Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Attendance drop pushes RMTC to near-record $420,154 deficit

Single tickets down 30%, subscriptions slip 10%

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The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's 2011-12 season was a royal pain in its pocket book.

The province's flagship theatre recorded one of the largest deficits in its history as mainstage attendance plunged dramatically .

At its annual general meeting held in RMTC lobby Wednesday evening, a small throng of supporters and staff were informed of a $420,154 deficit on an almost $8 million budget this season. Single ticket sales were down 30 per cent on the six-show mainstage playbill while season subscriptions there slipped 10 per cent to 15,047.

"It certainly is not the number we wanted to deliver on the season," first year RMTC general manager Camilla Holland said during an interview. "There was a revenue gap at the mainstage both in attracting new subscribers and in achieving our single-ticket sales target. We addressed the situation as well as we could but in the end we couldn't bridge the gap."

Mainstage attendance fell to 99,319 from 115,106. Not one of the mainstage productions attracted more than the poorest draw (Brief Encounter with ticket sales of 17,310) of the 2010-11 season.

Last season's best seller mainstage offering was the dud Grumpy Old Men, The Musical at 17,275 (or 73 per cent of capacity), followed by Shirley Valentine at 17,175 and Next to Normal with 16,755. The least popular ticket was God of Carnage at 15,662. This spring's sudden closure of the company's God of Carnage co-production partner, Vancouver's Playhouse Theatre, left RMTC with a $65,000 bill.

Things were much better over at the Warehouse where August: Osage County was not only critically lauded but was the hottest ticket, playing to 5,197 people or 91 per cent of capacity. In the Next Room or the vibrator play played to the smallest audience of 4,560 people.

The organization was able to dip into its healthy stabilization fund to pay off the deficit, leaving about $290,000 for another rainy day.

Attaching blame for the deficit has proved elusive for the RMTC braintrust. No one can point to one reason for why it could not bring in as many theatre-goers as needed.

"We have asked the question, why people didn't come," said Holland, who never oversaw a deficit during her previous five-year stint as general manager at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre. "We have gone out proactively to subscribers a couple of times to ask in surveys and on the telephone. I personally called A-plus subscribers who hadn't renewed last year and what you hear is a huge range (of reasons), that it's got to do with lifestyle, finances, travel."

In response, the organization is making changes as to how to approach the market place. RMTC has hired American consultants to help raise the number of subscribers, added a group salesperson and are conducting its first telemarketing campaign in six years. Ticket prices for the 2012-13 season are going up 2-5 per cent, depending on the seat section.

In his address at the meeting, artistic director Steven Schipper quoted Rabbi Nachman who in 1810 said, "The whole world is a very narrow bridge. The most important thing is to not be afraid at all."

"That's how we are going forward," said Schipper, who was hired in 1989 when his predecessor Rick McNair was fired after racking up a $431,000 deficit. "We're mindful of what's happened this year and we're always going to be responsible about preserving the long-term health of this theatre company but we had a lot to celebrate what happened on stage this year."

Among Schipper season highlights were the performances of actresses Nicola Cavendish (Shirley Valentine), Jennifer Lyon (Next to Normal), Seana McKenna (Mrs. Warren's Profession), Martha Henry (August: Osage County) and Rebecca Northan (Blind Date)

He remains upbeat and undefeated about the outcome of the current season as well as the next.

"We are not reducing our expectations or vision of what our theatre can be," he said and predicted, "You won't be able to get a ticket to Gone With the Wind next season unless you are a subscriber."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2012 D3

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