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The show must go on as Playhouse Merced finds funding

The drama behind the scenes of Playhouse Merced can now be saved for the stage.

Financial woes suggested the theater was bound for a tragic end. But fundraising, staff cuts and creative reuse of set materials will take the 2007-08 season through its final show, said Robert Hypes, interim artistic director.

The theater brought in $40,000 worth of donations from the community in January and February — helping to keep it up and running, he said.

And Playhouse plans to come back for an encore.

The 2008-09 season is now in development. “I am fully confident we will be around,” Hypes said.

So confident, in fact, that the theater will present its Second Annual Season Preview show March 29. The show offers a taste of what’s to come next season, with live, on-stage clips of scenes and musical selections from upcoming plays.

Playhouse’s board of directors can now focus on finding a new artistic director. Hypes stepped into the position on a temporary basis after former artistic director Lars Tatum left in September.

The board is close to making a final decision, and hopes to announce the permanent staffing choice in April, he said.

This is a happy ending compared to December’s predictions. Playhouse staff and board announced then that corporate sponsorships and individual donations had dropped significantly. The theater also overspent its resources on outside designers and actors, and failed to be aggressive with grants.

If Playhouse doesn’t bring in $15,000 to $20,000 — in addition to ticket sales — during January, it would have to fold in February. “We’ve taken a real good look at where we are, and it’s not a good place,” David Zacharias, board president, admitted in December.He also estimated that the theater would need to raise about $100,000 to put on the next season.

Playhouse cut staff and interns while decreasing the salaries of its remaining employees. These changes and frugal spending allowed the theater to trim its budget by $30,000.Administrative director Nancy O’Bryan said this year’s budget, from August into July 2008, will be $619,500, if the theater makes no further cuts.

Playhouse was still open come February, and staff and the board were a bit more optimistic. Donations from concerned residents and businesses had raised $18,000. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” Hypes warned then.

Playhouse reached its financial goals in March, but will loose more interns and staff. O’Bryan is leaving her job to focus on family and acting. By April the theater will have five full-time and three part-time staff. Its intern pool has been whittled down from eight people to three.

The season preview event coming up will help raise money for the next season, Hypes said. And staff has already written four out of five grants it’s hoping for.

Saving costs through reusing set pieces, bringing in more volunteers and making trades with businesses will also make future performances possible. “We’re still around,” Hypes said. “We’re going to be around for a while.”

Reporter Dhyana Levey can be reached at (209) 385-2472 or dlevey@mercedsun-star.com

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