From left: Steven Heron and Doug Lebo at Titusville Playhouse. Photo by Niko Stamos.
By PAM HARBAUGH
Something big has happened, and if it succeeds as expected, it will forever change the cultural landscape of Brevard County and serve as a template for other areas struggling to keep their community theaters alive. It’s an alliance between The Henegar Center and Titusville Playhouse.
As rumored for some time, Steven Heron will take on the duties of artistic and executive director of the Henegar while still maintaining his same role at TPI. But what has not been hinted at and something that is as equally important, is that Doug Lebo has resigned as TPI board president to become president of the board at The Henegar. Both men, along with Cliff Bragdon, the heretofore Henegar board president, expect great things to come from this alliance.
“We’re going to be one of the largest arts organizations in Central Florida,” Heron said. “There’s a potential of being a $4 million to $5 million operation between the two.”
The boards of directors at both institutions unanimously agreed last week to the alliance which should not only expand the artistic reach of Titusville Playhouse but also save the financially strapped Henegar Center from closing.
Bragdon, who is now Henegar board vice president, said that the alliance will help keep the doors open to the Henegar, which has a $32,000 deficit due in part to a decline in patronage in the past year.
“This is a major strategy,” he said. “It will become a new model for dealing with declining governmental support for the arts among other things.”This situation is not new to Lebo and Heron. The two led the turnaround for Titusville Playhouse, which, like the Henegar, was once struggling to stay open. Seven years ago, when Heron was hired and Lebo went onto the board, TPI had $200,000 in annual revenue and struggled to maintain production quality and patronage. TPI now has $1.4 million in annual revenue. Each year has seen a 30 percent growth with TPI purchasing adjacent properties and growing into a stable organization with 13 mostly sold-out productions a season.
The duo took TPI through a five-year, $1.5 million renovation, but TPI continued to grow so much that it’s now bursting at its seams. Accustomed to looking at problems with a logical perspective, Lebo, chief Launch Conductor for United Launch Alliance (he’s the one who pushes the button), floated the idea about expanding. There were three options, he said, building a new theater, expanding the present theater or partnering with another theater to “grow our influence in the arts.”Lebo approached Bragdon with the idea of a merger. The resulting synergy would allow the two organizations, 40 miles apart, to share resources and costs while maintaining individual patron bases. TPI has 1,800 season subscribers. The Henegar has about 400 season subscribers.
“I said you guys are in a very similar place we were in seven years ago,” Lebo said. “I said Steven and I could help (the) Henegar.”
Lebo will first focus on the Henegar’s finances and strategic planning. Heron will focus on raising the quality of programming, building patronage, marketing and working within a strict budget. Later, the two expect to work on facility renovations at The Henegar.
Heron, who is a 30-year professional in the entertainment industry, has a wide network of connections and is already using those to reduce the Henegar’s production costs.
“I’m just trying to save a penny where I can save a penny,” Heron said. “From now to June (the beginning of the Henegar’s next fiscal year), my job is to find how to make fiscally responsible decisions and still put on the best show we can put on.”
Currently, Heron is taking a look at The Henegar’s next production, “Tarzan: the Musical,” which opens March 8.
The scenery for “Tarzan” had been budgeted for up to $4,000 and a contract had been signed for $10,000 for rental of complicated flying rigging. However, Heron arranged free loans of scenery and costumes from two other theaters – Manatee Players in Bradenton and Richmond Civic Theatre in Indiana. He was also successful in modifying the contract with the flying rigging company, reducing the cost by more than half.
Additionally, instead of live music from an orchestra pit, the Henegar, like TPI, will use recorded music.
“It’s not ideal,” Heron said. “We may have to supplement their sets with a couple of pieces.”
Additionally, Heron and other TPI personnel will volunteer their time at the Henegar while continuing their jobs at TPI. There will be a combined staff of at least 18 employees working for both theaters. A creative staff will bounce between the two theaters.
“The whole community is rallying together to make this turnaround happen,” Lebo said. “It’s a great, beautiful building that needs a little more pop to it.”
To help raise some much needed money and give a shot of confidence, TPI will travel two shows from its current season to the Henegar this summer: “Sondheim on Sondheim” and “Rent.”
It also expects to enter into some co-productions. That is not at all a new idea in American theater. In our own backyard, Vero Beach’s Riverside Theatre co-produces a show each season with the most venerable Walnut Street Playhouse in Philadelphia. In fact, in 2013 TPI suggested a co-production with the Henegar of its insanely popular “Les Miserables” — TPI was the second theater in the country to receive permission to mount a production of “Les Mis” because of Heron’s connections.
While running two theaters will be “tight,” Heron said, it will work if planned correctly. Already, TPI opens a new show every four to 10 days, making it the most active theater in the county.
“It’s going to be awesome,” he said. “I haven’t heard of anything like a central management company producing two theaters. But we’re gonna do it.”
The Henegar dates for “Sondheim on Sondheim” and “Rent” will be announced later. Heron will announce the Henegar’s new season at The Henegar Building 100-Year Anniversary Gala Fundraiser March 29.
Full disclosure, I have directed shows for the Henegar and will be directing its production of RED, which opens April 19. Moreover, I have reviewed both theaters professionally and have reported on them for more than 25 years.
This is an edited version of a story running this week in the Melbourne Beachsider.