Feb. 11 2009 12:00 AM

Children’s theater cuts back to cope with slumping economy

 When All-of-us-Express Children’s Theatre opens the curtain on “Stuart Little” this weekend, it will be without the experience and behind-the-scenes help of Diane Cooke, the company’s director of operations. Cooke, who had been employed by the company since 2003 and involved as a volunteer since 1998, was laid off last month. Citing budget restraints, the theater’s board has no plans to refill Cooke’s position, leaving Miranda Hartmann, the company’s artistic director, as the theater’s only full-time staff member.

Lisa Lees, president of the theater’s board of directors, said eliminating Cooke’s position was a “drastic” but necessary step. “If you look at any of our sources of revenue — sponsorships for shows, grants from governments and foundations, the number of people in audiences, the number of people participating in shows — there’s been a decrease across the board,” Lees said. “This has been going on a number of years. We were hoping things were getting better.”

“What we’re trying to do is tighten our belt and get through this economic situation the best we can,” Lees added.

Cooke, who started volunteering with the theater when her daughter got involved with the company, said she was OK with the theater’s decision, although she would miss seeing her theater “family” on a regular basis. She plans to attend the company’s latest show and may return as a volunteer. “I still very much support the theater and what it does, and I think it’s a great place for kid,” Cooke said. “Maybe some day I’ll send my grandkids there.”

While no shows are getting cut this season to save money, Hartmann said next season would feature three main stage shows instead of the usual four.

She said the theater’s other programming, which includes classes, workshops and summer camps, some of which are taught by guest staff, shouldn’t be affected, and that the theater may partner with other local organizations, such as BoarsHead and Riverwalk theaters and the YMCA, to make sure they are offered.

One area hit by the recession is the number of home-schooled children receiving instruction through All-of-us-Express, Hartmann said, as more parents go back to work and send their kids to school. However, Hartmann said classes for which scholarship money is available have remained steady.

Running a theater is a big job for one person, and Hartmann knows she’ll be relying on the help of others. “I have an incredible group of parent volunteers and supportive trustees who have stepped up to help out,” Hartmann said.

For those interested in helping, Hartmann said there’s plenty of work to do, from answering phones, to painting sets to supervising the kids. And for those who want to donate, the theater has a wish list at www.allofusexpress.org/wish.html.

“Stuart Little” runs Feb. 13-21 at the Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing. Shows are 7 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. & 4:30 p.m. Saturdays. Tickets are available at the door for $7/$5.