Curtains for BoarsHead?

By Eric Gallippo

With no season, no money and no home, theater sorts out its future

John Peakes, who co-founded BoarsHead Theater in 1966, was saddened to hear the news about the theater’s canceled season, but he wasn’t surprised. “[Actor] Douglas Campbell once said to me, ‘Every theater has its time,’ and I think BoarsHead’s was gone,” said Peakes during a phone interview from his home in Philadelphia.

On Sunday afternoon, BoarsHead’s Second Company of interns staged the final production ever at the theater’s home at 425 S. Grand Ave., Lansing. In November, the theater’s board of directors voted to go on hiatus through the end of 2009, before eventually canceling the remainder of the season after last-minute donations failed to materialize. With no shows scheduled, the theater plans to leave its current home this summer, turning the property over to the City of Lansing, which purchased it from the Arts Council of Greater Lansing in August 2008.

But according to theater spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney, BoarsHead isn’t finished. At this time, the board is working on a possible collaboration with Lansing Community College, the details of which aren’t being revealed. “[BoarsHead] will come back in some kind of form, it’s just not clear what that will be,” Rossman- McKinney said. “Most likely, if all goes well, and it appears that it is so far, it will somehow partner with LCC in some way shape or form.”

While she did not know of a specific timeline, Rossman-McKinney said she would expect the possibility of an announcement in the next few months. When asked if the theater was pursuing any other ways to reopen, Rossman-McKinney said, “I would speculate that that is the only live prospect at this point.”

As for BoarsHead’s staff members, who were all laid off in November, Rossman- McKinney said none of them should expect a call to work anytime soon. “Everyone at BoarsHead should be looking for other opportunities.”

Karen Doyle, who worked as an assistant director at BoarsHead until November, said the staff hasn’t been included in the conversation about the theater’s future. “I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I think it’s safe to say we are all looking elsewhere,” she said.

The BoarsHead’s total debt at this time is $199,000, which breaks down to a $50,000 line of credit from Capital National Bank; two $25,000 loans from Capital National, each personally guaranteed by individual board members; a $47,000 interestfree loan from the Lansing Economic Development Corp.; and $52,000 to “various vendors and creditors” (including City Pulse).

When it comes to repaying that debt, Rossman-McKinney said the board is “looking at every option.” “I can’t be more specific than that; everything is on the table.”

In addition, Rossman-McKinney said subscribers contributed $100,000 in season ticket purchases and only got 20 percent of the season.

Peakes, the theater’s artistic director until retiring in 2003 and moving to Philadelphia, confirmed that finances were always a struggle; he said his wife, Judy, who was the theater’s managing director, was the reason it stayed open as long as it did. “She worked a 14-hour days, seven days a week, which is why we finally backed out of there, because it was killing her,” Peakes said. “She was the one that kept that theater alive the last 10 years that we were there.”

While some have criticized the theater’s board for mismanaging funds, Peakes said he didn’t think the money was mismanaged, just not there. “The real backbone of any theater and its survival is the people who raise the money, and the board obviously didn’t raise any money,” Peakes said.

BoarsHead’s board members are expected to contribute or raise a minimum of $1,500 per year. Rossman-McKinney said many have gone above and beyond that. As mentioned above, two guaranteed loans; board President Larry Meyer recently paid the bill for the theater’s storage facility so it could retrieve its props; and the board passed the hat among themselves several times since voting to go on hiatus in November to cover payroll and taxes.

In a letter to subscribers, the board cited several reasons for the financial shortfall and season cancellation, including decreased state funds for the arts, box office failures, historically low support from businesses, few personal donations and a lease that expires in June.

But while BoarsHead’s financial woes continue, a community theater less than a mile away is enjoying record growth in the same sagging economy. While he declined to give a dollar amount, Mike Siracuse, Riverwalk’s business manager, said the theater has had its highest membership donation year in its history. Siracuse attributed the outpouring of goodwill to the theater’s recent $300,000 expansion, which included the addition of a black box performance space. “We have made such incredible accomplishments here,” Siracuse said. “People want to be a part of it.”

The Riverwalk expansion project was paid for by a capital campaign led by Bill Shipley and Bill Helder, a former president of Riverwalk, which included major grants from the Dart Foundation, Cool Cities and the Rotary Foundation.

But raising money for a one-time project, of which people can see the result, is different from generating operational costs. “I would not know where to look,” Helder said, referring to BoarsHead’s situation. “We’re talking about an awful lot of money, and it isn’t just an awful lot of money for a project like our expansion, because when that’s over, it’s over. At BoarsHead, you’re raising that kind of money all the time.”

Helder, who served as president of BoarsHead’s board from 1979 to ’81, confirmed that the theater’s money troubles aren’t new. “One of my unhappy tasks, even back then, was to go to the president of the Arts Council (which owned the theater’s home at the time) board and tell them we couldn’t pay the rent.”

Helder said the charisma of founders Peakes and Richard Thomsen kept it going, developing a “genuine family atmosphere” of loyal supporters. Thomsen, who died in 2007, left for New York in the late 1980s to pursue acting. “In a very real sense, when John and [his wife] Judy left, it was going to be hard to maintain,” Helder said.

In 2004, the theater, under artistic director Geoffrey Sherman, considered an offer to move the theater to Eaton Rapids. Although it stayed put, many feel the talks damaged the theater’s reputation. “That was a clue for a lot of people to take a much more hands-off attitude toward BoarsHead,” Helder said. “I think they lost a chunk of goodwill.”

In an age of grassroots fundraising via the Internet, goodwill can go a long a way. Carla Milarch, executive director of Performance Network, a professional theater in downtown Ann Arbor, said when her theater was short of money last April, it reached out through online and traditional media to spread the word that help was needed. “Our board of directors came up with a matching campaign and went into the community and asked for their help,” Milarch said. “It was kind of a tsunami of support, and people all pitched in.”

Milarch said it’s a misconception to think the answer to fundraising is one blockbuster donor. In fact, one of the campaign’s major donors came forward with a contribution of $10,000 only after seeing the initial response the theater got. “That grassroots support, it actually trickles up,” Milarch said.

The theater raised about $80,000 in two weeks, double its original goal.

Rossman-McKinney said BoarsHead has launched emergency campaigns in the past, the last one being a dinner at which guests were asked to contribute $1,000 each three years ago, but this time around, the board felt, “The well was just dry.”

Like most arts organizations in Michigan, Alan Ribant, managing director at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre, said the company has its struggles with finances, but it learned one key to success early. “We’ve never relied on state funding — that’s one of the things we have never done,” Ribant said. “We have known you can’t always rely on it.”

So how does he think BoarsHead could have avoided its problems? “I’d rather not comment on that,” Ribant said. “It is a sad day for them, and I’d hate to be in their shoes.”