ROCKINGHAM — Art and fiscal responsibility don’t often go hand-in-hand. Between the City of Rockingham and the Richmond Community Theatre, it’s a tug of war.
The city has proposed to cut the theater’s full-time director position — a $63,000 a year salary — down to part time, and to reduce the city’s libraries and culture budget by $51,254, or 39 percent, from last year, the largest reduction under consideration for this next year’s budget.
The next largest reduction from last year’s budgeted general fund is public buildings at 26 percent.
Several departments — governing body, administration, police, streets and sanitation — are all increasing by more than $50,000 each.
Some say the decreased funding spells doom for the struggling theater, but City Manager Monty Crump maintains that it’s “not closing” and said this reduction is the only way the theater will be able to continue to operate given the level of support it’s received over the last three years.
“I have to evaluate every program,” Crump said. “No one is going to argue about the benefits of a theatre, the issue is attendance.”
According to a report of the theater’s performance over the last three years prepared by its governing board in April and obtained by the Daily Journal, the theater has struggled to keep its seats filled, but has seen spikes in attendance for holiday shows and big-name productions such as “Beauty and the Beast,” which sold out for two weekends — six shows — in a row in February 2017, bringing in $10,920.
The least-attended production of the last three seasons was “Sylvia” in May 2017, which had its peak attendance at 44 people and its lowest at eight, bringing in a total of $780. Each performance takes at least two months to prepare.
The average attendance for the previous two seasons (the report was compiled before the last production of the 2017-18 season) was 1,709, or 66 percent of the potential attendance.
Each season, the theater produces three primary stage productions and holds one summer program for children. Crump said that if the council votes to cut the director position to part time, one of the main-stage productions would likely be eliminated, leaving one big-name production, the holiday production and the kids’ show.
“Our belief is that this really is a treasure for Richmond County,” said Shelly Walker, director of the theater, who noted that Moore County, for all its other amenities, doesn’t have a community theater. “It’s a piece of history and service. What people see on stage, what they take out with them affects the community.”
The city pays virtually all of the theater’s building expenses, with a $9,500 annual flat fee paid back. Aside from the director, all other roles — including the actors — are performed on a volunteer basis. Where the rest of the money goes is a mystery to Crump. In response to his initial request for documentation on the theater’s “cash on hand” in March leading up to the budget considerations, the board gave no response, instead offering to meet in person.
“When I do a budget, it isn’t a negotiation,” Crump said, explaining that he considers each department’s budget request to be final, and he decides whether to accept or reject it.
Walker said the board’s vice president, Merrie Dawkins, said she had scheduled a meeting with Crump for July. Dawkins did not return requests for comment Friday afternoon.
Crump described long-standing friction between the board and the city, which rears its head most frequently when the city requests to use the building for concerts or other city events during the theater’s down time.
“We’ve have issues in the past with non-theater use of the building,” which Crump further described as “resistance” to the city having control over the stage at all.
Walker pushed back on Crump’s description of the relationship, saying that the most recent issue came when the city tried to schedule a concert the night before Thanksgiving.
“Like any employee would, we said, ‘It’s the night before Thanksgiving! We’re going to be off before noon,’” she said.
Walker said “it will take a lot of time, effort and dedication and a lot of volunteers” to make up for the loss of the work done by the full-time director, should the council vote to eliminate her position.
“It is possible for the Richmond Community Theatre to move to this sort of model,” she said in a text. “Whatever needs to be done for the theater to continue long into the future.”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]