Columbus Booms, But Troupe Trims Sails

Blaming the recession and sluggish contributions, Players Theater Columbus has dismissed 10 staff members and plans other major layoffs and a hiring freeze. About 35 people are expected to leave the theater before the May 19 close of the season as the company regroups and trims about 10% of its $2.7 million budget.

After a disagreement with management, p.r. director Stacy Reish also has been dismissed from the theater. Barely a year ago, a different Players management team removed its marketing director in a similar cloud of resentment.

The former community theater, which now operates under an Equity developing theaters letter of agreement, is the principal tenant in the plush 2-year-old Vern Riffe Center for Government & the Arts in downtown Columbus. Although the group, central Ohio’s sole professional theater company, pays no rent, its first two years in the state-controlled center have been financially and administratively troubled – in contrast to decades of financial health when the theater owned and operated its own, more modest facility.

Robert Tolan is the third managing director in as many years, and several other key staff positions also have seen considerable turnover. The new mainstage Capitol theater – designed by Len Auerbach and hyped as one of the finest in the country – has been plagued with acoustical problems.

Former Players staffers report the frustration of fighting the state bureaucracy in the government-controlled building. Over the last two years, displaced subscribers have complained about everything from the temperature to inadequate parking to placement of the restrooms.

Critical and audience response to Players’ artistic offerings has, meanwhile, remained mixed. A young, white-collar city with one of the most buoyant economies in the Midwest, Columbus has a booming arts community. Yet Players began the 1990-91 season with a $100,000 shortfall in subscription sales. The theater also has unexpectedly lost $75,000 in foundation support.

All of this optimistic budgeting means that Players now must shave $250,000 from operating expenses by the end of the current season, including $200,000 in salaries and fees to administrative, production and artistic personnel. This will reduce the 1990-91 budget from $2.77 million to less than $2.5 million.

Assistants in marketing, boxoffice, technical areas and Youth Theater production will be finding that their seasonal contracts end one to three months earlier than expected.

Yet even the current unexpected cutbacks will not entirely cure Players’ financial woes – the savings are not expected to make any inroads into the $400,000 deficit the theater is carrying from its transition efforts into the new, and unexpectedly costly three-stage complex.

Despite the belt-tightening, many of the principal players remain optimistic. Single ticket sales are reasonably strong. Artistic director Ed Graczyk (“Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”) promises that the cuts will not mean reductions in production standards. The problems with the auditorium are being addressed as quickly as possible, and Tolan sees his leaner, more cost-efficient theater as finally finding its way to a solid foundation.

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