The ongoing drama involving the planned closing of Killeen’s Vive Les Arts Theatre is itself worthy of the stage.
The divide that was evident in the board’s split vote to shutter the doors on the financially troubled theater has spilled over into the public arena — first in the form of a letter from the VLA board’s chairman, Summer Heidtbrink, and subsequently by the very public resignation of seven board members.
A few days later, the board chairman sent out a notice of an Aug. 1 meeting of VLA members, at which the membership will have the opportunity to vote on whether to keep the theater open. And the very next day, the chairman fired off a statement to the media disputing accusations by the resigning members that she had violated the organization’s bylaws. Further, she asserted that the board’s vote lacked credibility since other options were not considered, and the recommendation to close the theater was not presented to the membership for consideration.
In the wake of this public squabbling, it seems unlikely the theater will have the sort of dignified sendoff the board had hoped for just a few weeks ago.
On the contrary, the Aug. 1 meeting is likely to be marked by strong statements and emotional fireworks — both understandable considering the theater has been an institution in the community for more than 40 years.
Obviously, the board members who favor keeping the theater open will be trying to recruit new VLA members between now and July 31, the deadline for eligibility to vote in the Aug. 1 meeting. From the outside, the effort would appear to be an attempt to stack the deck, but that may be easier said than done.
Faced with struggling finances, a lack of public support of late and no obvious strategy going forward, many residents may opt not to jump into the fray. Moreover, if the Aug. 1 vote fails to reverse the board’s decision, the new members likely will lose their $100 membership fee.
Still, if they overturn the board’s decision, they will have the opportunity to help shape the theater’s mission and business model moving forward.
That’s not a small task.
Financial documents obtained by the Herald revealed significant budget shortfalls for VLA starting in 2011, with the theater reporting sharp declines in attendance, grants and contributions.
In an email to media outlets last week, the seven resigning board members reported, “The executive committee met twice in June to review the finances and options. Seven of nine members believed that the Theatre could not commit to a new season because of the financial situation and voted that it should close gracefully at the end of the current season.”
The full board concurred and voted July 5 to close the theater at the end of August.
However, whether the theater is closed or remains open, there are plenty of unanswered questions.
First, if the theater closes, what happens to the building? The 400-seat facility, valued at about $500,000, is paid off, but the theater was sustained partly through the city’s hotel-motel tax proceeds. Further, the city owns the 6-acre parcel of land on which VLA sits. The theater has a 100-year-lease with the city that started in 1984. The current theater opened in 1991.
If the theater were to be sold, who would be the authorized seller, as the Vive Les Arts Societe is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization? Would the remaining board members have the authority to act as signatories on a contract? Would the city have to sign off on the sale, since it owns the land on which the building sits? And if the theater were sold, what would happen to the proceeds, assuming the 501(c)3 is dissolved?
The same questions apply to a lease situation. Since the city negotiated the current lease for the land, would the city have right of refusal to any potential future lease-holder?
If the members vote to reverse the board’s decision to close the theater, a whole new set of questions arise.
Will the new leadership recruit a new director for VLA or focus on a partnership with an existing theater group?
How will the new board address the theater’s financial instability in the short term, and what can be done to restore community support — both in terms of attendance and donations?
Given the severity of VLA’s financial woes, members may find themselves with an open theater building and little else to show for their efforts. Still, the group deserves a chance to at least try to right the ship.
In her letter last week, Heidtbrink noted the members will discuss VLA’s financial health prior to the vote on closing the theater. Certainly, an independent analysis of the theater’s finances is in the best interest of all those who will have a hand in determining the theater’s path forward.
It’s laudable that community members have come forward in support of the theater, especially in the wake of the board’s vote to pull the plug on its operations. But if the theater is to succeed long term, the community at-large must make the financial commitment that will require.
If the theater is revived, it will be the new board’s responsibility to develop a workable business model and identify potential patrons who can sustain the organization over the long term.
This could be a perfect opportunity to expand the mission of the theater, possibly making it more of a year-round resource for children, with the addition of theater workshops, mini-camps and other arts-related activities.
The theater board also could open VLA’s artistic decision-making up to more community involvement, perhaps offering area residents the opportunity to help choose which plays make it to the stage.
One of the frequently expressed criticisms of VLA is that it is perceived as an elitist organization. The best way to counter that impression is to broaden the theater’s access and appeal.
It is, after all, a community theater.
Obviously, a lot is riding on the membership’s vote late next week. It’s a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly, balancing the needs of the community with the reality of the theater’s financial hardships.
Whether VLA will have an encore remains to be seen. In the meantime, this drama is likely to have a few more acts.