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2 theater groups facing challenge to make ends meet

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To the casual theatergoer, the world of "show business" sounds exciting and fun. If you're an actor getting rave reviews, it probably is.

But the "show" is one thing and "business" is another.Like paying the power bill to operate the footlights and shelling out "union scale" salaries to all the professionals working not only on stage but behind the scenes.

The smaller, "community" and college theaters may have it a little easier - but they, too, still have bills to pay and operating expenses to cover.

The financial problems of two Utah theater organizations - the huge Tuacahn complex west of St. George and the more intimate Rodgers Memorial Theatre in Centerville - have been in the news in recent weeks.

Tuacahn, which encompasses not only a state-of-the-art, 2,000-seat amphitheater and a fairly large indoor theater, also houses a performing arts school. Two years ago, when the complex first opening, it was being touted as the future Tanglewood of the West.

(Tanglewood, near Boston, is one of the nation's premiere performing arts schools - a prestigious ranking that took years to develop. I had the impression in 1995 that Tuacahn aspired to the same type of recognition almost overnight.)

Admittedly, the ongoing maintenance of Tuacahn's 80-acre site, with its beautifully designed Southwest motif buildings, is costly. This is certainly a major reason Tuacahn's current board of directors recently decided it can no longer offer the facilities to nonprofit groups at unrealistically low prices.

One of the groups which had rented space from Tuacahn was Doug Stewart's Mormon Arts Festival. (Ironically, Stewart himself was the man with the vision to build Tuacahn - and build it where it is located.)

"When I first stood in that canyon, I wasn't thinking of `Utah!', I was thinking of a place where LDS people could gather, where they could be nurtured and inspired to create uplifting art equal to the best the world has to offer," he said Friday morning during a telephone conversation from his home near St. George.

He was talking about the months he spent roaming the hillsides and canyons in southern Utah, looking for the perfect site for a large amphitheater. (And "Utah!" is the spectacular production he and playwright Robert Paxton wrote especially for the theater's premiere in 1995.)

Late last week, Stewart moved his arts foundation office out of the Tuacahn complex because of a rent hike.

Stewart said there was no way the arts foundation could pay the requested $3,000 per night rent on just the amphitheater alone. He also felt the hourly rates being asked for the various classrooms were way out of line.

Kevin Smith, Tuacahn's chief operating officer (and a nephew of Hyrum Smith, the organization's current chief executive officer), said, however, that there has not been a "rate hike."

"The rates have not been increased. We offered Doug a 15 percent discount which is, in essence, the nonprofit rate," said Smith. "There are a lot of hidden costs in an operation this size and some of those aren't covered by rental events.

"I think Hyrum made it clear (in an Associated Press wire story on Thursday), that we are not in a position to subsidize any organization. The $400 rate for the Hafen Theatre (which had been quoted to Stewart) has been the same for the past two years.

"To go any lower than 15 percent is just giving away the facility."

Smith added that Hyrum and the board of directors hope to eventually be in the financial position to implement a permanent endowment, which could be used to help such nonprofit groups as the Mormon Arts Festival. He also emphasized that Tuacahn's physical facilities - the buildings and the amphitheater - are completely paid for.

"Any funds donated to Tuacahn at this point go toward ensuring the facility's future," he said.

Meanwhile, Stewart is moving his 1998 Mormon Arts Festival into St. George, where he'll use a variety of facilities for the three days of concerts, exhibits, workshops and symposiums - the historic St. George Tabernacle, the restored Opera House, the city's new museum, the library and space at Dixie College.

"They're all really close to downtown restaurants and motels, which will be nice, but if Tuacahn doesn't seriously address the nonprofit issues, we're looking strongly at moving the festival up north, maybe Park City," Stewart said.

- THE RODGERS MEMORIAL THEATRE in Centerville has also been struggling financially in recent months. Maybe not to the tune of $23 million - which is what Hyrum Smith has personally poured into Tuacahn - but still having a tough time making ends meet.

The big push at Rodgers, however, has been toward building a large subscription base. Ticket sales are a prime source of any theater's revenue. Just ask Fred C. Adams, founder/exective producer of the renowned Utah Shakespearean Festival. The USF is one of a handful of major theaters in the country operating in the black - and earning most of its revenues from ticket sales.

When RMT's current production of "Phantom" opened, it was announced that its board of directors had set a goal of 3,000 season subscriptions.

According to Cliff Cole, former president of the theater's governing Davis County Performance Arts Corp., "the subscription push is coming along and we hope to reach our goal by the end of the year. We're about half way there and if the commitment is there and everything is on track, we'll stay open."

"Annie" is scheduled to play Nov. 28-Jan. 3, followed by "Big River."

- NOT JUST TYPOS - Part of the enjoyment of opening my mail every morning is looking over the fresh batch of locally written news releases. It's obvious that Utah's community theaters don't have budgets big enough to hire their own proofreaders.

Which is probably why "(Jane Doe) played a wonderful Sister Superior in . . . `The Sound of Music' this past summer" slipped into one theater's handout, and another listed "The Rested Christmas" (instead of "The Rented Christmas") as one of its upcoming productions.

Now, I'm really not that familiar with the Catholic Church's pecking order, so maybe Sister Superior is a rung or two below Mother Superior on the ladder.

Yet another small company has the grammatically incorrect title of "The Town Who Never Had Christmas" on its calendar.

Maybe it was written by The Playwright That Never Had An English Usage Manual.