Shadow and Act

Penumbra Theatre's campaign to build an ambitious new stage has the makings of an epic drama--or a nonprofit tragedy

 

 

One typical workday finds Lou Bellamy perched in a chair in the theater's narrow atrium tapping at a laptop computer and fielding phone messages. With his solid build and mustachioed, leading-man face, Bellamy looks outsize in his modest surroundings. He is fresh and animated, despite having jetted in a mere 24 hours earlier from the London premiere of Rita Dove's The Darker Face of the Earth, which Penumbra will co-produce with the Guthrie in March 2000. While speaking candidly about the decision to trim the 1999 season, Bellamy also downplays the company's financial situation. "When you talk about cutting," he begins, "that presumes that there was something to cut from. So one might argue that this is the season that was offered that's just somewhat abbreviated. There was no publicity that went out that said, 'This is the season, now we're going to cut it.' Now, that's one perception."

Good Fences make good neighbors: Penumbra's Lou Bellamy, seen here in a Penumbra-Guthrie collaboration, seeks local corporate support.
Good Fences make good neighbors: Penumbra's Lou Bellamy, seen here in a Penumbra-Guthrie collaboration, seeks local corporate support.

The other perception, he explains, is that Penumbra must demonstrate its liquidity before beginning the massive fundraising effort for a new facility. The company's situation is somewhat urgent, as well, since the $2.25 million appropriation that Bellamy and longtime company member and Penumbra booster August Wilson secured from the state Legislature in 1998 must be used within five years. Penumbra, which had hoped for $8 million in state funding for what was originally to be a $26 million "multi-arts" facility, must also match the state's contribution with funding from other sources--an enormous task for any theater company, but especially challenging for Penumbra because, Bellamy says, the company has not traditionally enjoyed close connections to the local corporate community.

On this matter, however, Penumbra's board of directors does not necessarily defer to Bellamy's judgment. According to board member Earl F. Kyle, "There may be those who in a perfect world would wish for more support, but it's not accurate or fair to say that corporations haven't been there for us." And indeed of the $1.25 million in support that Penumbra secured in 1998, 40 percent came from the local private sector, including grants of about $35,000 apiece from the General Mills Foundation and the 3M Foundation. So if corporate indifference is not the root cause of Penumbra's penury problem, what could it be?

The financial travails that result from shrinking audiences and cash-flow fluctuations are endemic to all nonprofit theaters. Yet in recent years, foundation grants, the lifeblood of many small theater companies, have sometimes compounded these problems by shifting from unrestricted donations to funds earmarked for specific purposes such as "audience development." For instance, the $350,000 Ford Foundation "capacity building" grant that Penumbra received this year, is intended specifically for developing infrastructure such as computer systems--and cannot be used to pay down operating deficits. Two-thirds of Penumbra's annual budget comes from outside funding, and most of that comes from private sources such as the McKnight Foundation, the St. Paul Companies, and the Bush Foundation. The company also gets regular support from the State Arts Board ($90,000 in 1998).

In a larger context, the irony of the current funding situation is that it is often more cost effective for small theaters not to produce any work at all, since plays rarely pay for themselves through box-office returns. This is especially true at Penumbra, which, according to Bellamy, spends very little on marketing and advertising, puts a great deal of money into every production, and pays its actors well above union minimums. "We're almost there, but we don't yet have that stability," he says. "And that has to do by and large with the community, the business community, the corporate community....It's interesting because they see great worth in marketing to us and our community, but they might not see the worth in supporting an endeavor like this. We have to show them how worthwhile that is."

In an atmosphere that ostensibly values multiculturalism as both a goal and an aesthetic, however, it may actually be getting harder for theaters like Penumbra to demonstrate their worth to funders. Marion McClinton, a nationally renowned director and playwright who worked extensively with Penumbra in the 1980s explains: "What they're asking to do is not really that expensive when you look at what people will do if, say, Orchestra Hall needs to be rebuilt. They'll drop millions and millions of dollars into something like that. It's this disparity between what society values and what the gatekeepers think they value.

"Money that could have gone to Penumbra or Crossroads [Theatre, in New Jersey] is going to places that were barring their doors to begin with. It's a curious way of rewarding people who are avoiding a certain kind of work and punishing people who have been doing it for years."

The opinion that large, established, and white theaters may be getting funding for cultural work that should be going to culturally specific institutions is now common among African-American theater artists. "Any time that money is going to an institution that produces African-American theater instead of to an African-American theater, that's a problem," explains Jackie Taylor, executive producer of Chicago's Black Ensemble Theatre Company.

Bellamy agrees that funding which should rightfully go to African-American theaters often gets channeled to theaters less sensitive to the intricacies of this specific cultural experience. The danger, he has consistently maintained, is that large regional theaters will siphon off talent and literature developed in the African-American artistic community, and theaters like Penumbra will slowly starve.

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