Anonymous donor helps keep Colony Theatre in Burbank going

Anonymous donor helps keep Colony Theatre in Burbank going
Fundraising has helped the Colony Theatre in Burbank to stabilize finances after a near-collapse in 2012. (Rick Bernstein / Colony Theatre)

With apologies to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, the title of this theater tale could be "Out of the Woods."

The Colony Theatre in Burbank said a fundraising push that began around Thanksgiving snowballed into about $260,000 -- more than five times what initially was expected and enough to put the theater on secure fiscal footing 16 months after it had announced it was on the verge of closing.


Hundreds of supporters "opened their hearts and wallets," said Barbara Beckley, the Colony's co-founder and artistic director. "Needless to say, our gratitude is boundless."

Beckley said half the credit goes to a subscriber who, requesting anonymity, initially pledged $25,000 in matching funds for the 2013 year-end drive. The aim, Beckley said, was to go beyond the company's usual $10,000 to $15,000 take for holiday-season donations.

When other donors came through with the $25,000 in two weeks, she said, the matching-funds subscriber "was amazed and said, 'keep going.'"

He wound up matching about $130,000 from other donors. In making good on the pledge, Beckley said, he "gulped and made jokes" about giving till it hurts.

The drive's success means the Colony will put on five plays in the 2014-15 season, to be announced in the spring, up from this season's four, Beckley said.

The 268-seat Colony's troubles became public just before Halloween 2012, when it announced it would have to close if it couldn't raise $49,000 immediately and $500,000 by year's end.

Beckley said that the emergency fundraising brought in about $150,000 over several months. That was enough to keep the theater going until the Marilyn P. and Wayne H. Kohl Memorial Fund stepped in with a $342,000 grant that stabilized the Colony's finances, enabling it to announce the current season, which began last fall.

Unlike in 2012, Beckley said, when "there was a desperation" to the campaign, the recent success "was people investing in our future" in the course of normal fundraising.

The next play is Lissa Levin's "Sex and Education," directed by former Laguna Playhouse artistic director Andrew Barnicle. It begins previews Wednesday and has its opening Saturday. Stephanie Zimbalist stars as a high school teacher who catches a graduating star basketball player passing a sexually explicit note during a final exam. That gives her unaccustomed educational leverage over the young athlete, who fears her power to spoil his meal-ticket scholarship to an NBA feeder-college.

"The Lion in Winter," James Goldman's drama about marital upheaval between medieval royals Eleanor of Aquitaine (Mariette Hartley) and Henry II (Ian Buchanan), opens April 19.

In 2000, after 25 years under the 99-seat theater plan that allows companies to pay a pittance to actors on small stages, the Colony risked stepping up to full-size status that requires paying actors and stage managers a union wage.


Union wages kicked in in 2001, after a one-year transition period allowed by Actors' Equity, Beckley said, and with them came a nine-year streak of annual budget deficits, ranging from $3,290 to $123,056. By mid-2010 the Colony's run of deficits had left it $448,738 in the red, its tax returns show.

The company cut its spending about 12% from a peak of $962,000 in 2009-10 to $843,000 in 2011-12, lowering the accumulated deficit to about $76,000 by mid-2012. But that didn't prevent the funding crisis that soon arrived.

Now the Colony has erased the accumulated deficit, Beckley said, and a lesson learned over its rocky decade-plus has been that "if you cut and cut and cut, pretty soon you've cut yourself out of existence. The only way is to be brave and bold and invest."

The Colony has 10 employees, she said, seven full-time -- an increase from five employees (three full-time) about two years ago. All the full-timers are involved in some dimension of fundraising, she said, and the recent campaign coincided with the hiring in November of the Colony's first fundraising director, Karan Kendrick, who arrived with a bachelor's degree in theater from Spelman College, a master's in business administration from Wesleyan College and more than a decade of experience running an arts academy in her hometown of Fort Valley, Ga.

Colony shows typically are at 60% to 65% capacity, Beckley said, and the plan going forward includes increased advertising in hopes of boosting ticket sales.