After a year that saw an 18 percent drop in admissions, the Stephen Foster Drama Association is retooling for next summer with the aid of local governments.
Nelson County Fiscal Court voted Nov. 16 to give $30,000 to the non- profit theater company and the Bardstown City Council decided Dec. 28 to pitch in $12,500. It marks the first time the municipalities have given money directly to the arts organization.
The association’s managing artistic director Johnny Warren said the extra funds will be used to replenish a depleted marketing budget.
Warren is still deciding exactly how the money will be spent, but he said FILE PHOTOthe association has cut TV ads from the Louisville market in recent
After a decline in attendanyceairns and that will be one thing he hopes to restore. In addition, the 2010, the Stephen Fosterassociation will increase the amount of advertising such as mailings Drama Association is hoping are targeted at tour bus operators.
Warren said he generally does not blame one specific item for declines in attendance
“You never know why attendance is down, but we do know the economy is struggling and arts organizations are struggling,” he said.
However, Warren and Nicky Rapier, chairman of the organization’s board of directors, believe the extreme and prolonged heat of the summer may have turned off crowds from sitting in the outdoor amphitheater.
“If you were thinking of attending a show and it’s 95 degrees outside, you are not going to go,” Rapier said.
In general, Warren explained that the “Stephen Foster Story” draws a more consistent crowd from year to year because it is primarily tourists who attend. The additional productions usually staged by the association, this year “Floyd Collins” and “Footloose,” tend to have more of a regional draw.
Warren also noted that the popularity of any given musical can shift rapidly, making it tricky to decide what additional productions to stage.
“In the entertainment industry, that can change on a heartbeat,” he said.
Further, the complicated process of securing rights to a musical doesn’t always mean Warren can get what he wants. This year, the association will be staging “The Wizard of Oz,” a show Rapier said they have spent the last 10 years trying to get.
“It involves a lot of negotiation,” Warren said of the process of acquiring rights.
Nelson County Judge Executive Dean Watts also agreed that it had been a rough year for arts organizations, but said he believes the drama association is one worth supporting.
“We are relatively small and we are fortunate to have the outdoor theater,” Watts said. “It separates us from being just another small town.”
Watts called the donation an investment in the community since the drama is important to the area’s tourism economy, which in turns helps support restaurants, hotels and other shops.
Dawn Pryzstal, vice-president of tourism expansion and marketing for the Bardstown-Nelson County Tourist and Convention Commission, also said the drama was a key part of what brings visitors to the area.
“It has been an integral part of our tourism for 53 years. When they are doing well, it has a positive impact on our family-friendly attractions and our restaurants,” she said.
Dealing with decline
The non-profit theater company saw an attendance decline in 2009 as well. According to a 2009 audit of the company performed by Brown & Company, revenues from admissions dropped from $397,039 in 2008 to $339,175 in 2009. This year, Warren estimated such sales declined by approximately $50,000. A 2010 audit will be completed later this month.
Warren noted the recession has created struggles for arts groups throughout the country and the Stephen Foster Drama Association has been no different. In the face of the tough times, Warren and the association’s board have made efforts to prune the budget as much as possible.
“They have done a tremendous job of limiting our expenses,” Rapier said. As an example, he pointed to the practice of quickly transferring parking attendants to the concession stand as a way of decreasing employee expenses.
Warren described such streamlining efforts as “across the board” with individuals absorbing additional duties, including Warren himself, one of only two full-time employees. In 2010, Warren pulled triple duty as the marketing director, stage director and general manager of the association.
According to the 2009 audit, the association chopped $162,870 from its general and administrative expenses budget, which helped 2009 register a small gain in the association’s net assets for that year. This came despite the fact that the amount of grants and sponsorships were down from $182,890 in 2008 to $165,940 in 2009.
However, Rapier said the cuts have been made carefully. If it goes too far and affects the quality of the productions, “it kills us,” he said.
With the increased marketing budget, the association’s leaders hope it will help create a positive cycle that can help avoid any further cuts and keep the drama on stage for years to come.
“Communities this size don’t have professional theater and a concert venue. Even though it can be a struggle, we know that what we offer to the community is worth it,” Warren said.