Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mill Mountain Theatre 'Taking an Intermission'

Roanoke's professional theater, Mill Mountain Theatre, will cease operations in order "to focus on reorganization of the theater's productions and business operations" Jan. 21. The board of directors announced the decision because of "sharply declining income, reduced state funding, lower than expected donations, changes in consumer entertainment choices and the effects of today's challenging economy." The board has not decided whether to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection an official said.

The theater has considerable existing debt and its income has been much lower than projected for recent productions. It has been an especially difficult economy for theaters nationally and a number the size of MMT have closed in recent months. They include theaters in Ohio, Florida, Minnesota and Boston, according to an MMT release. In the Roanoke area, funds have been especially scarce with the recent opening of the Taubman Museum of Art, a facility which has already absorbed more than $50 million, and will have an operating projected at more than $3 million a year.

The loss of Mill Mountain Theatre, even for a year, would be yet another strain on Center in the Square, which houses the theater and a number of other arts organizations. Center has struggled in recent months.

In a joint statement, the board released this: "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 and plan to re-emerge stronger and better than ever."

The board and staff will work with local officials and contributors to create a new model and an "aggressive fund-raising campaign, based on a new business plan, will begin upon the announcement of the plan's details."

The release says that "Mill Mountain Theatre is doing the responsible thing and securing its future by reinventing and reinvigorating how we do business." The first production of the revamped season can be expected during the 2009 holiday season, officials say. Season ticket holders will receive vouchers for the canceled plays. They will be good for next season's plays.

The theater will present "Driving Miss Daisy" Jan. 21-Feb. 8 as scheduled.

COMMENT: If you didn't see this coming, you weren't looking. The combination of stale plays, dipping morale, weak leadership, a bad economy, the sucking sound from the Taubman's money machine and a business model that was as old as the theater knocked out Mill Mountain Theatre. The relatively recent firing of a popular leader of MMT's children's programs (Pat Wilhelms, who formed her own school at the Taubman) and a flap with one of MMT's most popular local actor/personalities was a body blow.

MMT has some good board members--Cynthia Lawrence and Nancy Agee to name two who could turn this thing around--but it will need to be bold, innovative and take a few directions from Ernie Zulia, who used to work at the theater, but is now at Hollins. Ernie has created a theater at a small, elite woman's college that rivals anything MMT has done in recent years and he has done it without spending gobs of money, disheartening supporters and employees and running plays that nobody would attend save for the old and infirm.

1 comment:

  1. I ran across your blog when doing a search on Mill Mountain Theatre. Given their business model when I worked there in 1992-1993, I am not surprised that they have closed their doors, only that they survived as long as they did.

    I'm actually writing a short story about my time there. Any chance you remember the name of the bar that used to be located on the back corner of the building the theatre is housed in back in 1993? Corner of 1st and Church I think it was.