State Theatre Heading in New Direction
By offering something for everybody, from film to concerts to stage productions, the State Theatre has established itself as a fixture on the State College cultural scene.
But the well-known mecca of the performing arts has had a troubled past -- especially when it comes to making a profit.
Tasked with steering the State Theatre in 2014, new executive director Greg Ray says he has several priorities to increase ticket sales at the community venue.
Ray joined the State Theatre staff in January of 2008 as the lighting designer. In the fall of 2010, the theatre's executive director resigned. At that point Ray became an advisor for programming while still managing lighting to help fill the gap. In January of 2012, Ray became programming manager and while still serving as lighting designer.
Ray has a theatre degree from Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. Since then, he's worked in venues very similar to the State Theatre, large, older movie theaters renovated to be performing arts venues.
"So this was a natural fit for me," he says.
Up until last year, the State Theatre paid an outside consultant to arrange acts for the venue. However, Ray suggested to the theatre's board that staff handle programming in-house instead of paying an outside agent.
"That sort of began the process for us booking, negotiating, and developing our business relationship with the greater performing arts world," Ray says. "Up until that time the greater performing arts world didn't know we existed. ... All of the sudden you're having a conversation with the people responsible for a performing act directly. That relationship leads to a lot of great business decisions."
Soon after, the theatre started undergoing other changes. Ticket sales declined across the board. There was limited financial reporting. And the board split executive director, Richard Biever's role into two positions, designating Biever as artistic director and hiring a business director under a six-month contract.
Ray says the issue with the new business position was an unclear job description. When the six-month contract ended, the board decided to not renew. At the same time, the board also cut the marketing position.
Without a marketing director, Ray became responsible for marketing the acts he booked. That's when ticket sales started to increase, he says. In October, the theatre had its first sold out shows in more than a year.
Toward the end of 2013, Ray pitched an idea to the board – he wanted to be the next business director while still acting as lighting designer and focusing on programming and marketing.
"I felt with proper financial decisions we could make money. By proper reporting we could start to make financially sound decisions," Ray says.
Around the same time, the board hired a consultant to evaluate the theatre's operations. The consultant also recommended the board hire Ray, not as business director, but as executive director of the entire theatre.
Ray told the board he'd accept the position if the board kept Biever on as an artistic producer. Ultimately, the board and Biever could not reach an agreement to keep him on staff full-time.
"Richard Biever is the most amazing director of musical theatre I've ever met in 20 years of working in this business," Ray says. "This is not what I intended. My intention was to work alongside of Mr. Biever, not instead of Mr. Biever."
Early this year, Ray took over as executive director and Biever agreed to stay on board through last month's production of "Annie."
Ray faces an uphill road. With roughly $1 million in annual sales, last year, the theatre had roughly $300,000 in unpaid bills and other debt that accumulated since 2010. Still, with the right moves, Ray believes the theatre can get out of that hole. Part of the solution includes:
- Cut costs with a leaner staff, and therefore lower payroll. The theatre's staff is 15 percent lighter than last year due to restructuring. As revenues increase, Ray says additional staff can be hired.
- The theatre hired a development director to manage monetary contributions to the non-profit, which is a position the theatre had been operating without since 2010.
- Examining every area of the business and restructuring based on profitability. For example, looking at items sold at concessions – What's offered? What do people buy? How to better manage line traffic?
- Develop marketing strategies to get the word out by targeting specific audiences for specific performers, instead of blanket media coverage. That also means exploring social media as a vehicle to market performances. "We have 600 seats. We need to find 600 people who are interested," Ray says. "I believe we will see ticket sales increase by doing the right kinds of marketing."
- Hiring performers who local audiences want to see based on the theatre's seven years of performance history. "We have fallen off the bike while trying to learn how to ride it," Ray says. "We're going to do more of what works and less of what doesn't work. We're at a point in history where we know what those things are."
Other efforts will include a continued focus on booking performances by K-12 dance students, which continually "pack the house" as well as renting the theatre for meetings, weddings and other events.
At the end of the day, Ray says he and his staff need to remember why the tehatre is here.
"We should be a reflection of what our community wants to see. We exist to serve and we need to know what it is that our community wants to see and wants to be part of. What we have to do is listen," Ray says. "We're looking for people to have special experiences – engaging, enlightening, transformative. In a perfect world people leave different from when they came in."
Lisa Peters, president of the theatre's board of directors, says the board selected Ray as executive director following his presentation late last year regarding strategic planning for the theatre.
"We tried to figure out who could step up because we are a non-profit that is struggling a bit," Peters says.
Two months into the new year, Peters says the theatre once again has a positive outlook with it comes to fiscal responsibility and sustainability.
"It's going wonderfully. We're doing more development than the entire time I've been there in just the last couple of months. It's just incredible," Peters says.