Commercial theater is hardly a new idea. It’s how things are done on Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway.
But commercial theater is unusual in the rest of the country--where nonprofit regional theaters dominate--and it is almost unheard of in San Diego, where locally generated commercial productions have largely been original scripts such as “Suds” and “O’Mary’s,” for which creative teams raised money to put on just one show--their own.
But now, in what is the first of its kind locally to aspire to a series of productions, James A. Strait is trying to pull together a for-profit enterprise in a town that is grounded in nonprofit regional theater.
He’ll be banking on “Nunsense,” the hit comedy in its fifth off-Broadway year, and is looking to open it in July at the Sixth Avenue Playhouse.
Strait and Paul D. Taylor, his partner and co-producer in T.S. Productions, are looking for six limited partners to invest $5,000 apiece in exchange for 8% of any profits generated from ticket sales for the life of the production. Strait says he needs $30,650 to get the play through opening night. He and Taylor will chip in the $650.
So far, they have raised $10,000, with the possibility of another $10,000 coming in soon. Strait is putting the money in an account that can’t be touched until the full $30,000 is raised. If the money isn’t raised in 60 days, the investors get their money back.
Part of the commercial lure for Strait, 36, is that no public money is involved. He said it was his experience with struggling for funds at the nonprofit Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company that gave him the urge to try something different.
T.S. Productions “toyed with the idea of going the not-for-profit route, when this whole thing about the city TOT funding came down,” said Strait, referring to City Manager John Lockwood’s recent proposal to cut all transient occupancy tax funds from San Diego arts organizations. The City Council has since proposed restoring TOT funding for the arts at the fiscal 1990 level.
“I think there are too many nonprofits now, and the climate is not conducive to a larger number. The fact is that everybody is scrambling. Everyone is going to the same people for money, and there are only a handful of people in this town--like Joan Kroc, Don and Darlene Shiley and Helen Edison, God rest her soul--who are able and willing to support nonprofits in a substantial way.”
“You spend so much time going after the $500 donation that sometimes it detracts from what you are trying to do,” he said. “I experienced a lot of that. With something like this, we can broaden our base of support. Instead of asking people to donate money, we are asking them to make a bona fide business investment. This seems more viable for us.”
Strait, who was recently ousted as producing director of Kit Goldman’s Gaslamp, is optimistic about trying the venture in the summer, despite the glut of theater openings.
“I think this (show) is unique,” he said. “I’ve always found the summer is one of the best times for something lighthearted.”
Strait, who also worked for the Starlight Musical Theatre, said he admires the work done in the nonprofit arena, but sees little room for one more player.
“Nunsense,” which does not yet have an opening date, does have a closing date of Aug. 26, but Strait and Taylor are scouting locations for a second run that could begin as early as September and last as long as two years. Or so they hope.
If they fill the Sixth Avenue Playhouse at even 65% capacity, Strait calculates, he may be returning dividends as high as $400 to $500 a week on top of the partners’ initial investment by fall.
Strait, a San Diego County native who hails from Oceanside, plans to curb costs by casting locally, and he has already assembled a production team. He plans to direct, Taylor will produce, Heidi Lynn will be musical director, J.D. Burns will choreograph the production, and Claudea Jardot will be stage manager.
Strait’s plan is to keep producing a series of commercial properties created by others. He is also planning a for-profit production of “Party of One,” the musical he directed for the Gaslamp earlier this year.
“What I want to do is work for myself,” Strait said. “I want to be able to have control over my own destiny and my own projects. And I if I find something that I want to do, I can do it. Of course, I’m going to try to find things that are commercially viable.”
Strait picked “Nunsense” for his first show because of its track record. Out of 60 productions of the show done around the world, two broke even and the rest made a profit.
The show, which won an Outer Critics Circle Award in 1986 for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical of 1985-86, is a comedy about five members of the Order of the Little Sisters of Hoboken, sometimes referred to as the Little Hobos, who stage a variety show to raise money to bury the last of their order, who expired as a result of botulism in the vichyssoise prepared by the convent cook, Sister Julia, Child of God.
Strait initially acquired the rights to do the show as a Gaslamp production in 1987, and was frustrated by managing director Goldman’s decision to pass on it.
“I thought it was a major coup, and when they (the Gaslamp Quarter team) said it was dumb, I was very resentful. If I had the money then, I would have done it,” he said.
“I honestly didn’t care for it that much,” Goldman acknowledged. “But I think it will be a huge hit, and it will make everyone a lot of money and run for a long time.”