Geffen Playhouse addresses money blues

The courtyard at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood
(Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles Times)

Hoping to boost attendance after a year of production cuts and emergency fundraising appeals, the financially stretched Geffen Playhouse has worked in a new marketing wrinkle: using the Web-based ticket-discounter Goldstar to sell season subscriptions at half price.

Buyers snapped up the limited offer in a matter of days, purchasing 287 five-play subscriptions for $87.50, plus Goldstar’s $10.50 service fee. The successful bargain-hunters -- whose seats are for previews only, in locations at the back of the house -- will take in a 2009-10 season headlined by film stars Matthew Modine, Annette Bening and Laurence Fishburne.

The Geffen’s producing director, Gilbert Cates, and its new managing director, Ken Novice, don’t see the deep discount as a desperate measure for desperate times -- although the Geffen, lacking an endowment and still carrying $2.6 million in debt from its 2005 expansion and renovation, has its share of economic challenges. The point, says Novice, wasn’t so much to bank a quick $25,000 in upfront revenue that the offer brought in as to ensure fuller houses for each preview performance. He said he hopes the Goldstar buyers will include many newcomers who’ll buzz about the plays at an early stage of the run, when good word of mouth has more time to spread and pay off at the box office.

“For some people the play is the thing . . . and for some the deal is the thing. . . . I wanted to give them an opportunity to sample it at a really good price,” said Novice, who with the Geffen’s new marketing director, Joseph Yoshitomi, had tried a similar strategy last year when they engineered a Pasadena Playhouse deal with Goldstar to sell a half-price, three-show package.

The discount ploy comes on the heels of a season in which Cates had to plead for $1 million in emergency donations and when the Geffen suspended in-house productions in the 100- to 130-seat Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, which has yet to prove economically suited to the steady run of new and experimental plays for which it was primarily built.

“We were in trouble,” Cates said, looking back on a recession-plagued fiscal year whose end today comes none too soon for him. “We . . . had to do whatever was necessary to save the theater.”

The Geffen has high-profile company for its deep subscription discounting. Three seasons ago, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company used Goldstar to sell an unlimited number of $100 subscriptions for its Tuesday night performances.

Although the deal didn’t bring in the predominantly younger group Steppenwolf had envisioned, marketing director Linda Garrison said, it worked well enough for the company to keep it and expand it to Wednesdays as well.

Center Theatre Group is offering hefty savings of its own for its 2010 season at the Mark Taper Forum, where a five-show subscription for Wednesday through Friday night previews costs $99 for any seat in the venue’s two side sections. That’s just $1 more than the Geffen’s offer, and with more than triple the number of subscription seats available at the lowest price.

“Previews are a good opportunity to get an audience in and get word-of-mouth going,” said Jim Royce, CTG’s marketing director. “It’s worth getting people into those previews at whatever price a theater can afford to do.”

“It’s a great idea for attracting new audiences,” said Jim Volz, a Cal State Fullerton professor specializing in theater management. “And I don’t think it alienates your loyal subscribers at all,” since the deals are restricted to previews and less-desirable seat locations.

As the Geffen’s $98 subscribers settle in on Sept. 8 for the maiden performance of “Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas,” they’ll be patronizing an establishment that has little room left for economic error.

The Geffen already was in dicey financial shape when Wall Street took its dive a year ago. By then, tax statements show, the nonprofit theater company had compiled a string of four consecutive seasons of budget deficits, totaling $3.5 million in red ink. Cates says there’s a chance the Geffen will come in with a balanced budget for 2008-09, thanks to the successful emergency appeal, and cost cuts that included suspending second-stage productions and postponing the new musical “Nightmare Alley” to next spring.

Unlike peers such as Center Theatre Group and South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, the Geffen has not cut staff or reduced salaries, although its employees are forgoing cost-of-living raises.

Among its financial challenges are the $2.6 million and about $150,000 in annual interest that the playhouse owes on a $5-million construction loan it took out in 2005 to help pay for its $20-million expansion and renovation. The game plan now, Cates says, calls for pulling off a fiscally solid 2009-10 season, which means raising nearly $3 million to balance a projected $8.4-million operating budget. If all goes as planned, Cates said, the Geffen will be in a position by fall 2010 to resume its sidetracked campaign to pay off the construction debt and amass an endowment.

Cates sees this deferred fundraising as the “third act” in the playhouse’s history. The first was acquiring its 1929-vintage building in Westwood and using a cornerstone $5-million gift from music and film mogul David Geffen to launch it in 1995 as L.A.'s third major nonprofit regional theater company (alongside CTG and the Pasadena Playhouse).

Act 2 was the 2004-05 construction project that yielded an improved 522-seat mainstage and the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, intended for developing and staging new and experimental work and doubling as a rehearsal hall.

Another task is establishing “the Audrey,” as Cates calls it, as a reliable theatergoing destination. Limited work will resume there this season, Cates said, but not the full program of play development, production and youth theater that he envisions.

After nearly four years, the Geffen has yet to sustain a regular series of plays in its second space, which has seen just seven in-house productions -- including two separate runs of a magic show by Ricky Jay. After suspending its own plays at the Audrey, the Geffen recruited a rent-paying, income-generating outside show, “Louis & Keely: Live at the Sahara.” The biographical musical about 1950s entertainers Louis Prima and Keely Smith has extended its run five times since opening in March.

It’s not easy for a theater like the Audrey, with few seats and union-scale production costs, to generate enough at the box office to cover a steady diet of plays.

“I would have absolutely built a 250-seat theater,” Cates said, “but there was no room. But I’m happy with the space. People who work in it love it. It’s just the finances” that are not optimal. “We know that, and that’s cool.”

As the Geffen’s financial picture darkened this year, Cates acknowledged, “I had people say, ‘It’s a shame you built the new building . . . wouldn’t you have been better off not building it?’ ” But a better-equipped mainstage and a second stage for developing new work and producing youth-oriented plays were necessities, he says, and waiting only would have jacked up the project’s cost.

“I want the Geffen to be around well after me,” its founder says. How the playhouse’s leaders, donors and theatergoing public combine to write the third act in the drama he’s outlined will determine whether the story plays out as a piece of L.A. cultural noir or an upbeat tale of difficulties overcome.