March 4, 2019
Arts Biz

Now a decade old, Playhouse on Park is a little theater with a diverse portfolio

Photos | Contributed
Photos | Contributed
Playhouse on Park has grown a small, but loyal following through several popular works, including “Angels in America,” a scene of which is shown here. Other popular plays include “Cabaret” (shown bottom left) and “Metamorphosis” (bottom center and right).
Playhouse on Park is located at 244 Park Road in West Hartford.
(From left to right) West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park was co-founded by Sean Harris, Tracy Flater and Darlene Zoller.
Frank Rizzo

Who starts a theater company during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression?

"Yeah, there was that," says Tracy Flater, referring to the far-from-perfect economic climate 10 years ago.

Flater is one of the three founders and is the executive director of Playhouse on Park, the resilient little professional theater company on Park Road in West Hartford. But despite its shaky financial beginnings, this June the performance center will be celebrating its 10-year anniversary debt-free and even boasting a surplus from last season.

Its journey from dubious arts enterprise to a solvent-and-stable facility illustrates the necessity for institutional nimbleness, the importance of reserves and the need for a varied performance portfolio.

Ten years ago, Flater, co-Artistic Director Sean Harris and co-Artistic Director Darlene Zoller were looking at possible spaces to present dance and theater and were considering a potential location in Collinsville. When that plan fizzled, another opportunity opened up with the closing of the Park Road Playhouse, which previously served as a venue for community theater productions.

With lease in hand, a mere $3,000 investment and lots of pro bono help, they opened in fall 2009 with an ambitious season of theater and dance. But they faced setbacks from the start when they discovered lighting equipment missing, financial support from a bank falling through and delays in getting its nonprofit status.

Over three seasons, the company generated $300,000 in debt. As they went into the fourth season the leadership team had a "come-to-Jesus" moment, says Flater, who was previously director of off-campus programs and facilities for The Hartt School community division at the University of Hartford.

That's when they decided "to be here or not — and we stopped walking around saying, 'We might close.' We had to make the decision that we're here for the long haul," Flater said.

With a long-term plan and the hiring of a professional fundraiser, they attracted more donors and deeper board support, formed new partnerships in the community and became more entrepreneurial. For instance, when actor housing was an issue, they found rooms at high-end senior-housing facilities such as Duncaster Retirement Community in Bloomfield and Avery Heights in Hartford, in exchange for being personally engaged with those communities.

"We came out of that [fourth] season with the debt paid or negotiated," says Flater — and it had its first big hit with the production of "Cabaret," "which put us on the map."

On surer footing, attendance and recognition for the quality of its shows increased, with frequent nominations and awards annually by the Connecticut Critics Circle for shows like "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," "Angels in America," "The Diary of Anne Frank" and last year's big hit "In the Heights."

"It got better every year but we still weren't prepared for other things," says Flater, adding that a series of snowstorms in 2015 hit attendance hard, and the 2016 elections took audience focus away. "We found ourselves eating up our reserves and once again living hand-to-mouth."

What buoyed them was the Playhouse's diversified programming, which offered a Main Stage series of plays and musicals, a family series of performances, a comedy series, acting and improv classes and other special events ranging from dance to hipster burlesque.

"I'll never forget when someone very prominent in the theater community told us that because we didn't have a specific identity it was never going to work out. But diverse entertainment is our identity — and has been from the beginning," says Flater.

Its "diversified portfolio" model is now one that other much larger theaters — including Hartford Stage and Long Wharf Theatre — are embracing when they find putting on a limited number of plays just isn't enough.

"Why be dark when we have so much to offer?" says Zoller, one of the founders. "It was a conscious thing to be this hybrid from the beginning. Why not do dance? Why not do comedy or music or even do burlesque? We wanted to be a destination where people on a Friday think, 'Gee, I wonder what's happening at the Playhouse?' "

Sustainability campaign

The challenge now is the limited space for its education programs at its 163-seat theater (200 seats for comedy and acoustic music presentations). Helping is the transferring of some of the theater's administrative space and classes to the former Hartford Ballet/Hartford Symphony Orchestra/Connecticut Opera center on Farmington Avenue.

With 762 subscribers and a $1.1 million budget, it's still a modest enterprise compared to the 55-year-old Hartford Stage, which has a $9 million budget and 7,500 subscribers, and the 34-year-old TheaterWorks and its $2.5 million budget and 5,000 subscribers. Relationships with Hartford Stage and TheaterWorks are good, says Flater, adding that Rob Ruggiero, producing artistic director of TheaterWorks, helped them get the rights for a play that both theaters were eying.

As it prepares for its 10th anniversary gala in June, the Playhouse can boast a surplus and 32,000 paid attendance figure from last season.

"Last year was the first year that every single show from every series at least broke even and several made money, especially 'In the Heights,' which we could have run indefinitely," Flater said.

But the current season is not nearly as strong and once again worrisome.

That's why it will launch a new "sustainability campaign" where donors can choose to support an endowment, a reserve or education fund.

The theater's big musical this summer is "The Scottsboro Boys," a highly ambitious project — challenging, educational and entertaining — which has been the Playhouse's mantra from the beginning.

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