Debt could stop shows Curtains? Financial troubles endanger life of the landmark Arena Players theater.

March 20, 1996|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

The Arena Players, the country's oldest continuously operating African-American theater, is in danger of shutting its doors for good a victim of a bad economic climate, more choices for black theatergoers, and the deaths last year of its founder and several prominent members.

The theater is running a deficit of $120,000, including $60,000 in back mortgage payments to Harbor Bank, says Rodney Orange Jr., manager/director of Arena Players Inc.

"Harbor Bank has been very concerned, and they have allowed us a lot of leeway," says James A. Brown, the theater's technical director and spokesman. "They have been open to dialogue," but could decide to call the loans at any time. A spokesman for Harbor Bank did not return phone calls.

The Arena Players has a yearly budget of about $250,000. In the past, a good portion of that came from ticket sales, but that has changed.

"I would say that in the last five years, ticket sales have been declining," says Mr. Orange, Arena Players Inc.'s sole paid staffer. "The last two years, we've had around $75,000 to $90,000 in ticket sales."

The rest of the money comes from grants, including an annual grant from the Maryland State Arts Council. This fiscal year it received $14,259 from the council compared to last fiscal year's $15,000. The amount it receives from the arts council is based on the theater's operating budget.

State Sens. Larry Young and Nathaniel McFadden are sponsoring legislation that would provide a $250,000 bond issue to help the theater. However, the theater failed to raise $16,000 to qualify for a matching $75,000 in bond money from the state.

Tomorrow, the theater is holding a fund-raiser at the Five Mile House, and other fund-rais- ers will follow.

The Arena Players put on six or seven plays a year, staging everything from Henrik Ibsen's classic political drama "An Enemy of the People" to a raucous contemporary comedy called "Good Black Don't Crack."

The Arena Players also stage the winner of WMAR-TV's drama competition for black playwrights, which is televised on Channel 2 during Black History Month.

"It's been a very satisfying event for us. We believe in the Arena Players," says Harry Kakel, a production manager for WMAR. "They have a rich history."

The Arena Players started out as dream of its founder, Samuel H. Wilson Jr., more than 40 years ago.

He and a small group of friends wanted to provide a place where African-Americans could both act in community plays and sit in the audience to enjoy them. In 1953, that dream became a reality. The Arena Players opened its doors and has been a stalwart in the community ever since.

Mr. Wilson, who died a year ago in February, would not be pleased about its current situation.

"My father would have been extremely annoyed," says Samuel Wilson, III, the founder's son who now is in charge of theater archives.

The Arena Players moved into its current home at 801 McCulloh St. in 1961, and bought the building in 1969. Extension renovations needed to the 314-seat theater took about seven years and cost roughly $1 million.

The Arena Players does rent the building to various groups when it is not producing one of its six or seven plays a season. But rental income and ticket sales have not been enough to cover its costs. Its trouble were a long time coming, board members and staff say.

"When the Arena Players was founded by Sam Wilson, it was more like a club. Times were different then. Blacks couldn't go anywhere else. People couldn't perform anywhere else and those who like to see plays couldn't go anywhere else to see them," says Mr. Orange, whose father is president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Now the Arena Players is losing a lot of older members, he says. Members are generally the performers and others involved with the theater who pay a $15 yearly membership fee to participate in a production. The Arena Players has about 140 members and 105 subscribers.

"And except for the Youtheatre which is thriving we have not gone after younger people," says Mr. Orange. The Youtheatre is a tuition-based program for children ages 4 to 18 who learn different aspects of drama and perform in plays.

Although the 22-member board is now pulling together, there has been dissension on how to increase attendance and take the theater in new directions, he says.

"I have a lot of ideas to bring in teen-agers. I want to bring in the rappers that they love. Then, yes, once they are there, you can expose teen-agers to other [kinds of] culture. But you have got to get them in the door first because teen-agers are not going to see plays," Mr. Orange says.

Longtime local actress June Thorne has lost count of how many Arena Players productions she has performed in. "I am devastated about the current situation," she says. "But its been a long time coming. It has now bubbled over.

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