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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Is Actor's Express running low on steam?

Freddie Ashley, at a lighter moment
Just after 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 23, Actor's Express artistic director Freddie Ashley sent out a mass email that sounded the alarm about the playhouse's economic future.

Our theatre is at a critical juncture - a true life or death moment. As you know from our many recent calls for support, we are fighting to make it through an extraordinarily difficult time for the arts in Atlanta. Decreased discretionary spending and a reduction in philanthropic support have dramatically impacted our revenues. Our staff and board have worked tirelessly to do more with less - cutting our spending while continuing to present works of the highest quality and importance. In spite of our efforts, though, we are faced with an impending deficit that quite literally threatens our existence. Without immediate additional support - above and beyond that already projected - we will be forced to close our doors. Specifically, to save Actor's Express, we need $50,000 over the next four weeks, and an additional $150,000 over the next four months.

In a phone conversation earlier this afternoon, Ashley said Actor's Express suffered from, "A few body blows in a relatively rapid sequence. In recent years, we accumulated debt because of budget shortfalls and income projections not coming through. Then two shows in a row did not perform to box office expectations, and we're currently not eligible for some funding that we'd gotten previously. Since December, $80,000 in income just evaporated."

Ashley decided that cutting back on the season's remaining two shows (the musical See What I Wanna See and the historical drama The Judas Kiss, in which he plays Oscar Wilde) wouldn't help the situation. "To cancel the last two shows wouldn't save any money, would let down our subscriber base and put us at a disadvantage for selling subscriptions next year."

Ashley did not make the appeal lightly. "You can only say this once, so we can't ever be in this position again." He singled out the work of the company's new managing director, "budget hawk" Lara Smith. According to the theater's new press release:


Managing Director Lara Smith points out measures in place to prevent situations of this kind from recurring in the future. "Not only have we not acquired any additional debt this year, we have managed to retire some past debt by working out payment plans with vendors," Smith said. "We have now implemented new financial tracking processes to assert more control over cash flow and have changed our thinking to include retiring our debt as part of our operations. Staff has implemented significant expense controls and continues to find ways to stretch our limited resources without diminishing the quality of our art."

Ashley feels that as long as the company weathers the current downturn, Actor's Express will be in a strong position for its 24th season. "If everything falls into place like I want, it could be a blockbuster season for us that can play right down the middle with our base, while being very true to our artistic mission. I'm looking at two Broadway hits, an American classic and at least one world premiere."

Ashley describes himself as "amazed" at the response to his letter within 24 hours. "Not only have we raised money, the moral support from people who can't afford to donate has been very positive and loving. I feel like George Bailey at the end of It's a Wonderful Life."

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