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Lean, mean and scared

When Gilbert Cates tries to explain the hard times facing the Geffen Playhouse, he turns to an analogy from his long experience as a film director and producer of television shows, including the annual Academy Awards telecast. Whenever studio heads talk about cutting the budget for one of his movie projects, Cates compares it to trimming an airplane.

Sure, you can take a little off the wheel, a little off the engine, a little off the wing, he tells them. “But at the end of the day,” Cates asked, “does the thing still fly?”

Actually, Cates added a colorful adjective before the word “thing,” a mark of his frustration and concern at how dramatically the current global recession is affecting the Geffen, of which he is producing director, and other local playhouses. From large theatrical enterprises to midsize houses to the vast array of 99-seat venues stretching from the San Fernando Valley to Orange County, many local stages are feeling the pinch, or in some cases the vise grip, of the world economic downturn.

The good news, so to speak, for many nonprofit L.A. theaters is that they’ve long been accustomed to lean budgets. Making do with less is a permanent habit in a city whose greatest theatrical asset may be its wealth of small, scrappy companies wedged into converted storefronts in places like North Hollywood and strung along once-forsaken blocks of Santa Monica Boulevard.

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But for some local theaters, years of thrifty budgeting may no longer provide a sufficient defense against looming calamity. Many are watching with mounting concern as other theaters around the country go broke and shut down. They’re worried that even if they survive 2009 relatively unscathed, the foundation, corporate and private donor dollar flow that supports them is drying up.

Although the $825-billion stimulus package proposed by House Democrats includes money for the National Endowment for the Arts, it’s unknown whether that item will make the package’s final version or whether any of that money might reach L.A. theaters. In any case, local theater managers aren’t holding their breath for a federal bailout.

“Nobody that I know of is thinking, ‘I’ll look to the government to help me get out of this,’ ” said Elizabeth Doran, managing director of the Actors’ Gang in Culver City.

At Westwood’s Geffen, Cates said, the situation is “drastic,” both for the 522-seat main stage and the Audrey Skirball Kenis space, which can seat up to 114. The theater’s contributed income, which accounts for 45% of its budget, is down $250,000 from last year. Subscribers have declined from more than 12,000 last year to 10,600, and single-ticket sales have fallen 25% from last year, despite such tantalizing offerings this season as the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still,” with Dan Sullivan directing a cast that includes Alicia Silverstone, and a musical fashioned from the cult film “Nightmare Alley.”

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Cates said he’s putting out “a call to action” to help the Geffen raise $1 million by the end of this season. “I don’t know how many more cuts I can make before this plane doesn’t fly.”

Part of the Geffen’s problem is that it lacks an endowment; a campaign to create one had to be put off because of this year’s stock market tumble. But even debt-free, well-endowed theaters such as South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa have been stricken with shrinking-portfolio syndrome.

“We’ve lowered our sales expectations and we’ve reduced the budget by $400,000, and we’re not done,” said Paula Tomei, SCR’s managing director. “We have to do all this without compromising quality, and that is very challenging.”

So far, SCR hasn’t needed to shake up its show lineup for financial reasons. However, Tomei added, “I don’t expect there’ll be a large-cast show on next year’s season.”

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In recent interviews, some local artistic and managing directors spoke with determination about the need to raise their game artistically, explore creative new marketing and fundraising strategies and find ways to inspire and serve their audiences even better.

“At a time like this, you have to talk about reducing ticket prices and providing more services to the community,” said Academy Award-winning actor Tim Robbins, artistic director of the Actors’ Gang. “Things are falling apart, and you can sit and whine and complain about it, or you can get out there and volunteer.”

To help its audiences cope with lighter wallets, the Actors’ Gang is considering adding another pay-what-you-can night per week. All performances of its last show, “I Am Not a Racist, but . . .,” were pay-what-you-can, which Doran called “a direct response to the troubled economy.”

“I don’t want to say it’s radicalizing, but it is turning up the desire to do bigger, greater, stronger art with the members of the Gang,” Doran said. “If you’re creating art that boldly reflects your society, it will give strong identity to your theater.”

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At many theaters, caution, not panic, is the prevailing attitude. Laura Zucker, executive director of the L.A. County Arts Commission, said an end-of-season analysis showed that attendance at the county-run John Anson Ford Amphitheatre didn’t decline appreciably last year. In spite of that, she said, last season a number of producers “were getting extremely nervous, so they began discounting and dropping prices,” leaving them unable to meet customer demand for last-minute full-price tickets.

As far as the issue of continued government funding of the arts commission, Zucker said, “the county is very well managed fiscally and is really not in bad shape at the moment. But if the state whacks us, we could be hurting.”

Some local playhouse overseers lament that foundations, corporations and individual donors, who lost millions when Wall Street swan-dived, are being forced to write smaller checks to cultural pet projects.

“We’re hearing it somewhat at the donor end,” said Michael Ritchie, artistic director of Center Theatre Group, which administers the Mark Taper Forum, Ahmanson Theatre and Kirk Douglas Theatre. “They’re saying, ‘Come back to me in a couple of months,’ or ‘I’m only going to be able to do half my donation this year.’ ”

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For now, CTG’s subscriptions are holding steady with last season, and single-ticket sales are only slightly behind, Ritchie said. But he’s looking ahead to when an anticipated shortfall of Broadway touring musicals may drain the reservoir of new shows available to the Ahmanson. “It’s four years from now where we might run into a situation where there aren’t a lot of tours.

“We’re pretty bullish on our shows for the spring . . .,” Ritchie said, adding, “time will tell how that plays out.

“If you begin to reduce to the lowest common denominator of popularity . . . it will end up hurting you. It’s a little too early to be in a fire sale.”

Even local playhouses that haven’t felt any direct ripple effects from the subprime mortgage crisis are bracing themselves. “The concern we have is that we’re getting rumblings and rumors and not-so-rumors of theaters that are really in trouble around the country,” said Simon Levy, producing director of the Fountain Theatre.

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In the not-so-rumor category is the Carousel Dinner Theatre, a 35-year-old Equity house in Akron, Ohio, which canceled its 2009 season and closed its doors Jan. 4. According to a message from Executive Producer and Chief Executive Joseph E. Palmer, posted on the Carousel’s website, the faltering economy, combined with poor attendance, spelled the theater’s demise. In Minnesota last summer, the Twin Cities’ award-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune shut down operations, depriving the Upper Midwest of one of its most respected ensembles.

The venerable Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, N.Y., where the likes of Glenn Close, Kelsey Grammer and Jon Voight have nurtured their careers, last February closed the curtain on its season. Buffalo media have reported that Studio Arena is expected to come under the management of the city’s Shea’s Performing Arts Center, a national historic site, under a bankruptcy restructuring plan.

Levy said the bearish economy probably will accelerate the Fountain’s efforts to shift more resources away from print advertising into e-marketing aimed at niche audiences. Significant technology-driven changes were underway before the recession hit, Levy said, and theaters must continue to adapt to this changing promotional landscape if they’re going to survive.

“I really do believe this is a cycle like any other cycle,” Levy said. “The real question is, how long will it last?”

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Cates, at the Geffen, isn’t waiting around to find out. By sounding the alarm now, he hopes to avoid a financial meltdown akin to the recent travails of the Museum of Contemporary Art, which required an eleventh-hour bailout from billionaire Eli Broad.

“I don’t want it to be like the MOCA situation where people say, ‘Oh, we didn’t know,’ ” Cates said. “OK, now you know. What are you going to do about it?”

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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