Corrections or additions?

This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 12,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Preview

Questions are being asked and concerns are being aired

as the curtain rises on a new season at New Jersey’s professional

theaters. What has traditionally been "show business as usual"

is suddenly, in the case of one company in particular, more business

than shows. That case is New Brunswick’s 23-year-old Crossroads

Theater.

Shock waves were felt in New Jersey and in theater centers across

the country when Crossroads Theater announced a year ago that it was

closing its doors under the burden of a $2 million debt. Now, miracle

of miracles, the 1999 Tony Award-winner for Best Regional Theater,

which came to a sudden dead-end due to its financial woes, is back

on a path to the 2002 season — although at this time the path

appears to be more cobbled than concrete. A fall production had been

hoped for, but it now appears likely that the first play will be

staged

after the first of the year.

The disclosure of Crossroads’ tremendous debt raised eyebrows and

also doubts about what constitutes proper art management practices.

Now questions being asked at board meetings include: Is this facility

improvement necessary? Can we afford that production? Should more

co-productions be sought to share costs? Are our bookkeeping methods

and financial disclosures precise and accurate? Can we continue to

count on the support of state, corporate, and individual funders even

if we operate at a deficit?

Under the guidance of Leslie Michael Edwards, selected in late July

to be Crossroads’ new executive director, Crossroads is virtually

starting up the company from scratch. Whether or not major financial

support will continue to be forthcoming from the National Endowment

for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts as it was

in the past is still unknown. There is no question that the theater

will not attempt to launch its season with a budget of $3 million,

the figure announced for the 2000-2001 season that never happened.

Edwards, 50, who earned his BA in political science at the University

of Wisconsin at Madison in 1972, and a master’s degree in broadcast

journalism at the University of Minnesota in 1976, has had a

multi-faceted

career in broadcast journalism, as a television producer for "60

Minutes," and as a corporate communications executive at

Time-Warner.

His work as director of corporate communications at Black Enterprise,

a journal that addresses black business and consumer concerns, helped

make him an attractive candidate for the immediate needs of Crossroads

Theater. Edwards’ job is to find new funders at the same time he works

to convince old funders (such as Michael Bzdak, a director of

corporate

contributions at the New Brunswick-based Johnson & Johnson) to keep

the faith. His task includes reestablishing good will with past

creditors

that include theater artists, professionals, and vendors.

Crossroads’ ongoing financial problems presumably began in earnest

with the move in 1991 to its new $5 million, 310-seat, jewel-box

theater.

When Ricardo Khan, who co-founded the theater in 1978, was confronted

with the theater’s ever-increasing debt and reportedly sloppy

bookkeeping,

he resigned — burned out, he said, from the task of trying to

keep the theater going. While Khan’s artistic contributions to

Crossroads

are considerable in scale and quality, his decision to take a one-year

sabbatical at that most crucial time seemed to many a strange and

provocative move.

Understandably Edwards, who was involved with Crossroads last year,

chooses not to blame Khan, despite the fact Khan had to know that

his productions were consistently spending over budget. That Khan

continued to receive his salary even after Crossroads had locked its

doors is also public knowledge. The facts and the figures regarding

operating and production costs and expenditures of all registered

non-profit theaters are available to the public and can be verified

by the Charitable Registry. While Edwards says he remains in

communication

with Khan, there are no immediate plans for his participation in the

new management.

Understanding why and how major funders, particularly the State

Council

on the Arts, were able to overlook Crossroads’ years of shaky finances

is a complex issue. One might deduce that the state council wanted

to paint a rosy picture for the N.E.A.; at the time of the Crossroads

debacle, it was in the process of trying to get its budget back up

to the $26 million it had enjoyed in the final year of the Kean

administration.

Edwards believes, however, that the grants and donations

that were proffered were balanced against the contribution that

Crossroads

was making to state of New Jersey and to the rest of the country.

"That’s more important than the $2 million debt. We can get rid

of that," he says confidently.

Working in the non-profit arena is not new to Edwards, who served

for 10 years as executive director on the board of Aaron Davis Hall,

a Harlem-based performing arts center. He is credited with eliminating

the hall’s major debt during his tenure there, which ended in 1999.

Edwards says he is prepared to tackle the most urgent and complex

issues facing what has been celebrated as the nation’s leading

African-American

theater. Yet he admits, "I’ve never been faced with a challenge

of this magnitude before. We have a lot of hurdles to overcome,

including

paying taxes the theater owes to the IRS, before we even release an

operating plan. First we have to get the funding world to regain its

confidence in us."

Although he will not venture a guess as to how long

it will take to eliminate the huge debt, Edwards says that "I

wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel optimistic." Edwards is asked

if black artists with money were being approached for contributions

— specifically August Wilson, the renowned playwright who revived

his early full-length play, "Jitney," at Crossroads in 1997,

which went on to New York. "Oh yes," Edwards replies with

a chuckle, "but we haven’t gotten to the Ws yet." The Ws could

also include the Public Theater’s playwright and director George C.

Wolfe, who virtually got his professional start at Crossroads.

Near the top of Edwards’ agenda is communicating with the roughly

1,500 subscribers, some of whom were disillusioned and disgruntled

by the way they were treated when the season they had paid for was

canceled. Now he wants to give them the message that their support

will be rewarded and rewarding.

"So far we have gotten so much support from everyone that I am

encouraged," says Edwards, assuring us he is the persona for the

job. "We have to re-build the infrastructure. I have demonstrated

in volunteer leadership and non-profit work that I can balance

artistic

concerns with fiscal responsibilities."

A grant of $120,000 from the New Jersey Council on the Arts has been

released for use for Crossroads administrative salaries for the

2001-2002

season. Until Edwards hires a financial administrator and a

development

director, his principal office support will come from Sherry Moore,

his administrative assistant. More debt relief ($500,000) is expected

from the New Jersey Department of State pending a plan from Edwards

to pay back creditors. About the hiring of an artistic director,

Edward

says, "Although we are actively talking to a number of great

individuals

with strong backgrounds from around the country who qualify for that

position, no one has yet been selected."

Could John McEwen, the new executive director of the New Jersey

Theater

Alliance (the theater service organization that has been acting as

a financial trustee for Crossroads during its restructuring), venture

a guess on how a company like Crossroads could get so deeply in debt

and continue to receive grants?

"It depends on what information is shared and what information

is asked by funders," says McEwen. "A lot of corporations

do not necessarily request information, but most foundations do ask

for audited financial statements. I believe funders, in relating to

Crossroads, will keep a watchful eye on their future financial

practices."

McEwen stresses that what happened to Crossroads should serve as a

reminder to the other theaters about the importance of good

management.

Another theater to bite the dust last season was The American Stage

Company in Teaneck. McEwen suggests that it, unlike Crossroads, did

not seem to have strong advocates pleading its cause to the Arts

Council.

Ironically, before it folded, American Stage Company could boast that

it had produced more plays that have gone on to Off-Broadway success

than any other theater in the state.

"I think all of the theaters large and small are watching the

bottom line now that funders don’t want to get caught the second

time,"

says John Pietrowski, artistic director of Playwrights Theater of

New Jersey, one of the smaller budgeted companies in the state.

"If

the funders had read the balance sheets over the years, they couldn’t

help but see there was something wrong at Crossroads. If you are going

to the N.E.A. for organizational grants, you are usually going in

for a project. If the N.E.A. thinks the project is a worthy one,

that’s

the first criteria. Their second is to see that the theater has the

ability to pull it off. They don’t necessarily look at the financial

side of it, but at your producing history."

"These days when I talk to funders, I go with my financial

information

at the top, and you can quote me on that," says Pietrowski, rather

proud of the way he has kept his organization afloat through thick

and thin. It’s not a new concept, but co-productions, are one way

for theaters to share costs as well as bring new work to audiences

in different parts of the state.

The world premiere this fall of the new musical "The Book of

Candy"

will be a co-production with Trenton’s Passage Theater and Playwrights

Theater. Performances begin at Passage Theater on October 18.

According to Rhinold Lamar Ponder, Princeton resident, attorney, and

president of the Crossroads Theater’s board of trustees, subscriptions

totaling $192,000 were received by the theater for the canceled

season.

He is pleased to report that 90 percent of the subscription money

was offered as donations. Like Edwards, Ponder is aware of the

formidable

task he and the board have to pay back "the vendors and

lenders,"

and also come up with the $200,000 owed to the IRS.

"As soon as I became president of the board, I knew I had to close

down Crossroads in order to bring it back. It was the only way to

do it," says Ponder, who specializes in debtor-creditor relations

and civil litigation. He is currently at work with the new 17-member

board on a plan that will get Crossroads back on track. He says that

can’t answer for the previous board that apparently never faced the

reality or the consequences of the ever-mounting debt but understands,

"how hard it is to close a theater that has made such an important

cultural contribution."

About the future of Crossroads, which he says he has felt a part of

since he was a Princeton undergraduate, "It is more than just

an important theater in our state, but in the nation. As an African

American, I want to see this theater succeed and we’re going to do

it."

A story in U.S. 1 (December 15, 1999) considered one of the reasons

why Crossroads was able to continue getting deeper into debt as long

as it did. "Although many regional theaters have faced similar

financial woes, with some forced to throw in the towel, Crossroads’

unique cultural objectives and progressive dramatic goals make many

in the arts community feel it deserves special consideration from

the community, the government, and those committed to the continuing

development of multi-cultural theater. Its success or failure as a

world-class dramatic institution reflects back on the entire community

it serves."

Crossroads’ triumphs over the years have included the premieres of

"The Colored Museum," by George C. Wolfe, "Love Space

Demands," by Ntozake Shange," "Black Eagles," by Leslie

Lee, "Sheila’s Day," by Duma Ndlovu, and "Flyin’ West"

by Pearl Cleage. "It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues" began at

Crossroads and found success on Broadway.

Interestingly, one theater’s artistic director (who chooses not to

be named) says he asked a reporter from the New York Times, who was

writing on Crossroads, to name a New Jersey theater that wasn’t

showing

a deficit. "I can’t," she replied, "except maybe

McCarter."

There doesn’t appear to be a shortage of money available at the

1,100-seat

McCarter Theater where a groundbreaking ceremony will take place on

Thursday, September 20, for the $14 million Roger S. Berlind Theater.

This 350-seat second stage, will provide a new space for plays that

need an intimacy atmosphere, workshop productions, and with an ability

to extend a play’s run. "Yellowman," about Alma, a

dark-skinned

African-American, and Eugene, a light or "yellow," dramatizing

prejudices among African-Americans, is a co-production by McCarter,

Long Wharf, and Wilma in Philadelphia, and will open on McCarter’s

Second Stage Onstage on April 3. The Berlind, scheduled for completion

in 2003, will also serve as the principal venue for Princeton

University’s

programs in theater and dance.

Artistic director Emily Mann, who has always been an advocate for

multi-cultural theater, serves on a committee to help Crossroads.

She was surprised when I mention that McCarter might possibly be the

only theater in the state not running in the red.

"Jeffrey Woodward, the managing director, and I are both very

frugal and we would never let that happen. We are vigorous fundraisers

and run this place as a business and as a place where artists

thrive,"

says Mann, who spoke on the phone during a rehearsal break for her

forthcoming "Romeo and Juliet."

When I suggest to Mann (purposely baiting her) that

the season looks a little conservative, she responds, "Are you

kidding? You’re getting me riled this morning!" (Loud enough to

be heard in the next room.) That was all it took to get Mann started

on the new season.

"We’ve got a thrilling new play by Eric Bogosian ("Humpty

Dumpty") that we’ve commissioned; a new adaptation of Moliere’s

"Don

Juan," directed by Stephen Wadsworth who will be reinstating cuts

forced upon Moliere at the time; and Albee’s almost-forgotten classic

"All Over." About Richard Nelson’s 1979 political satire

"Vienna

Notes," Mann says "He’s one of the hottest playwrights in

America now. It was the first play I ever produced back at the

(Tyrone)

Guthrie II in the early ’80s."

Just as Mann gives credit to her managing director on fiscal matters,

David Saint, artistic director of the George Street Playhouse, says

his managing director, Michael Stotts, also runs a tight ship. Saint,

who calls me after a day rehearsing the musical "The Spitfire

Grill," (seen least year at George Street) at New York’s

Playwrights

Horizons, makes a good point. He stresses the importance of a theater

having two directors, each with equal power: one who concentrates

on artistic decisions and one who watches the budget and goes after

donations and grants.

"The model of a producing artistic director," he says,

referring

to Ricardo Khan of Crossroads, "is a very dangerous one and is

almost outmoded." Saint, beginning his fourth year at George

Street,

also mentions how his prececessor Gregory Hurst, a producing artistic

director, kept the theater financially strong but artistically

wanting.

He saw the reverse happening at Crossroads.

"You can’t wear two hats, without one falling off," says

Saint,

who also makes it clear that the purpose of a non-profit theater is

not to make a profit but to break even. When I ask if it is possible

for a theater to run successfully in the red, Saint answers: "Yes.

Even if you end the season with a $40,000 deficit, you’re still okay.

"But if there’s a $2 million deficit, you go `Whoa!’

"What that means for us is that all money from the 20 percent

increase in single tickets and subscriptions this year will go right

back into the productions. It is the managing director’s job to make

sure that no money is spent that isn’t there."

George Street Playhouse will present "Lady Day at the Emerson

Bar and Grill" as a showcase for its "Wit" star, Suzzanne

Douglas, and two audience-pleasers: "Talley’s Folly," to star

Mark Nelson, and "The Sisters Rosensweig." World premieres

will include Velina Hasu Houston’s "Waiting for Tadashi,"

a surreal, poetic tribute to the struggles of Amerasian orphans born

of Japanese women and African-American servicemen; and Ain Gordon’s

"Public Ghosts, Private Stories," inspired by the stories

and participation of 2,000 local residents.

Did what happen to Crossroads ultimately have an impact

on the other theaters as they looked at their budgets and planned

their seasons? Some say yes, the others no. Will there be closer

scrutiny

of all the theaters by the major private, corporate, state, and

national

funders? Let’s hope so. How is one New Jersey theater able to rise

from the ashes while another sinks quietly away? The answer appears

to be advocacy. Although an eternal optimism prevails among the

members

of the New Jersey Theater Alliance, comprised of participating

professional

theaters, the conflicting opinions and emotions churning about and

among the membership only add to the real-life drama.

George Street Playhouse

9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill . Lanie Robertson’s

musical biography of Billie Holiday. October 9 to November 11.

Talley’s Folly . Lanford Wilson’s "Romeo & Juliet"

play stars David Nelson. November 27 to December 23.

Waiting for Tadashi . Story of Japanese children of

American

servicemen by Velina Hasu Houston. January 8 to February 3.

The Sisters Rosensweig . Wendy Wasserstein’s award winner,

directed by David Saint. February 12 to March 10.

Public Ghosts, Private Stories . Premiere by Ain Gordon.

April 23 to May 26.

McCarter Theater

91 University Place, 609-258-2787.

Romeo and Juliet . Shakespeare directed by Emily Mann.

September 12 to September 30.

The Vienna Notes . Written by Richard Nelson, directed

by Daniel Fish. October 16 to November 4.

A Christmas Carol . The family holiday favorite. December

6 to 30.

Yellowman . Second stage production written and performed

by Dael Orlandersmith. January 10 to 27.

All Over . Edward Albee as directed by Emily Mann. February

12 to March 3.

Don Juan . Moliere’s play adapted and directed by Stephen

Wadsworth. April 30 to May 19.

Humpty Dumpty . World premiere by Eric Bososian. March

26 to April 14.

New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew

University,

Madison, 973-408-5600.

Tartuffe . Moliere’s classic satire. September 10 to 30.

The Crucible . Arthur Miller’s classic allegory. October

23 to November 18.

The Fantasticks . The Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones musical.

December 4 to 30.

Passage Theater

Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton,

609-392-0766.

The Book of Candy . A musical based on the Book of Esther

and is a co-production with Playwrights Theater of New Jersey. October

18 to 28.

Bristol Riverside Theater

120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania, 215-785-0100.

Jake’s Women . Season opens with Neil Simon. October 9

to October 28.

Arsenic and Old Lace . Joseph Kasselring’s classic

homicidal

comedy. November 27 to December 16.

Communicating Doors . The Alan Ayckbourn comic drama.

January

29 to February 17.

The Dresser . Ronald Harwood’s drama of the theater.

Performances

through April 7. Preview. March 19.

A Little Night Music . The romantic favorite. May 7 to

26.


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