For everyone interested in local theater, and for everyone worried about the health of local civic institutions, the news is awful. Madison Repertory Theatre, the 40-year-old professional company, is shutting down.
Here's what a letter dated March 4 from Rep board president Ruth Domack says: "Due to the continued obstacles of insurmountable debt and little to no money coming in the door, just last week, the Board was forced to make the difficult decision of taking action to dissolve the Rep." Domack lists the company's difficulties: "Trust and grant fund distributions have been denied, single ticket sales have been slow, and contributions from corporations and individuals have declined significantly since the economic downturn last fall."
There's been a steady stream of bad financial news from Madison Rep, of course, including layoffs last fall and a plea for donations earlier this year. And other local arts groups are struggling, including Madison Ballet, which cancelled its current season, and Overture Center, which also laid off workers.
But you don't expect a major arts organization to just disappear, poof. Times truly are tough.
Let's reflect for a moment on what we've lost. Madison Rep consistently presented the highest-quality theater in the city, thanks to its permanent, paid staff and the gifted, experienced performers and designers the company hired. In recent years the company staged an interesting mix of new plays, half-forgotten classics, crowd-pleasers like Tuesdays With Morrie and imaginative interpretations of warhorses like Death of a Salesman and Our Town.
Problem was, Madison Rep's artistic ambitions exceeded what it could afford. So said then-board president David Hackworthy last spring, when the board declined to renew the contract of artistic director Richard Corley, who joined the company in 2002. (He was replaced this season by Trevin Gay.) Those experienced performers and designers -- and those lovely sets and costumes -- came at a price.
So what now? I'm worried that Madison Rep won't be the last major arts organization to go under. Arts groups here and everywhere faced challenges even before the economic meltdown. The arts landscape may look quite different once the worst is over.
I also worry about, not to put too fine a point on it, the future of American theater. In recent years regional theater companies like Madison Rep have been hailed by some as a source of new energy and ideas. Take Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal critic who travels extensively and writes about theater all over the land. In a 2006 article called "Regional Theater's Glamour Gap," he wrote that "the time has come for American playgoers -- and, no less important, arts editors -- to start treating regional theater not as a minor-league branch of Broadway but as an artistically significant entity in and of itself."
Agreed, says this arts editor. But no theater company is artistically significant if it doesn't exist.