If the Rochester Civic Theatre were to stage a play chronicling the past three years of its own history, it wouldn't get many laughs. Other than the Broadway hit "The Producers," tales of sexual harassment, wretched leadership, secret loans and financial mismanagement tend to come up short in the humor department.
The real-life drama at the Civic Theatre has stunned and infuriated members of the Rochester City Council, and that anger is justified. The city subsidized the theater company to the tune of about $200,000 in fiscal year 2019.
The poor return the city has received on that investment in recent years has pushed the council to the brink of nixing the city's relationship with the Civic and ending its lease of the venue adjacent to the Mayo Civic Center when the current season ends in May.
But now the city appears ready to reverse course. A recent meeting between City Administrator Steve Rymer and the Civic's new board president, Jeff Haynes, has produced the framework of a plan that will, with the city council's approval, give the theater company another full year to get its financial house in order.
We think this is a risk worth taking — but only under the condition of strict financial transparency, and with the understanding that this year of quasi-probation must produce a significant change in the Civic's operations.
The plan under consideration would have the Civic stage five plays in its next season, rather than seven, and there's no margin for error — all of them need to be hits. This is not the time for "experimental theater," or for acclaimed-but-inaccessible plays that target a limited audience. Think "Guys & Dolls," not "Waiting for Godot." "Annie," not "Our Town." "Twelfth Night," not "King Lear."
In short, the Civic needs to produce plays that audiences truly like, not plays that they're supposed to like — and it needs to produce those plays with the absolute minimum of professional actors.
Kevin Miller, the Civic Theatre's former executive director, has been called a snake oil salesman by council member Michael Wojcik, and we can't argue with that assessment. Under Miller's leadership, the Civic overspent on professional actors to produce shows that were financially doomed before opening night.
That can't happen again. Period.
Part of the attraction of going to a play at the Civic Theatre is that you might know some of the performers. Rochester has a lot of talented people, and while a pro might bring something extra to the role of Maria from "West Side Story," we don't think a talented amateur's portrayal would be a huge liability.
What this means, of course, is that the Civic must thread the needle when it chooses its plays, opting for popular shows that fit its talent pool. If no local amateur can carry the role of Eliza Doolittle, then don't attempt "My Fair Lady." Better a good play that breaks even than a great play that loses tens of thousands of dollars.
By breaking even, we're not suggesting that the Civic must find a way to stand entirely on its own finances. Cities with a high quality of life routinely subsidize the arts and other forms of entertainment. Very few public swimming pools, ice arenas or golf courses can operate in the black without taxpayer dollars. If the Civic Theatre's budget mandated ticket prices that would, in theory, pay all of its bills, then a lot of tickets would go unsold — and the bills would still be unpaid.
But there is a point at which the city must stop throwing good money after bad, and the Civic Theatre faces a tough task in convincing a rightfully skeptical Rochester City Council that it deserves one more chance. The proposal for next season needs a lot of fleshing out, because we doubt that council members will approve it without seeing detailed plans for transparency and accountability.
Nor should they.
The grim reality is that Haynes and everyone involved at the Civic Theatre must fully realize what they're up against. Every move they make, now and throughout the next year (if they get that chance), will be heavily scrutinized. And after what's happened in the past three years, some elected officials might even be secretly hoping that the Civic will fail.
We want it to flourish, but if Haynes proves to be another Harold Hill, then not even the most talented Marian the Librarian will be able to save him and the Civic Theatre.