Cash crisis hits America’s largest African American theater company

By The Guardian
Thursday, September 6, 2012 12:12 EDT
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The largest African-American theatre company in the US has suspended its artistic output and cut its full-time workforce by more than a third on account of a cash crisis.

According to the Star Tribune, Penumbra Theatre, a 250-seater in St Paul, Minnesota, has laid off six of its 16 full-time members, including its associate artistic director, in a bid to reduce its annual budget by $800,000 (£502,850). While the company hope to raise the funds for a musical in March – reportedly $340,000 – they will not programme any new work in the interim.

Artistic director Lou Bellamy told the paper that the company, which he founded in 1976, was facing “an immediate cash-flow challenge”, after incurring a shortfall of $500,000 last year, despite a 35% increase in ticket revenue.

As a result, Penumbra has already cancelled two productions due this year, Kara Lee Cothron’s Julius By Design and Pearl Clage’s Bourbon at the Border, saving around $350,000. When the cancellations were announced, managing director Chris Widdess said that the remainder of the shortfall would be made up “through other cuts”.

Penumbra is one of only three professional African-American theatre companies in the US to offer a full season of performances, and was once the primary artistic home of twice Pulitzer prize-winning dramatist August Wilson. Its current output includes mainstage offerings, such as the Nat King Cole musical I Wish You Love that the company toured to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC last year, new plays and education work, overseen by Bellamy’s daughter.

Despite the latest cutbacks, Widdess says the company remains hopeful. “The funding environment is tough, especially when projections don’t go to plan, but based on the response we’re getting to date, we think we can do it.”

“All of these decisions are painful,” Bellamy told the Star Tribune.

© Guardian News and Media 2012

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