Wednesday, January 6, 2010

ArtsPaper Interview: Lou Tyrrell sees great new future for Florida Stage

Lou Tyrrell. (Illustration by Pat Crowley)

On Nov. 30, Florida Stage and the Kravis Center announced a partnership agreement in which the Manalapan theater company that specializes in developing new plays would move its operation to the Rinker Playhouse, a flexible “black box” performance space within the West Palm Beach complex, beginning in July 2010.

In mid-December, Palm Beach ArtsPaper’s Hap Erstein sat down with Florida Stage’s producing director Louis Tyrrell to discuss the ramification of such a move.

Erstein: How did this Florida Stage-Kravis Center partnership begin?

Tyrrell: We talk all the time, (Kravis CEO) Judy Mitchell and I. We’re really common spirits. We’ve been talking since we did Shakespeare together, the year we moved here (to Manalapan).

They began thinking about how they could maximize their revenue in this economy, in the face of everybody being hurt and donations being affected -- for us as well -- so all of us were thinking out of the box.

Erstein: Hadn’t you put the idea of moving on hold because of the economy?

Tyrrell: Well, we had certainly put the idea of moving into our own 5, 10, 20- million-dollar facility on hold. We put it in the deep freeze. It didn’t make financial sense. But what did make sense was the kind of collaboration that this partnership represents, a perfect example of how you can circle your wagons, reduce your costs and upgrade the art and the audience experience.

Erstein: Were you starting to have difficulties with the management of Plaza del Mar?

Tyrrell: Increased rent is difficult in this environment to absorb. The reality of any tenant in a commercial property is if you’re there 19-20 years -- this is our 19th season here -- the small incremental increases of, say, 3 percent add up considerably. We started by paying $100,000 a year. Our rent here is now $330,000 a year.

Yeah, you can add a dollar or two every so often (to the ticket price), but you get to the point where you’ve hit that ceiling and it has to come from contributed income. And if you are all of a sudden in an environment where contributed income is going down, you’ve got to be as creative about the budgeting as with what you hope to put on the stage.

Erstein: You had to be pretty creative to see the potential in the Rinker Playhouse space.

Tyrrell: I’m ecstatic with the outcome of what we’ve designed for it, because it gives us the potential for 25 to 50 additional seats and yet it doesn’t put the back row any further from the stage than we are here.

We will have 30 feet in height for the possibility of two-story sets and for expanded lighting designs, for special effects. In every way it improves our production values.

Erstein: What details of the move had to be ironed out?

Tyrrell: We had to make sure that the schedule that we needed was in the ball park of what is available. They’re still programming there. In this first year, the (Palm Beach) Opera will still be using it incrementally for rehearsals. And the Kravis Center still wanted to have several weeks where they could bring in shows, The Capital Steps or whatever.

The compromise that we made, at least initially, was that we’ll go back to four plays during the season [instead of five] and a summer musical that we’ll create. Three of the four productions will be five weeks apiece and the fourth will be six weeks, because it will be a new musical creation which typically plays to a wider audience.

The hope also is that we’ll have to add Tuesday night performances. That adds four performances, so a four-week run would only be cut by four performances.

Erstein: Did you poll your subscribers about the move?

Tyrrell: Anecdotally. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of them are not only positive about it, but thrilled about it. We have encountered the two or three negative responses, people who say things like, “But I live across the street.…”

There are questions about the reconfiguration, which are natural. Y’know, “How will my seats look in the new space?” and those are all questions we’ll be answering in the days ahead.

Erstein: Did you do any market research about potential new audiences you might gain?

Tyrrell: The demographic research very clearly shows that the growth in Palm Beach County is west and north. As we know, Palm Beach Gardens has just exploded with people who are likely to want to come to our programs at the Kravis. As well as West Palm Beach itself. To be in the hub of the county, right in the middle of the community, with the kind of programming that we offer, we expect a tremendous response in the 30, 40, 50s-somethings community, because the work that we’re doing plays very centrally to a younger aesthetic.

Erstein: Do you think your programming will change at the Kravis?

Tyrrell: No, not in terms of the type of play that we’re doing. It will simply give me a chance to consider material that I find difficult to consider here, from a technical perspective. Plays that require two stories. This will give me an opportunity, from a design perspective, to really bring those plays to life.

Erstein: What is the potential for gaining new donors?

Tyrrell: Very clearly the Kravis Center is world-class in their fund-raising operation. The community feels very comfortable contributing to programming in that building. So we feel it will provide us enhanced opportunities for fund-raising.

Erstein: What about conflicts with the Kravis’s fund-raising efforts?

Tyrrell: We said to Judy (Mitchell), “How do we make sure we don’t step on your toes?” And she said, “I don’t have toes that are step-on-able.” She was very open in that regard. She said, “People should have the opportunity to support a menu of cultural offerings that we may be providing, you among them.” That’s so classy, so smart and so right.

We’ve been given a grant by the Addison Hines Charitable Trust, which is a perfect example of why we think it will be easier to raise money when we are at the Kravis Center. Because in their letter to us giving us the $50,000 grant to make the move, they said that Addison Hines would want to be remembered at the Kravis Center.

Erstein: Does Florida Stage have any formal fund-raising plans?

Tyrrell: For our 25th anniversary, the 2011-2012 season, we’ll be starting a capital campaign now, which will give us two and a half years to raise $2.5 million for our 25th anniversary. A million dollars for endowment, a million for cash reserve and $500,000 as a lead gift for the naming of the stage.

Erstein: Will you have your own separate box office?

Tyrell: Yes. We’re going to initially have our box office as we have had it. Change is hard for people. So at least initially, we want to provide people with the same level of service, the sane phone numbers they can call, the same people who they’re used to speaking to here. But the Kravis has a world class box office operation, so we are looking forward to making blocks of tickets available through their box office, too.

Erstein: Separate marketing department?

Tyrrell: Well, we’ll have separate marketing, but we hope to benefit from a presence in the Kravis brochure every year and we’ll want to piggyback on their world-class marketing machine. They’re really good at what they do. Why would we not want to take advantage of that?

An artist's rendering of the Florida Stage setup at the Rinker Playhouse.

Erstein: You are renting the Rinker, and that means you will have to pay for reconfiguring it to your specifications?

Tyrrell: That’s right. But the reconfiguration, relative to building a new theater, is pocket change. It’s under $500,000.

Erstein: Will it be flexible enough to have different set-ups for various plays?

Tyrrell: Yeah, that potential is there. If we add another section of seats, it becomes an arena, a theater-in-the-round, should we ever want to do that.

Erstein: What will your rent be?

Tyrrell: I think it amounts to, including offices, something like $250,000 a year.. But that’s totally inclusive. It includes all the utilities, all the facility management and security issues. Out of the gate, for the use of the theater, it is $130,000 less (than Manalapan)and then utilities are about $120,000 a year saved. That’s if we didn’t ever have to replace a A/C unit. We have ten of them on the roof. Every year so far that we’ve been here, one‘s gone out at $30,000 a pop. So when you start adding in those things, you realize very quickly it is a cool $250,000 savings.

Erstein: Have you calculated what ticket prices in your first Kravis season will be?

Tyrrell: Having just last year raised our prices two or three dollars, we’re not looking at raising our tickets right away. We feel very strongly about remaining accessible from a cost perspective.

Erstein: Is this an interim move to get you past the rough economy, until you can afford your ideal theater?

Tyrrell: I see it as a permanent home. I love the idea of the implied collaboration. I love the idea that the Kravis Center will now have a complete cultural offering including a resident theater company with a mission like ours.

With the economic shift that’s happened over the last couple of years, it would be foolish to think that it is just a momentary glitch in the economic realities. This is the new normal.

Erstein: Haven’t you long wanted to have a second space for develop less accessible material?

Tyrrell: I think what is in the cards, and Judy, Lee Bell (Kravis senior director of programming) and I have talked about this, is a possible cabaret operation up in what they call a rehearsal hall. I call it a second black box, where there can be the sort of experimental work can be developed and produced.

Erstein: Will your sets still to be built in your existing scene shop in West Palm Beach?

Tyrell: Yes, which is much closer to the Kravis than it is to here.

Erstein: What about your rehearsal space and costume shop in Lantana?

Tyrrell: We’re not sure. The lease on our rehearsal space carries on for another year, which will give us a good opportunity to determine what we want to do. We figure it’s enough to move the theater and the offices for now. It may make sense later to look for space in West Palm Beach proper.

Erstein: What about housing for your out-of-town actors?

Tyrrell: It would be great to try to convince some of our donors to purchase the very affordable apartments that are in CityPlace or elsewhere in downtown West Palm Beach. For investment purposes, right now is the time to acquire the kind if space that a theater like ours would need for visiting artists. For donors that would want to make that kind of investment, it will probably only appreciate in the years to come. If they could then make a contribution to the theater through the use of those units or charge a nominal rent that we could afford, that would be ideal.

Erstein: What challenges loom ahead, as you see them?

Tyrrell: The challenges that I am now able to focus on as I approach my 60th birthday are kind of fun. For my 40th birthday, we moved here, so here we are 20 years later and I get to have the birthday present of moving to a new theater at the Kravis Center. I’m thinking in terms of the inauguration of a Florida cycle of plays. This will to be to establish a fund that will commission 20 and more plays on Florida stories.

I tried to think of some minuses and found it really difficult to come up with things. As I said, change is hard for people in general. But we think that’s going to be minimal here, because of the fact that virtually everybody who comes to Florida Stage has been to and goes regularly to the Kravis Center. And then there are tens of thousands of people who go there who don’t come here, so that’s a plus.

My drive to work will be longer.

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