Troupe strives to live Theater: Historic Arena Players reduces schedule, makes dent in enormous debt.

June 14, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In an effort to concentrate on building audiences and cutting costs, Arena Players is reducing its coming season from seven plays to four, as well as continuing fund raising that has brought in $46,000.

Fund raising began in March, when a $120,000 deficit threatened the existence of the country's oldest continuously operating African-American theater.

"I feel that the future is being secured," managing director Rodney Orange Jr. said before a press conference at the theater yesterday.

The $46,000 was raised by Friends of Arena Players, a group formed to oversee fund-raising. Donations came from a combination of private and corporate sources as well as from several benefits. The largest corporate donation was $7,000 from WMAR-TV. Another $6,000 came from benefits held by local black churches, Center Stage and others, as well as several events sponsored by state Sen. Larry Young.

Most of the money raised has already gone toward clearing up debts, beginning with $13,000, the first portion of the theater's most pressing need -- $60,000 in overdue mortgage payments owed to Harbor Bank, according to James Crockett, treasurer of the Friends group.

Another $16,000 was used to qualify for $75,000 in state bond money for capital improvements, now under way. In addition, Crockett said the group is in the process of paying off a $12,000 Internal Revenue Service lien.

Arena Players' financial difficulties stem primarily from gradually decreasing attendance, Orange said, explaining that the theater has begun several initiatives to increase audiences. Chief among these is an effort to attract more sponsoring organizations, an Arena tradition begun by its founders to involve community groups. The groups purchase blocks of reduced-price tickets which may be resold at a profit for their own benefit. Last night's press conference was followed by a reception previewing the 1996-1997 season for potential sponsors.

The four plays focus on "the African-American family -- challenges and successes," said artistic director Amini Johari Courts, who hopes this theme will, in turn, bring more families into the theater. The lineup is: "The Talented Tenth," by Richard Wesley (Sept. 13-Oct. 20); "Fear Itself," by Eugene Lee (Jan. 17-Feb. 23, 1997); "Livin' Fat," by Judi Ann Mason (March 7-April 20) and "One Mo' Time," by Vernel Bagneris (May 9-June 15.)

Besides lowering production costs, Courts said the reduced season will give the theater the flexibility to extend the runs of more popular offerings.

In a further effort to attract new theatergoers, Orange has begun bringing in more varied entertainment when Arena Players is not presenting plays of its own. Rap star LL Cool J gave a recent free concert for children; on Saturday the theater will host an evening of stand-up comedy; and on Sunday a benefit concert featuring local gospel choirs will assist continuing fund-raising efforts.

While community support has been encouraging, Courts stresses, "We are not out of the woods." Friends of Arena Players hopes to raise an additional $150,000 by mid-August. Most of that would become matching funds for a proposed state bond issue.

Though there's still a long way to go, Orange is optimistic: "In the past there's been a perception that black people can't hold and maintain our own businesses and institutions. People are now saying this is not true, and this is a prime example. This is one case of an institution where African-American people realize they can't afford to let this happen."

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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