He said Open Stage is ending the lease on its home of six years -- a cavernous if adaptable Strip District warehouse -- because of the expense of renting and maintaining it. Low returns from the past season's two fundraisers were one reason, he adds. During the time off, he says, "I think we're quite serious about really doing some brainstorming."
Maslow admits that although the space was cheap to rent, it was costly to heat. But he says that he had been having more success renting it out for other groups' performances and events when Open Stage wasn't producing a show. And he argues that departing the playing field before the new season even begins will cost the company any momentum it has.
"We had a product that was salable," he says. "To become itinerant without a plan ... just seemed like a big step backwards."
Maslow took over from Ruth Willis, Open Stage's founder and longtime artistic director, after the 2006-07 season, the group's 15th. Open Stage had been known for productions of classic plays and adaptations of literary works. Maslow announced a change of direction by staging as the first show of his first season Suzan-Lori Parks' The America Play, an experimental work about race and American history. The show, whose protagonist is a black Abraham Lincoln impersonator, drew strong reviews, if not full houses.
The 2008-09 season included No Child ..., a one-woman show about an inner-city schoolteacher; and the premiere of Disinfecting Edwin, a dark comedy by locally based playwright Amy Hartman.
Maslow says Open Stage's ticket sales were up 18 percent this past season. "I really felt we were getting to a place where the stars were starting to align for us," he says.
Keller agrees. "We felt artistically we had gotten to a much better place," he says.
But for many performing-arts groups, most revenue comes from grants and donations. And individual giving was down this year, even as foundations cut their budgets and state government considers cutting arts funding entirely.
A six-month hiatus, meanwhile, would eliminate two of the three shows in a typical Open Stage season. So is this an intermission for Open Stage, or the final curtain?
"I'm not sure if they'll be back in six months," says Maslow, who plans to pursue other theater-related work locally.
"We really had to sit back and evaluate where we're going," says Keller. "What is a viable model for us?"
- David Maslow, formerly of Open Stage Theatre, in a 2008 photo