When the curtain comes down for the last time at the Vive Les Arts Theatre next month, it will mark the end of an era.
At the end of August, for the first time in more than four decades, Killeen will not have live civic theater.
And that’s simply a shame.
Since the theater was founded in 1976 by a group local residents headed by Diane and Ted Connell, the community has enjoyed productions ranging from “Sound of Music,” “West Side Story” and “Oliver” to Neil Simon comedies, farces like “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Hairspray” and dozens of spirited musical revues.
VLA has hosted ballet performances, children’s theater camps and dozens of art showings.
Now, after one final production — Disney’s “Little Mermaid” — the theater will go dark.
And our community will grow just a bit darker along with it.
No doubt, several factors were involved in the decision to close the doors to VLA.
Obviously, the biggest factor is funding. It costs money to run a theater — salaries for the director and staff, utilities, costumes, sets, props and programs, not to mention publicity, The theater’s annual budget in 2014 showed expenditures at $357,775, according to a Guidestar report. That was a deficit of $56,157 for the year.
VLA receives money from the city’s arts commission and the Texas Commission on the Arts, but the theater also depends heavily on the support of patrons in the community, as is the case with many civic theaters.
Over the past few years, patron donations reportedly were down significantly. Several longtime, loyal contributors died, and younger patrons didn’t provide enough to make up the difference.
Also, shows typically hadn’t drawn as well in recent years as they had a decade ago, when it was common for the theater to add extra shows to accommodate theater-goers’ demands for tickets.
But the decline in donations and attendance may have been more than a matter of demographics.
Several longtime patrons said they were unhappy with the theater’s decision in 2012 to part ways with artistic director Eric Shephard after 13 years, and they were not satisfied with the quality of subsequent productions. As a result, many of these patrons reduced or curtailed their financial support.
Public sentiment is crucial to successful fundraising, as the VLA found in the aftermath of a 1999 scandal in which the theater’s administrative assistant was arrested and charged with stealing $120,000 from the organization.
Surprisingly, the theater’s patrons increased their support in the wake of the incident, and the VLA weathered what could have been a damaging storm.
In light of Thursday’s surprising announcement that the theater is closing its doors, two questions loom large: Why didn’t the VLA board let the public know the severity of the situation before deciding to pull the plug? And what other options were explored to keep the theater open and viable?
The theater-going public deserves to know the answers, especially those who have generously supported the theater or appeared in its productions over the past four decades.
The board’s decision to close the theater with little fanfare — and without any kind of last-ditch fundraising campaign — diminishes the place the theater has held in our community over the last 40 years.
From its humble beginnings in 1976 when VLA put on six shows in the Killeen High School Auditorium, the theater’s repertoire and reputation have grown.
VLA moved to the old Texas Theater downtown in 1980 and renovated the building to accommodate stage productions.
In January 1991, VLA dedicated its current building, an impressive facility that features a 400-seat theater, a proscenium stage, orchestra pit, a spacious lobby that doubles as an art gallery and administrative offices.
Over the course of four decades, VLA became a cultural jewel in Central Texas, typically drawing theater-goers from outside the Killeen-Fort Hood area. Last year, in its 40th season, the theater offered eight main shows and six other productions, including the “The Nutracker Ballet” and two children’s theater shows.
It’s hard to believe that the theater could go from a full-scale 40th anniversary celebration to closing its doors in a year’s time. But that’s the reality our community faces.
Closing our community theater not only removes a rich source of locally produced cultural entertainment, but it also strips away a vital resource for young actors who want to get experience performing in preparation for a potential career in the theater arts.
Almost every community of Killeen’s size, and many even smaller, have thriving community theater programs, including the Temple Civic Theater.
With a population of more than 140,000, Killeen shouldn’t be an exception to that list.
City officials owe it to the community to re-evaluate the city’s arts funding to see if anything can be done in the short term to keep the theater operating until a permanent solution can be found.
It’s also incumbent on city officials to reach out to other nonprofit theater groups in the area to see if there is any interest in bringing productions to Killeen.
In addition, the city’s tourism director should try to contact businesses in the region about the possibility of corporate sponsorships to help meet the theater’s funding needs.
No doubt, the VLA board considered several options before reaching the conclusion that the theater would have to close — but the patrons who have enjoyed VLA’s shows for so many years should get the final say.
The Central Texas community is much richer for the contributions of the Vive Les Arts Theatre over the past four decades, and we shouldn’t just accept its closing with regrets and resignation.
Simply said, we can’t just let our community theater fade to black.