On Tuesday, the membership of Killeen’s Vive Les Arts Theatre was given the opportunity to decide the fate of the theater. Did members make the right decision in voting to keep the financially troubled theater open? More importantly, did they have the right to make that decision?
The members’ 93-1 vote essentially reversed a decision by the VLA’s executive board of directors early last month, which called for the closing of the theater at the end of August and dissolution of the nonprofit organization in the face of sharply declining revenue.
The suddenness of the board’s announcement shocked the community and drew protests from residents who felt blindsided by the decision.
The ensuing weeks were filled with plenty of drama worthy of the VLA stage, with seven board members resigning after board chairman Summer Heidtbrink sent out a letter hinting at keeping the theater open and making a reference to the legitimacy of the board’s vote.
In the wake of the board resignations, Heidtbrink scheduled a meeting of VLA’s members, along with an invitation to residents to purchase memberships by July 31 — the day before the meeting.
Heidtbrink says the VLA bylaws sanction the vote, because the executive board neglected to consider other options besides closing the theater, and that the board didn’t consult with the membership before moving toward dissolution.
Heidtbrink offers valid points, but Tuesday’s vote may have been more show than substance.
Indeed, it could be argued that only another board vote can overturn the previous board’s action.
The membership will meet again next week to select new board members and elect new officers. Logically, the new board should formalize last week’s decision by the membership to keep the theater open — and at that point, the nonprofit would appear to be back in business.
The Vive Les Arts Theatre has been an institution in the community for 40 years, and until the last six years, it had enjoyed considerable success.
Briefing members before the vote last week, CPA Ron Stepp painted a somber picture of how the theater’s reserves dwindled from a robust $480,000 in 2011 to just $165,000 in 2017. Notably, $170,000 of those losses occurred over the last three years.
Still, VLA members have good reason for optimism.
“The Little Mermaid” — which had been billed as VLA’s final production — sold out six shows over two consecutive weekends and drew favorable reviews from audience members.
Perhaps it was the hype surrounding the theater’s impending closing, or perhaps VLA struck the right note with audiences in producing a fun, family-friendly musical based on a popular Disney film. Either way, the theater showed it was possible to put on a successful play that makes money.
In addition, the theater receives nearly $100,000 annually from the Killeen Arts Commission, divided between VLA and the VLA Children’s Theater.
Plus, VLA’s not exactly broke, with $165,000 in the bank.
Given those positives, did the executive board pull the plug on the theater too quickly?
That depends on how you look at the theater’s finances.
Board member JoAnn Purser said one costly equipment failure or repair could wipe out much of the theater’s savings. She added that the board’s intent was to never have any debt, and that the mounting losses were unsustainable.
Purser was quick to note the theater would not be able to survive on $100 memberships — and she’s right.
The theater is due for about $170,000 in renovations — none of which were undertaken in the past three years. Paying salaries, utility bills and royalty rights will eat up another large portion of VLA’s funds.
No doubt, the new theater board will have to get creative in finding ways to make the theater sustainable for the long term.
Already, Heidtbrink says, theaters in nearby cities have reached out to discuss potential partnerships. That would certainly reduce the cost of producing shows.
The theater could also consider selling naming rights to the theater’s auditorium or corporate underwriting of VLA’s productions, as a local auto dealership did for “The Little Mermaid.”
VLA could also rent out the theater for local talent shows, poetry readings and musical events to augment the theater’s revenue.
Whatever marketing and business strategies it employs, the executive board must be willing to engage with its members and the public at-large — to give area residents a sense of ownership.
That’s something that’s been somewhat lacking in recent years.
If VLA is to succeed, it must be more than a community theater. It must be the community’s theater. Now is the time to start that transition.