Shadow and Act

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

Then the economy took a turn for the worse and grant money began to trickle rather than flow. Crossroads now had four times as many seats to fill and less money to do it with, along with a crippling operating deficit of $1.6 million. "We downsized everything," explains Robinson. "The budget change came right when we moved into the new building and we needed $14,000 a month to run it as opposed to $14,000 a year for the old theater. We ran through our cash reserves very quickly. Corporations weren't supporting us the same. The work suffered. Everyone was second-guessing each other about what's going to be a hit instead of pushing the outer edge of the envelope."

Two years later, the company was left with empty seats, an unmanageable deficit, a building that cost $100,000 a year to maintain, and hard choices about cutting staff, compromising artistically, and even closing their doors for good. After what was essentially a bailout by the state of New Jersey and local corporations, the company is only now beginning to regain its stature as a major national stage (the company won this year's Tony Award for outstanding regional theater).

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.

This, explains Robinson, is the crossroads at which Penumbra now stands. "If anyone can do it, they can," he says. "But it sure isn't easy. We'll say a prayer for them."

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