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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 12,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
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
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
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
career in broadcast journalism, as a television producer for "60
Minutes," and as a corporate communications executive at
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
contributions at the New Brunswick-based Johnson & Johnson) to keep
the faith. His task includes reestablishing good will with past
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
When Ricardo Khan, who co-founded the theater in 1978, was confronted
with the theater’s ever-increasing debt and reportedly sloppy
he resigned — burned out, he said, from the task of trying to
keep the theater going. While Khan’s artistic contributions to
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
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
with Khan, there are no immediate plans for his participation in the
Understanding why and how major funders, particularly the State
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
Edwards believes, however, that the grants and donations
that were proffered were balanced against the contribution that
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
theater. Yet he admits, "I’ve never been faced with a challenge
of this magnitude before. We have a lot of hurdles to overcome,
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
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
season. Until Edwards hires a financial administrator and a
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,
says, "Although we are actively talking to a number of great
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
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
McEwen stresses that what happened to Crossroads should serve as a
reminder to the other theaters about the importance of good
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
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
says John Pietrowski, artistic director of Playwrights Theater of
New Jersey, one of the smaller budgeted companies in the state.
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,
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
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
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
He is pleased to report that 90 percent of the subscription money
was offered as donations. Like Edwards, Ponder is aware of the
task he and the board have to pay back "the vendors and
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
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
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
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
a deficit. "I can’t," she replied, "except maybe
There doesn’t appear to be a shortage of money available at the
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
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
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
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
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
Notes," Mann says "He’s one of the hottest playwrights in
America now. It was the first play I ever produced back at the
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
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,
to Ricardo Khan of Crossroads, "is a very dangerous one and is
almost outmoded." Saint, beginning his fourth year at George
also mentions how his prececessor Gregory Hurst, a producing artistic
director, kept the theater financially strong but artistically
He saw the reverse happening at Crossroads.
"You can’t wear two hats, without one falling off," says
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
of all the theaters by the major private, corporate, state, and
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
of the New Jersey Theater Alliance, comprised of participating
theaters, the conflicting opinions and emotions churning about and
among the membership only add to the real-life drama.
9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717.
musical biography of Billie Holiday. October 9 to November 11.
play stars David Nelson. November 27 to December 23.
servicemen by Velina Hasu Houston. January 8 to February 3.
directed by David Saint. February 12 to March 10.
April 23 to May 26.
91 University Place, 609-258-2787.
September 12 to September 30.
by Daniel Fish. October 16 to November 4.
6 to 30.
by Dael Orlandersmith. January 10 to 27.
12 to March 3.
Wadsworth. April 30 to May 19.
26 to April 14.
23 to November 18.
December 4 to 30.
Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton,
and is a co-production with Playwrights Theater of New Jersey. October
18 to 28.
to October 28.
comedy. November 27 to December 16.
29 to February 17.
through April 7. Preview. March 19.
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