Saturday, July 5, 2008
Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
The show will go on. Probably.
Traveling Jewish Theatre has surmounted the first of three financial hurdles it had set for itself this summer - raising $100,000 from its supporters by June 30 - and appears to be on track to meet the rest: another $50,000 in gifts from private donors by Sept. 30; and $150,000 in added support from foundations beyond their ongoing support of the company. According to TJT Executive Director Sara Schwartz, the company has raised $104,000 in about six weeks.
“At this stage, we’re moving on to the next season,” says Artistic Director Aaron Davidman. “But I think what we’ve learned is that in order for the company to grow forward, it needs more community stakeholders.”
A small company with a large national reputation, TJT has never been on firm financial footing. That wasn’t a big problem in its formative years as a three-person ensemble, creating and performing works - “Coming From a Great Distance,” “The Last Yiddish Poet,” “A Dance of Exile” - using experimental, interdisciplinary techniques to explore aspects of Jewish culture. The company toured nationally and internationally, from a home base in Los Angeles and then San Francisco (where it moved in 1982).
By the mid-’80s, the hand-to-mouth, touring existence was becoming more problematic for its now four-person ensemble - Helen Stoltzfus had joined founders Corey Fischer, Albert Greenberg and Naomi Newman - and small administrative staff. In the mid-’90s, it addressed those problems by securing its own space in the Project Artaud building and launching a capital campaign to build a small, handsome theater.
“We incurred a $200,000 debt from that project,” Davidman says. “That’s a big nut for a little company with a $700,000 budget and an 88-seat theater. It left very little margin for error.”
TJT’s artistic identity was evolving as well, at first with the addition of new ensemble members. The biggest change came in ‘02, when the group abandoned its collective artistic leadership and disbanded its ensemble. Greenberg and Stoltzfus left. Davidman, who had joined two years earlier, was named artistic director, with Fischer as his associate and Newman in an advisory role.
“When I became artistic director,” Davidman says, “I was given charge of this new strategic plan, which had to do with growing the company, raising the earned income and individual contributors. The context was moving from an organization that existed to support the vision of its founders to a real community organization. At first we thought we’d succeeded in that transition. What we’re waking up to is that it’s a longer process.”
Some of the problems stemmed from initial success, Davidman admits. He revived TJT’s former “traveling” identity, moving shows from its home to the much larger Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts and Berkeley’s Julia Morgan Theater, after a hit adaptation of Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” was a big box-office success in those venues in ‘03. Subsequent shows lost money, due to the costs of moving and renting the spaces, however, eating into TJT’s production budget, which in turn meant having to postpone or curtail seasons.
The long-simmering crisis reached a head this season, with the cumulative debt having grown to almost $400,000. TJT laid off all of its staff except Schwartz, with Davidman going part time (he’s now back on a full-time basis), and canceled the second show of a two-play season. Faced with the prospect of having to sell its theater and close, Schwartz and Davidman met with TJT’s major funders, as a group, and developed a plan to save the company.
Before the foundations would commit to extra funding, though, “they wanted to make sure that TJT, or Jewish theater in general, was something that the Bay Area community still wanted,” Schwartz says. “They wanted us to reach this $100,000 goal by June 30 as a demonstration of that.”
That’s also, Davidman explains, why the 30th season contains not only an early classic TJT show and a local premiere by Donald Margulies (”Dinner With Friends”), but also Woody Allen’s old-fashioned “The Floating Lightbulb.”
“Woody Allen is a way for us to come out and say we’ve got something for everybody,” he says. “TJT’s early works really pushed the edge of the field. Nobody else was exploring Jewish content with those experimental tools, and that was very important. Now, it’s hard to define what experimental means anymore. The artistic vision will continue to be a mix of original works and ones that have a proven track record. Corey and Naomi are still very much involved, and we want to go deeper in cultivating younger artists. But it also means doing work that will attract a broader audience.”
“We need to start acting like that sort of company and not like a small ensemble anymore,” Schwartz adds. “The vision we have is to evolve into the flagship Jewish theater company of the West Coast.”
Posted under Press
This post was written by AkilahC on July 5, 2008