May 5 2010 12:00 AM

The fate of the shuttered BoarsHead Theatre may be decided next week


The building that once housed BoarsHead Theater is scheduled to be turned into a parking lot. Former BoarsHead artistic director Kristine Thatcher has already launched a new professional theater company called Stormfield. The rest of BoarsHead’s staff has moved on to other ventures.

What’s left to save of the 44-year-old Equity theater that closed its doors last December after years of dwindling ticket sales and backstage dramas?

 “That’s an excellent question,” said John Peakes, the actor-director who founded the theater in 1966 and now makes his home in the Philadelphia area. “A theater is made up of its staff and the actors they hire and the designers, the directors and the other ancillary folk who work there. There’s none of that there now.”

Nonetheless, BoarsHead and Lansing Community College are considering a partnership to revive the theater. The proposal will be addressed during the LCC Board of Trustees’ meeting on May 17; a planned April 20 discussion of the project was postponed because of the absences of two LCC trustees.

The plan has stirred up controversy in the local theater community by singling out one organization for what would be a significant subsidy, albeit mostly in in-kind services.

The benefits and risks of a BoarsHead/LCC union are outlined in a presentation put together by LCC’s dean of liberal studies, Michael A. Nealon, which will be shown at the meeting. According to Nealon’s materials, the proposal would establish a residency for BoarsHead as an independent nonprofit (501(c)3); put an LCC performing arts coordinator or designee on BoarsHead’s board; and give BoarsHead free use of performance and rehearsal space, as well as space in the LCC’s scene and costume shops and office space in Dart Auditorium.

Nealon feels it’s important to emphasize what he has put together is merely a feasibility study. “That’s all this really is,” Nealon said. “It’s a proposal that’s neither in favor of nor opposed to. We’re just looking to put our findings on the 50-yard line for the board.”

Supporters say bringing BoarsHead into the fold of LCC would give theater students the opportunity to work alongside professional actors and directors, since BoarsHead plans to retain its Equity standing. BoarsHead acting executive director George Orban sees other potential as well.

“I really believe BoarsHead can continue to retain professional Equity standards while getting closer to community,” Orban said in an interview last week, referring to Actors’ Equity, the labor union for performers and stage managers. Until Williamston Theatre came along, BoarsHead was the Lansing area’s only Equity company. “We can do symposiums, seminars, community outreach. We can be a strong presence.”

Considering the cost
The new BoarsHead would, however, be considerably more streamlined than the theater’s previous incarnation, which had annual budgets of nearly $1 million. The BoarsHead season would be limited to four productions, three of which would probably be staged in Dart Auditorium. Orban said the only staff positions would be a full-time executive director and a part-time artistic director.

In order to maintain the theater’s Equity status, an Equity stage manager, set designer and technicians would need to be on hand for each of the productions and a certain percentage of the cast of each show would have to be composed of Equity actors, but “we would be hiring people on a show-by-show basis,” Orban said. LCC could assist the Equity personnel with technical help and extra performers.

The partnership comes with a price tag, however.

Nealon’s presentation sets the first-year cost to LCC at $101,000, which includes a one-time $15,000 fee for the acquisition of BoarsHead assets.

An additional $86,000 — $30,000 for costumes and scenery, $36,000 for technical and production support, and $20,000 for production coordinator reclassification and facility expenses — would be covered by in-kind contributions, according to LCC board Chairwoman Deb Canja, who said she hadn’t seen Nealon’s presentation yet and wouldn’t until the May 17 meeting.

The annual cost for each subsequent year would be $86,000, which would again come from in-kind contributions.

What would the $15,000 be purchasing? “My understanding is that there are certain physical assets from BoarsHead that might be up for sale: costumes, props, furniture,” Canja said. The package might also include “state-of-the-art” lighting and/or sound equipment, but Canja said she wasn’t certain of the specifics.

For its part, BoarsHead would have to come up with somewhere between $200,000 and $250,000 annually to cover the salaries of the executive director, artistic director and Equity personnel and operating expenses.

Some observers have questioned the politics behind the proposal, particularly the involvement of Larry Meyer, who is on both the LCC board and BoarsHead boards — the latter as president.

Meyer said he has not been involved in discussions of the proposed partnership and will recuse himself from voting on the plan. Nealon confirmed that Meyer has “never been part of those conversations, and when we’re putting the proposal out there for a board majority, he won’t be voting on it.”

There is also the question of family ties. Former Lansing mayor David Hollister is a BoarsHead trustee; his son, Jerry, sits on the LCC board. Jones dismisses any speculation that dad’s position might affect his son’s judgment.

“Jerry is independent,” she said. “He’s a good board member and he carefully considers issues.”

Neither David nor Jerry Hollister answered requests for interviews.

Questioning the advantages
Nealon’s presentation points to such possible benefits as BoarsHead/LCC co-produced summer musicals, touring shows and youth programming, as well as workshops for local actors and a potential recruiting tool for LCC’s theater program.

“But again, we’re looking at what would be the impact on Lansing Community College’s performing arts program and how we might need to support or amplify support for programs there if the season were to be expanded for four more productions,” Nealon added.

Nealon pointed to the LCC costume shop, for example. “We do have a full-time designer in that space and some limited support staff associated with that as well, and some student workers. We keep that (shop) pretty busy with the work we’re already doing for LCC productions.

“We understood that if we were to bring on more events that would require the use of the costume shop, we would have to beef up support for costume (personnel). The same is true of the scenery shop.”

Nealon also considered the costs of increased use of Dart Auditorium.

“We would not be hiring any person simply to service a need for BoarsHead,” Nealon said. “It would be about amplifying services and support we’re already using; you get to a place where doing more with less is just not feasible anymore.”

To Bill Helder, the plan sounds like little more than gilding the lily. Helder, who acted in BoarsHead shows, served as president of BoarsHead’s board from 1979-81 and previously served as president of RiverWalk Theatre, said LCC actors and technicians are getting pointers from theater pros even now; he noted that Williamston Theatre’s John Lepard directed LCC’s “Balm in Gilead” and “Lost Highway” (in which Williamston’s Chris Purchis performed) and Peppermint Creek’s Chad Badgero directed LCC’s recent production of “The Cider House Rules.”

“The students already have contact with professional theater,” Helder said. “So I’m not sure what the advantage is. The danger would be, where does the balance tip in terms of more time, energy and effort being tilted toward a professional theater and less time for students?”

Helder also wonders about the availability of Dart Auditorium. “I can’t believe there are so many open dates for Dart that you could plug in all the dates for an active professional theater without bumping dates for student activities.”

As for the questions of Dart Auditorium’s availability, Canja said, “I understand that was a concern that has been studied and discussed and has been worked out.”

‘Perceived favoritism’
One of the risks spotlighted in Nealon’s presentation is “perceived favoritism among other community arts organizations.” Asked if the LCC board had heard from any other theater groups wondering why BoarsHead is being offered a home at LCC and getting what might be seen as preferential treatment, Canja said, “I hadn’t even thought of that. I think when this first came up, it was an opportunity that presented itself and was followed up on. It’s not meant to preclude anyone else.”

But Jeff Croff, founder of Icarus Falling, sees that as a very real issue that could cause friction in the theater community.

“How can you subsidize one group at the detriment of the others?” Croff asked. “If the $25 ticket price BoarsHead charges doesn’t have any overhead and the $25 Williamston charges for a ticket has to go to heat and lights and rent and other expenses, it’s an uneven playing field — you’re choosing winners.”

Croff calls the proposal “such a suspect plan. You hate being negative within the arts community, but this is such a bad plan. Exactly what are we really subsidizing and what are we creating? Are we maintaining the entity of BoarsHead a little longer, or just paying tribute to nostalgia?”

There’s also the question of the theater’s outstanding debts, which were estimated to be $199,000 when the theater shut down in December: That figure included 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 interest-free loan from the Lansing Economic Development Corp.; and $52,000 to "various vendors and creditors" (including City Pulse).

“LCC, I think, will be picking up nothing but ill will and a bunch of debts,” Peakes said. “That’s what BoarsHead is bringing to the table. It just seems to me to be a lose-lose proposition for LCC.”

Peakes insists his feelings “aren’t a case of sour grapes — I’ve been away from it for a long time. I was sad to see (BoarsHead) was closed, but I’d be even sadder to see it come back in a bastardized form.”

Orban — who said he doesn’t know of any contingency plan for BoarsHead if the proposal is rejected by LCC — admitted the theater has been a victim of a sort of artistic climate change that’s happened in recent years, although he's hopeful for the future.

“People are consuming arts and culture in a different way,” Orban said. “The old idea of ‘you build a theater and put on good plays and people will come’ — that doesn’t work any more.”