The North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, after 36 years as High Point’s only professional theater company, on Wednesday suspended operations, citing extreme financial challenges.
Details of exactly what “suspended” entails were not disclosed.
Pedro Silva, long-time artistic and managing director, confirmed Wednesday that the September production of “Macbeth” is canceled, but he declined further comment now, citing the need for himself and the staff to adjust to the board’s Tuesday decision.
“Additional information will be forthcoming at a later date,” Silva said.
The short press release, issued Wednesday, in part reads: “The Board of NCShakes has unfortunately determined that NCShakes’ financial circumstances require a suspension of operations and a substantial reduction of expenses at this time. The Board of Trustees of NCShakes remains optimistic that NCShakes will be able to continue to provide its Shakespeare To Go educational programming in 2014. The Board of Trustees of NCShakes also will evaluate other programming in the future.”
The Shakespeare Festival employs a year-around staff of 13 full-time and six part-time employees. It hires actors and production personnel for specific productions. It owns extensive office, education and production facilities at 807 W. Ward Ave., and the loan on those facilities is paid. Its budget for 2013-14 is $1.8 million. It has a sister organization, Festival Stage of Winston-Salem, that mounts productions in Winston-Salem.
The Shakespeare Festival has scraped by financially almost since its first season in 1977. The most recent blow occurred in 2011, when it lost $200,000 in line-item state funding. It canceled its 2011 MainStage season for the first time in its history. The MainStage season resumed in 2012 with just one play, and a single play, “Macbeth,” was scheduled for this fall.
Shortly after the loss of state funding, Jim Millis Jr. and his wife, Debbie, gave the Shakespeare Festival $1.5 million, to be distributed during two years, with the possibility of a third year. Millis, who is from High Point, and his wife now live at the N.C. coast. He had not returned a call seeking comment by press time Wednesday.
Jim Millis’ niece, Ashley Hedgecock, is current chairwoman of the Shakespeare Festival board.
Silva is designated spokesman for comments on the company’s suspension.
The money Millis gave in 2011 was specifically targeted to improve fundraising, marketing and public relations. In July 2011, Wil Elder, from Tennessee, was hired to lead those efforts as the festival’s first president and CEO. Soon after, the staff of three was increased to 15, and numbers since have fluctuated only slightly.
Elder, almost immediately after taking the job, began getting to know the community, and he seemed to attend every community function. He and the additional staff appear to have been successful.
Figures recently released to NCSF patrons show that during Elder’s first full fiscal year on the job, giving increased 35 percent, from $117,705 in 2011-12 to $158,520 in 2012-13. In total, giving from 2010-11 through 2012-13 increased 93 percent, from $82,285 in 2010-11 to $158,520 in 2012-13.
In addition, attendance for productions at the High Point Theatre increased from 19,250 in 2010 to 22,565 in 2012.
Signs of problems began to crop up on July 23, when Elder was asked by the board to step down.
“The board made the tough decision and asked me to step down as president and CEO due to a change in resources,” Elder said Wednesday. “And as the leader, it was the way to make the necessary cut without losing a large amount of staff.”
Elder agreed to step down as of the end of July, and he has not been in NCSF offices since Monday, he said.
When asked if the Millis money was renewed for a third year and if its renewal or loss was a factor in the board’s decision to suspend operations, Elder said, “I’m unable to comment. I don’t know all the facts. I haven’t been in the office since Monday.”
Elder has come to consider High Point home, and this weekend he is getting married to Sadie Leder, a full-time assistant professor of psychology at High Point University and associate director of the school’s Survey Research Center.
He is incredibly proud of the accomplishments he and his staff made.
“When I arrived, not one of our programs made money, and, over time, that really hurt,” he said. “We made all our programs more efficient, and this coming year with ‘Macbeth,’ we had a new business model, and all of our programs this (fiscal) year would have been cash-flow positive.
“I love High Point and look forward to serving this great city I’ve come to love.
“I hope the Shakespeare Festival will reopen at some point. The education programs in the community and across the state are so important.”
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Canceled, or not?
• “Dracula” — Still on. Youth Theater performances will be given at 7:30 tonight and Friday night at Shakespeare Festival facilities, 807 W. Ward Ave. Admission is $7;
• MainStage production of “Macbeth,” scheduled for Sept. 6-29 — canceled;
• December productions of “A Christmas Carol” — undecided;
• “Shakespeare To Go” educational tour for 2013-14 — undecided;
• Festival Stage of Winston-Salem (sister organization) — unknown.