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CdA theatre board votes to disband organization

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 28, 2013, 6:46 p.m.

Darcy Wright, as Josephine Weninger, left, and Andrew Ware Lewis, as Alfred Von Wilmers, in a scene from Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre's Romance Romance.  (Dan Pelle)

The staff of Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre is reeling after the board of directors voted Monday to shutter the 46-year-old nonprofit professional theater company.

The board said in statement issued Wednesday by president Joe Anderson that CST owed more than it had cash on hand, and it would be irresponsible to do anything other than shut the doors.

“With both season ticket and individual ticket sales down significantly this year, there is no indication that Coeur d’Alene has an appetite for the type of presentation our organization, in its current form, is consistently able to produce,” wrote Anderson, a Coeur d’Alene financial adviser with Merrill Lynch. “While we are a non-profit organization, we are not entitled to exist simply because we are passionate about what we provide. We must serve the needs of the people in our community. We don’t exist in spite of our audiences, we exist because of and to serve our audiences.”

The move left Roger Welch, the artistic director who has been with CST since 1986, and Michelle Mendez, the executive director, shocked. Both said they had presented to the board what they believed was viable business plan and two major fundraisers that would put the theater in the black.

“There was a plan to fix this that was going to work,” Welch said. “They weren’t buying it.”

Mendez said she didn’t expect it to come this far.

“We had a plan for a big fundraiser and we were figuring out how to cut back. We had a plan to go by, but Roger and I were excused from the executive session.”

On Aug. 13, Mendez sent out a news release announcing that the 2013 season would be the last unless a shortfall of $150,000 could be filled by community donations. Poor ticket sales for this summer’s “Big River” and “Romance/Romance” exacerbated a long-term trend, Welch said. Over two weeks, supporters pledged nearly $60,000, giving theater supporters hope.

The board statement expressed gratitude for the donations. “This act of generosity will allow us to meet most of the obligations incurred by the theatre over the past year and hopefully ‘rise from the ashes’ in due time.

“By closing now we hope to minimize the negative financial impact on the community.”

CST formed in 1967 and was Idaho’s oldest performing arts organization. It became a nonprofit corporation in 1984 and staged full-scale Broadway musicals in a summer stock environment. It drew talent from across the country. CST employed four year-round employees, and dozens of cast and crew during the summer season.

Both Mendez and Welch indicated frustration that members of the 14-member volunteer board showed no interest in fundraising – a criticism that the board’s statement acknowledged.

“Our Board collectively was not willing to continue to solicit individuals and businesses in the Coeur d’Alene community for donations without being able to simultaneously offer a fresh face and revised vision for our organization,” the statement said. “Doing so would have been doing a disservice to so many who, like the Board, are believers in the benefits of live theatre and who already provide time and treasure to this organization.”Welch said proposals to make other cuts – he offered to take a $20,000 pay cut – fell on deaf ears.

“I don’t understand,” Welch said of the board’s decision. “It makes no sense to me at all.”

Actress Ellen Travolta and her husband, actor Jack Bannon, have been involved in CST for 23 years. The former board member and frequent cast member said the decision surprised her, as there seemed to be good plan in place to right the ship.

“I’m shocked. Shocked, hurt, embarrassed, all of it. But the powers that be are the powers that be,” she said. “I’m so passionate about the theater and I love it so much, I was willing to pull out some stops and keep it going.

“I would have thought they would have at least tried to go another couple months or so, so we could put things in place, but I don’t know.”

The decision comes at the end of a tumultuous summer for local theater. Interplayers Theater in began the summer on the brink, facing closure unless supporters could pledge $150,000. Donors came through, budget cuts were made and Interplayers is completing a run of “Church Basement Ladies” this weekend and looking to open a new season next month. In July, Spokane Civic Theatre fired its artistic director, Yvonne A.K. Johnson, in a messy separation that is headed to court.

George Green, artistic director at Lake City Playhouse, said the CST decision was a sad one for artists.

“I said this when Interplayers was threatening to close its doors a few months back. Having professional-caliber theater in the region is extremely important. It’s important for the patrons, it’s important for the artists. But from a community theater standpoint, it’s important for the up-and-comers, so they can look at something and say ‘This is my next goal.’ We’re turning to Interplayers in Spokane to be that stepping stone. We hope to see consistent professional theater continue in our region.”