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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Playhouse progress more than make-believe

With the summer season in the books and 2016 season ticket sales off to a record start, things are looking up at the Flat Rock Playhouse.

The welcome recovery is worth noting, given that three years ago the State Theatre of North Carolina was in serious danger of going under. Those who helped save the Playhouse in 2012 and 2014 deserve credit for navigating through those perilous times. Through generous private donations and public money the Playhouse survived to live another day. The recession, the investment in the Playhouse Downtown and new leadership that brought edgier productions were among the causes for the theater’s near-death experience. Now patrons, the tourism industry, educators and the Vagabond nation should be celebrating the achievement of Lisa K. Bryant and her team in restoring the Playhouse to its 60-year legacy as an essential part of our culture.
An actress who came to the Playhouse as an apprentice 20 years ago, Bryant has been a choreographer, director and schoolteacher. Most importantly, what she represents now is a tangible link between the Vagabond tradition going back to founder Robroy Farquhar and the sharp-pencil business imperative that the Board of Trustees and the community has demanded.
When they explain the planning for the 2016 season, Bryant and marketing director Dane Whitlock emphasize an important and obvious pivot. They asked patrons what they wanted and they delivered it.
“We weren’t able to do all the No. 1 choices,” Whitlock said. “It depends on what we can afford, are the rights available, how big is the cast?”
That last sentence perfectly highlights the new focus on cost containment.
Creative people aren’t naturals at putting the budget first. Bryant, who now is functionally both the creative director and the business manager of the theater, has focused relentlessly on trimming costs while still delivering quality entertainment.
On the revenue side, Whitlock made the smart decision to blow up past assumptions about season ticket pricing — assumptions he found out. After surveying peer theaters he proposed a new pricing structure that offered more flexible ticket packages and heavier discounts for Main Stage and Downtown shows and the Music on the Rock series. Those changes, combined with a 2016 lineup that features surefire hits and oft-requested shows, had the box office buzzing when ticket sales opened in early September.
If the Playhouse climbed off the deathbed it is not out of the woods. It is still paying down the debt that has burdened the business since 2010. Like every other performing arts nonprofit in the country, the theater will still ask for donations and grants from patrons, city and county taxpayers and foundations.
The difference now, thanks to the work of the Flat Rock Playhouse Board of Trustees and the executive team, is that donors, elected leaders and Playhouse patrons can again contribute with confidence that the theater is watching expenses, maximizing revenue and staging shows people want to see.