Data indicates downward trends may have abated

SEATTLE — While it’s not such a dramatic fiscal turnaround that theaters across the country will start planning epic productions, last weekend’s biennial gathering of not-for-profit theaters shows some positive signals following several years of financial woe.

Theater Communications Group, the organization of more than 450 such American nonprofits, began its largest conference, boasting more than 800 participants from 42 states, with detailed reports from the fiscal year ending June 2004. The announcement of that data indicates the downward trends over the last few years in funding, subscriptions and ticket sales may have abated — at least for some theaters.

Even more promising are theater leaders’ anecdotal reports of the season just ending.

Executive director Ben Cameron cautions that informal assessments of the 2004-05 season do not have the cumulative weight of the extensive data from the previous cycle. Still, it suggests a growing number of theaters are recovering after having been badly beaten for several years, when income took a dive.

Many theaters, says Cameron, are reporting forward progress, showing increased individual contributions and ticket sales. Some, he says, are even showing subscription gains after years of steady decline. However, he adds that positive signs are not universal and that even these indications of improvement are happening at best, in only 70% to 80% of theaters among the conference’s informal groups.

“But proportionately, that’s a healthy indicator for us,” he adds. “I think we’re coming up after bottoming out. But whether we’ve turned a corner or not, I don’t know.”

Even without the updated info, the 2003-04 fiscal analysis shows some signs of growth. More than half — 54% — of theaters surveyed ended the year in the black, a direct reversal from the previous year. Growth in individual contributions exceeded the growth of inflation by 63%. And state, federal and corporate funding continues to recover, reaching its highest five-year level.

But foundation support continues to decline, accounting for 2% less of total budgets than it did in 2000. Overall attendance, which rose steadily from 2000 to 2002, continues to slip, reaching its lowest level of the five years.

As if empowered with an overall improved fiscal landscape, the 44-year-old umbrella organization is poised to spread the message of not-for-profit theaters beyond its own choir.

TCG conferences will now be annual events to keep momentum going (next year, Atlanta); it has hired a director of communications to gain more mainstream coverage beyond its own American Theater magazine (which is getting a facelift in November); and even an easier-to-market name change for the organization is in the works. High profile initiatives — such as a pilot program for an evening of free theater in the fall in three major markets — are being planned.

“I’ve rarely seen the field as focused as it is right now,” says Oskar Eustis, director of New York’s Public Theater. “We’re on a bit of an upswing now.”

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