Maine State Music Theatre performs “Jersey Boys” on the Westbrook Performing Arts Center stage. “Jersey Boys” is the theater company’s only production in a season cut short because of a lack of ticket sales spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Contributed / Jared Morneau

Maine State Music Theatre, which will end its season at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center after it completes its run of  “Jersey Boys” next week, could be in danger of folding if the pandemic continues for another year or two, its director says.

The Brunswick-based theater group’s late start to the season forced it to move shows to Westbrook because its regular venue, the Pickard Theater at Bowdoin College, is unavailable during the school year. But when ticket sales lagged, Maine State canceled the season after Sept. 19 to stem losses, Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark said.

The nonprofit theater company, Clark said, relies on ticket sales from roughly four shows per year to keep the company running, and usually makes enough money each season to save some and put some towards improvements. With the pandemic’s impact, the company has been unable to conduct yearly improvements to systems, buildings and equipment and its reserve funds are dwindling.

To be honest this has been devastating for us,” Clark told the American Journal. “Thank god we had prior to the pandemic eight good years in a row. We’ve had a nice (reserve) fund, but by the end of this season that may have disappeared and that is a very scary proposition, that we (lose) eight years of savings.” 

If the pandemic persists for one or two more years, continuing to limit productions, the 63-year-old theater company may not survive, he said, following a lack of a 2020 season.

Clark says revenues are one-tenth of what they were pre-pandemic, and with shows costing upwards of $1 million per production, the nonprofit was operating at a loss and needed to cut short its season to keep the theater going.

Westbrook Performing Arts Director Jamie Grant said “Jersey Boys” got a warm reception in the city, but he worries for the theater industry as a whole a ticket sales plummet and shows get canceled because of the pandemic. Chance Viles / American Journal

Normally, with about 96% of tickets sold, a $1 million show pulls in about a 4.5% profit, he said, but recent shows have only been filling about 54% of the seats.

The theater company, which has an annual operating budget of about $6.1 million, has received about $1.72 million dollars in federal pandemic relief, but that has only helped keep it afloat, Clark said.

“For us in a normal year, (that amount of ticket sales) is death. The government has helped us, thank god, (but) it doesn’t fix anything,” Clark said.

Staffing is at about 130 right now, part-time, compared to more than 200 pre-pandemic. Off-season, the company has about 12 employees.

When the pandemic appeared to be waning in April and May, the theater company expected a solid season and planned a number of upgrades that they later had to be scrapped, Clark said.

“We had some life-changing plans about to happen now we are back to the drawing board,” Clark said. “Two weeks before COVID hit the board approved us purchasing a small space in Portland to be a winter home and a purchase of a housing unit that would house 68 people for the theater.”

Clark said the housing would have helped solve the yearly issue of accommodating actors who arrive from cities such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.

At the same time, actors are hurting now, too. Atlanta-based actress Kim Sava, who plays Frankie Valli’s wife Mary Delgado in “Jersey Boys” and who also performs on Broadway, said her heart “aches for the theater,” and that for the first time since launching a career in acting, she is looking at other jobs.

I could line up another show but that might get canceled,” Sava said. “It’s scary. I’ve thought about going back to school, a new career, and it’s hard when you put so much time and energy and years into this. I went to school for this, paid off my loans. How long can we go with what’s happening in the world?

Westbrook Performing Arts Center Director Jamie Grant said Maine State Music Theatre’s plights show how much the entire industry is hurting.

“Jersey Boys” is one of the larger shows held at the venue, he said, and it got a warm reception. He was thankful for being able to host such a show for the first time since pre-pandemic.

“I am terrified because if we revert to where we were, a lot of venues won’t make it,” Grant said.

While the Westbrook Performing Arts Center is in a good position financially at this point, he hopes “Jersey Boys” will inspire other big productions to come to the city, he said.

Grant said he believes there is still an appetite for live theater.

“There were standing ovations for those first shows, people were so excited to be back in the theater. This has brought a lot of energy here after so long without anything really going on,” Grant said.

Both Grant and Clark hope ticket sales pick up for the remaining shows as they look ahead, financially to “starting from square one,” Clark said.

“The country needs theatre. People in my view should support theatre, supporting them in bad and good times,” Brunswick theater lover and Times Record columnist David Treadwell told the American Journal. Treadwell has been going to shows for 30 years.

“With shows canceled, don’t just cancel your subscription, that doesn’t help sustain the theater,” he said.

Maine State Music Theatre typically hosts its shows in the Pickard Theatre at Bowdoin College. By the 1970s, the theatre company had gotten nonprofit status, running three plays and a musical.

In the early 2000s, the Board of Trustees made a commitment to Brunswick and purchased the Maine Line Bus Garage at 22 Elm St., renovating the space as the permanent home for the nonprofit.

A set piece for “Jersey Boys.” Maine State Music Theatre Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark said that they built the complete pieces at their workshop and then moved them to Westbrook. Chance Viles / American Journal

 

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