Monday, May 4, 2009

Theater feature: New Vista company struggling to stay alive

Avi Hoffman, founder of the New Vista Theatre Company.

By Hap Erstein

It is 10:30 a.m. in the beleagured Boca Raton offices of New Vista Theatre Company, and artistic director Avi Hoffman is there alone, on the phone, trying to cajole a disgruntled subscriber.

A day earlier, he sent out an e-mail blast announcing the cancellation of his much anticipated world premiere musical, The Shop on Main Street, the second show he has had to scrub within months, substituting a low-cost all-volunteer variety show.

The caller is threatening to dispute the subscription charge to her credit card company, and a weary-sounding Hoffman is making little headway with her .

“Most of our audience has been very supportive,” says Hoffman, who is fighting for his three-year-old theater company’s survival. “They for the most part are very loyal, loving people who understand our plight. Every so often, we probably have dealt with no more than 50 non-friendly entities. But out of 1,500 (subscribers), 50 isn’t a bad percentage. That’s three percent. That’s not bad.”

Every nonprofit theater in Palm Beach County -- if not the country -- is in financial trouble at the moment, says Hoffman. Locally, New Vista may be in the worst situation, “because we’re the newest. We never got the foundation of grants, or donor base, or corporate support or endowments. We never got that base.”

For the company’s first two years in business, foundations begged off giving aid, saying New Vista was too young to have earned the assistance. “Now they’re saying, ‘Sorry, we have no money. We’re only giving to the people we’ve given to before and we’re only giving them half or less’,” notes Hoffman ruefully.

Still, Hoffman had lined up sizeable grants specifically for his planned area premiere production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers. The Picower Foundation and others had indicated a willingness to substantially underwrite what was to be a $250,000 production. Then the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal hit, forcing Picower to close its doors.

“And it wasn’t just them. There were about five or six different people or foundations that had indicated their interest in helping to support The Producers,” notes Hoffman. “And every single one of them came in and said, ‘Sorry, but we can’t give you any money.’ ”

“We sat around this table with the entire design staff and I had to tell them that we were doing it. It was one of the hardest days of my life. I had to call every actor -- 30 people -- people who had turned down work to do it. It broke my heart.”

Instead of The Producers, Hoffman quickly wrote Still Jewish After All These Years! A Life in the Theater, a one-man career memoir that placated most of the ticket buyers. Late last month, he bowed to the reality of New Vista’s even more dire situation and canceled The Shop on Main Street.

Based on the 1964 Oscar-winning Holocaust film, the musical version is a highly personal show for Hoffman, the son of Holocaust survivors. “That is a project that I have been working on for four, maybe five, years,” he says. “We’ve done readings at almost every theater in the South Florida market, pretty much wherever I was working. It was going to be this incredible stepping stone, I felt, for Broadway. Because that’s where I think it deserves to be. And now it will have to wait.”

In its place is a show Hoffman calls The New Vista Variety Hour (and ½), a ad-hoc entertainment by some of South Florida’s best performers, who have donated their time to save the theater company.

“We’ve reached out to not only the South Florida community, but all of our celebrity friends and people we know around the country,” he says, mentioning names like Mandy Patinkin and Tovah Feldshuh, who have e-mailed their concern but are unable to interrupt their current commitments to participate. So far, the biggest name that has agreed to be a guest emcee is Steve Solomon, the Boynton Beach standup comic who took his act to Broadway a couple of years ago.

Other area theaters have offered to help New Vista any way that they can. “This is such a small community and its so tight,” says Hoffman. “Everybody really loves each other in this community, and everybody’s scared now. It’s a tough thing.”

Hoffman calls the current situation an economic perfect storm, but he certainly does not consider himself blameless. “I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t have any responsibility in all this. I made mistakes. I made some serious errors in judgment."

After their first season at Park Vista High School in Boynton Beach, the company had to find a new home and chose to go to West Boca High, a considerably less convenient location.

“The move to Glades probably was an error,” Hoffman concedes. “But we had no choice. We just didn’t have another option, so we chose the option that we had.”

Compounding the problem, after a very popular first season, Hoffman expanded for his second season. Five shows instead of three, each show running three weeks instead of two. “I expanded into a contracting economy. A huge mistake,” he says.

Asked what message we would want his audience to hear about the future of New Vista, Hoffman says, “Right now, we are in survival mode. So the message is ‘Come see this show and help us if you can, so that we can even begin a discussion about whether we will survive or not for next season.’ ”

To do even a three-show season, estimates needing half a million dollars just to cover production expenses. “I just don’t think it’s realistic for us to think that the money’s out there,” Hoffman says. “Administrative costs are another $200,000. All of these things are problematic. And I’m tired.

“The message is ‘Come see The New Vista Variety Hour (and ½), and support your local theater, whether it’s us or the Caldwell, Florida Stage or anybody else. Live theater needs desperately to be helped now.

“Obviously, I would like the help for us, because if enough people come forward to help us, we may survive into next season.”

NEW VISTA VARIETY HOUR (AND A ½), New Vista Theater Company, West Boca Community High School, 12811 West Glades Road, Boca Raton, now through May 10. Tickets: $20. Call: (561) 482-4144.

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