Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Good and the Bad at Mill Mountain

Posted by Bruce Miller
We LOVE Mill Mountain Theater, one of our co-producers of Blackbirds of Broadway not so many years ago and a cultural cornerstone of Roanoke for over 40 years. It was with a heavy heart that I read this press release last night from their Board of Directors:

“Roanoke, Virginia, Jan 20, 2009

Mill Mountain Theatre’s Board of Directors announced today that the theater will close its doors on January 21 in order to focus on a reorganization of the Theater’s productions and business operations. Layoffs will begin on that date.

Sharply declining income, reduced state funding, lower than expected donations, changes in consumer entertainment choices, and the effects of today’s challenging economy have left the Theater unable to cover its operating costs. Existing debt is compounding the theater’s financial difficulties.

This difficult decision has been made after a long and thorough scrutiny of alternatives, reforecasts, and requests for relief made to donors and existing creditors.

‘Our traditional business model no longer works. We want to be responsible stewards of our community’s long-standing financial support so we are taking a break from business-as-usual to reinvent Mill Mountain Theater. We are taking an intermission,” says a theater spokesperson, “and plan to reemerge stronger and better than ever.’

Theater Board of Directors and staff are working closely with local officials and key contributors to create a model for the Theater’s future that acknowledges the organization’s historical importance to the region’s identify and tourism initiatives, while being sensitive to today’s economic realities. An aggressive fund-raising campaign based on the new business plan will begin upon the announcement of the plan’s details.

Theaters across the United States, including Broadway, are experiencing the effects of the economic downturn with rising costs and decreased attendance. According to the New York Times, ‘The annual post-holiday doldrums in the theater district are proving particularly doleful in 2009, as more than a dozen plays and musicals—almost half of the current lineup, incredible though it may seem—get ready to close by the end of the month.’ Regional theaters, all approximately the size of Mill Mountain, in Ohio, Florida, Minnesota, and Boston have all closed in recent months.

Theater officials assure Roanoke arts patrons, ‘Mill Mountain Theater is doing the responsible thing and securing its future by reinventing and reinvigorating how we do business.’ The first production of the newly reinvented organization is planned for the 2009 holiday season. Season ticket holders will receive vouchers for cancelled plays that can be applied to next season’s shows.

Of the plays remaining its current season (sic), Mill Mountain will present Driving Miss Daisy (WALDRON STAGE, January 21 – February 8, 2009). The theater box office will close on January 21 but tickets can be purchased by cash or check at the theater box office in the lobby of the Waldron Stage at the Church Avenue entrance one hour before the show.”

The Roanoke Times further reports today that Mill Mountain’s “staff will be let go as of this Friday, January 23, and plans for the theater’s future are uncertain.”

Our hearts and prayers go out to all of our colleagues who will be losing their Mill Mountain jobs at the end of this week.

The bad news is that Mill Mountain is in a position where they are forced to let go their staff and cancel the rest of their season. And that’s pretty bad news.

The good news, and we should celebrate this, is that the Board is facing these challenges responsibly. They are NOT closing the theatre. They are choosing to engage in the hard work of reinventing the theatre to suit emerging financial realities.

I am hopeful that Mill Mountain will return and once again light up its beautiful theatre in the heart of Roanoke. I congratulate the Board on NOT throwing in the towel and walking away. It takes courage, commitment and smarts to continue to fight the good fight, even when the Board, I’m sure, is broke, exhausted and demoralized. Three cheers and then three cheers more to all the Mill Mountain Board members who are refusing to let their institution die. That, my friends, is what it takes.

Business-as-usual is tough. Reinventing the business is a LOT tougher. But a small group of good people can make it work, and, in Mill Mountain’s case, it appears that that is exactly what's happening.

During the long hard days that now begin, Barksdale and Theatre IV will offer whatever support we can to the Mill Mountain Board as they take up this yoke of responsibility and move forward with determination and creativity. God speed.

--Bruce Miller

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