Transcript – Episode 42

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Jeffry George: Part of your fundraising when you are planning on building a new building, number one, is to get those dollars for the feasibility study; and number two, get the dollars for the emergency fund or the endowment.

Anita Walker: Hello. I’m Anita Walker, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Jeffry George. He is the Executive and Artistic Director of the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. Welcome to our program.

Jeffry George: Hello, Anita. It is great to see you.

Anita Walker: You came to see us all the way from the Cape on this beautiful day.

Jeffry George: Absolutely. And I actually walked quite a ways here, and it felt great.

Anita Walker: Well, that is wonderful. You have a spectacular facility, year-round programming on the Cape. A lot of people think of the Cape as a summertime place, but actually, there are people who live there all year round, and I think one of the tremendous contributions that you make to your community is the fact that you are there all the time, providing programming for people of all ages. But you had a new theater built, and I’m wanting to say around 10 years ago. Is that about…?

Jeffry George: We opened it in 2007. So, 10 years.

Anita Walker: That’s about 10 years ago.

Jeffry George: Wow!

Anita Walker: Right on the money. And, of course, everybody gets excited about the idea of a new theater, and that new-car smell has got to be the best part of it when the audience comes in. But talk to us a little bit about what it’s like to inherit a brand-new theater, because you walked in after it was built, as the director.

Jeffry George: Well, actually, I’ve supervised the building of the building.

Anita Walker: You did?

Jeffry George: And I was the representative from USDA Rural Development, to make sure that everything was done up to code. It is a spectacular building, and there is no other theater like it on the Cape. The seating is incredible. It is state-of-the-art. We can do so many things there. But… <laughs> we just don’t have the population year-round. And so I came to this meeting with you with one word: feasibility. <laughs>

Anita Walker: We love that word, and we especially love that word when it comes to the Cultural Facilities Fund, because, as some people may not know, we not only provide funding for capital projects, but our favorite thing is, before people ask for a capital investment, that they ask for a feasibility study. And actually, we like the word “no,” not feasible, because that means you haven’t spent all kinds of money doing something that isn’t going to work out in the end. So talk to us a little bit about that, because I think the ambitions around the theater, the idea of having a wonderful space that, again, there are people who do live there year-round; it’s just that most people don’t.

Jeffry George: We definitely fill a niche there. We are able to do programming at a larger level for a variety of… constituents, for lack of a better word. And we’re able to do things in the winter that directly relate to the Cape, such as environmental documentary series. We’re able to bring the Met there, to the outer Cape. The Met is done elsewhere on the Cape, but people actually will drive from Orleans or Hyannis to our facility, because the seating is so comfortable, the sound is great, and there–

Anita Walker: That new-car smell.

Jeffry George: That new-car smell. Exactly. So… the feasibility study part of it, to the best of my knowledge, the theater never did a feasibility study. And there are so many moving parts to a feasibility study, such as, what is happening with the year-round population? Is it growing? Is it declining? What’s happening with the second-home population? Is it growing? Is it declining? And then, how– what does your audience want? And what is the feel of your organization? And so Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater really built its reputation around this little 99-seat theater that was kind of screen-door and flipflop, and really made a statement. I mean, the founders and Jeff Zinn, they did an incredible job of bringing that kind of theater to that area. And you know the area is filled with doctors and lawyers and all sorts of intelligent people– psychiatrists, and all of that– and it really fed that audience and that need. But time has moved on, and there are a lot of wealthy people that have moved onto the Cape. I’m not saying they’re not intelligent, but I am saying that it’s a much different atmosphere on the Cape now. So the question becomes, in a facility like ours, how do you keep that depth of programming and provide kind of a different audience with what their needs are? All of a sudden, you’re in uncharted waters. And I think what we’ve tried to do in the last five years is find out what that is. And it’s been trial-and-error all the way along, but we think we’re getting closer to it. But it takes time. And I think if the feasibility study had been done, I think we– they– I think the venue would be smaller, and I think it would be a little more earthier.

Anita Walker: Well, it’s interesting you say that, because when I think about its predecessor, the space was almost part and parcel of the experience. I mean, it was this funky– it was part of the experience. The space was– can you describe it? Use words to describe it for people who hadn’t been to the original space.

Jeffry George: Well, I’ll tell you this: The first time I went to the space was in 2000, and Julie Harris was in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and I sat in the front row. And I felt like I was in that living room. And even if you sat in the back row, you felt like you were in that living room. And you were in there tight, and you could– you were touching your neighbors, there was no air conditioning, and you felt like you were part of the acting ensemble. In a new industrial building, it’s really hard to get that feel. Even though our seating is great, every– you know, the sight lines are–

Anita Walker: Air conditioning.

Jeffry George: Air-conditioned, and our sight lines are great, but we are slightly rem– the audience is slightly removed.

Anita Walker: The experience is entirely different.

Jeffry George: It’s entirely different.

Anita Walker: It doesn’t have that int– it’s a– well, it’s certainly more intimate than a large hall, but the original space was an experience, in and of itself, even before the play started.

Jeffry George: That’s correct. Even the bathrooms. That was quite the experience down at the Harbor. <laughs>

Anita Walker: So, just to dig a little deeper into what a feasibility study might have uncovered, what you designed was not just a bigger version of the original theater; you designed something completely different.

Jeffry George: Correct. Correct. And when you think about the organization, we actually tripled the size of the organization. But yet, we only doubled the budget, because the budget down at the Harbor before we opened was $600,000, and we grew it to $1.2 million. But we were triple the size. There were 99 seats down there, and then 200 up here. Plus, we had the kids’ program to run. And so… if they had… it’s hard for me to say that. If a feasibility study had been done, I think they would’ve realized that a smaller venue would’ve been more advantageous and a little bit less expensive to run.

Anita Walker: It’s so interesting, the story, and I think we’re going to learn along the way, even as we have this conversation right now, because I can think of at least three or four other examples in Massachusetts of the beloved theater in the church basement.

Jeffry George: Oh, yeah.

Anita Walker: The church basement theater was a thing in and of itself. It was an experience. It was almost like a genre– theater in church basement– which, for the beach version, is what you had.

Jeffry George: Absolutely.

Anita Walker: It wasn’t a church basement, but it was just that tight little space. And then, of course, it was so beloved and so wonderful and so many people came, that, my goodness, we just had to build a real theater.

Jeffry George: That’s right.

Anita Walker: And it happened– again, I’m thinking of three or four examples– and it never delivered the success, defined as balancing the budget, being beloved, filling the seats, that those little basement operations did.

Jeffry George: That’s right. That’s right. So what we are doing now is we are painting the walls black. We’re enclosing it a little bit. We’re making the front-of-house experience a little bit funkier. So we’re trying to get… oh, what do they call it? When they come in the front door, it’s not red-carpet service, but it’s the service that the community wants there. So we’re a little bit crunchier, I think, than when the building opened, and we’re not as grand as I think the building statement was when it first opened.

Anita Walker: Why do you think that mistake happens over and over again? Because you’re here, generously sharing the experience of your theater, but it happens a lot.

Jeffry George: It does happen a lot, and I’m going to go back to the straw-hat circuit, where it wasn’t in the church basement, but it was in a barn, like The Cape Playhouse or the Westport Playhouse. It– that experience in the summer was going into this rafty, kind of moldy… <laughs> kind of–

Anita Walker: Sit on a hay bale.

Jeffry George: Big– you know, you sat on hard wooden benches, and everybody loved it. And everybody got dressed up. And usually, curtain time back there, back then, was like eight thirty or nine o’clock, because people would eat dinner first. So, to transfer that into going smaller– kind of what happened with the church basement thing– and then to go back into something industrial, like a lot of people do, is– unless you are a destination with a big population to support it, it’s going to fail.

Anita Walker: Let me ask a crystal ball question: Would the church basement experience have survived, or did something have to happen?

Jeffry George: I think… I… you know the Central Square Theater. That’s an appropriate venue. And I think that size of venue, where you can change the size of it, you can change the configuration of it, I think would’ve fared a little bit better than what we have right now. And don’t get me wrong: It’s a beautiful building, and we will find our way. But when you do that kind of a building without the feasibility study, and you take on $2.25 million worth of debt, now over $100,000 of your operating expense is going to pay off that debt. So in the last three and a half years, we’ve worked very hard to reduce that debt. We’re almost there.

Anita Walker: And debt is the hardest thing. To encourage a donor to support–

Jeffry George: <groans>

Anita Walker: <laughs>

Jeffry George: Boy, did you say it. Anytime we fill out a grant application or go to a foundation, they look at that debt, and they go, “It’s a red flag.” I had a marvelous conversation with Alec Baldwin, and he was– you know, his first professional job was on Knots Landing, and Julie Harris played his mother. And so when we contacted him, he saw her picture on our letterhead, and he immediately responded, and he gave us a nice little grant. And so we kept in touch with him, and we asked him for a little bit more. And he said, “Well, let me look at your finances.” <laughs> And he’s a smart dude, let me tell you. And he went through it, and I finally– it was my second conversation with him on the phone, and it was his birthday. And he was, you know, scattered, dealing with the new child and the whole thing, and he said, “I have to tell you, it’s really hard to give to your organization, because that debt is a huge red flag.” And I know every time that we fill out an application, there is that question, and people immediately go, “Mm, you got to handle it. You got to get rid of it.”

Anita Walker: So, what is your approach? What’s your strategy around the debt?

Jeffry George: Well, we… we’ve been negotiating with USDA now for three and a half years, and we have done a considerable amount of fundraising in three and a half years. But we’re at the point where we’re kind of cannibalizing ourselves. So at the beginning of the season, like it is right now, the normal dollars that come from our big donors are going to relieve that debt. So we are at a very thin bridge right now, and we will cross that bridge. And once we cross that bridge, it will be rather magical, because now, immediately, 100 and plus thousand dollars goes away, on a yearly basis.

Anita Walker: Out of your _________________.

Jeffry George: Absolutely. And it’s cleared off of our books. So when we go back to an organization like the Shubert Foundation– I can’t wait for my letter to Alec Baldwin– and say, “We…” <laughs> And the possibilities are so much greater.

Anita Walker: I don’t know if you’ve heard, but he’s hot right now.

Jeffry George: He is very hot right now!

Anita Walker: You might want to get him in here and help you out. <laughs>

Jeffry George: He is very hot right now. That’s actually why I brought him up. I mean, there are some wonderful people out there in the world, that really want to help, and they have the means to do it. But when that debt is there…

Anita Walker: So, to kind of just circle back to the big takeaways– and you’ve been so generous to be so honest and candid with us. A lot of people aren’t willing to come and talk on a podcast about, “Oops, we didn’t do a feasibility study, and now we have all this debt.”

Jeffry George: Well, I–

Anita Walker: But I think it– you’re not the only ones, and it’s everywhere. There are big ideas, big ambitions around how we’re going to make our organization better with a new facility– generally, it comes into play in a new facility– but, oops, we forgot to think about how much more it’s going to cost to operate that new facility. And all of a sudden– well, first, we didn’t actually raise all the money we needed for the new facility, so we had to get a bridge loan. Oops, there’s one piece of debt. Then we didn’t realize how much it was going to cost to operate the more space with the more people. Boom, that’s a second piece of debt. And third, if we really didn’t think it through, we might not even be finding the audience, or our old audience might not be so keen on this new experience, when they had been truly head-over-heels in love with the old experience, and this is a very different one. So those are three big things that can sneak up and surprise you in a bad way, without that feasibility study and taking the time and effort. I think one of the reasons people don’t do the feasibility is, you have to spend money.

Jeffry George: That’s correct.

Anita Walker: And it’s the best money you’ll spend.

Jeffry George: And part of your fundraising when you are planning on building a new building, number one, is to get those dollars for the feasibility study; and number two, get the dollars for the emergency fund or the endowment. Make that all part of the plan.

Anita Walker: The big package.

Jeffry George: You know, to tell you the truth, I actually didn’t really understand what a feasibility study was until we started to work with USDA in the last three and a half years. And so we dug into traffic studies. We dug into parking lots. We went out and took pictures at certain time of night, and in the morning, and from November until March, and it was astounding what we found out, and how the population– actually, the year-round population– from Provincetown to Orleans has decreased over the last five years, with the exception of Truro. And the only– <laughs> and that increased by 15 people, and those are people that moved out of Provincetown because they couldn’t afford living in Provincetown.

Anita Walker: But that would surprise people. We make assumptions based on what it’s always been. And so without actually studying it– I will say that the Cultural Facilities Fund, which this theater did benefit from, even the first year– you were in the first year, and you were already in the building mode. So you had sort of passed the point of when you would do a feasibility study. You actually came right before… if you had come in the next year and hadn’t started building, you would’ve been encouraged to have a feasibility study. And we found that all of our organizations who have taken that advice have been far more successful, both with their capital campaign and raising money, and of course with their project, in the long run. So your advice around feasibility studies, you should shout it from the rooftops.

Jeffry George: I do. <laughs>

Anita Walker: I can see that you’re sincere about it. Just one other little bit of a discussion about this idea about raising money for debt, because heaven knows we’ve got plenty of organizations that are doing that. If I could pitch another podcast, we did a podcast with an organization that you probably know very well: the Mahaiwe Theater, out in Great Barrington.

Jeffry George: Mm-hmm.

Anita Walker: And they were staring at a big old pile of debt that they couldn’t unload, and basically developed a fundraising capital campaign strategy around eliminating the debt, but by positioning it with donors: the other side of the story, that you told at the end, which is, “I’m going to have $100,000 to do wonderful things with, once I don’t have this.” So the capital campaign that they ran was, “If you will help us with a contribution of $100,000”– which would then take it off their debt books– “this is what I’m going to be able to do on the positive side.” So, not stressing the debt angle, but stressing the “what we’re going to be able to do with your contribution to erase the debt.” So, just a way to talk about it.

Jeffry George: Absolutely. And when you’re building a building, you don’t really know how the building is going to respond to your needs. It’s– you’re– you know, it’s– even the concessions stand or the room that the bathrooms take up, or how the– you know, the sustainability of what the plumbing is at that time, and how far in advance– you know, is the building green? All those kind of things. So with that extra money, when you get rid of the debt, now you can go back and you can fix things to reduce your costs, and, at the same time, really take care of your clients and make sure that they’re comfortable.

Anita Walker: How many times do you build a theater? I mean, <laughs> most of the people in our world, you don’t come into this work to be in the real-estate and construction business. You come into this work because you want to make plays <laughs> and do theater.

Jeffry George: Well, I’ll tell you, I actually was involved– the first time I was involved with a building project was in Florida, at the Caldwell Theatre Company. And I actually went through them with their planning stage, and their planning stage was– and they did a feasibility study. Their planning stage, though, was so different than Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, because they had to serve a public that was extremely elderly. So the construction of the inside of the theater had to be ramped until it was a roller rink, almost. So that building was expensive to build. Jeff Zinn had heard that I was doing that with this building. And so I took that process to groundbreaking, and then Jeff asked me to come up to do groundbreaking to open it with that building. So I didn’t know a lot when we were doing it.

Anita Walker: Most people don’t.

Jeffry George: But the building was already designed. So all I could do was try to come in under budget, which we did, which was great, but it wasn’t enough.

Anita Walker: So I want you to tell one little story before we wrap up, because it’s one of my favorite stories that I think you’ve told. Correct me if I’m wrong. Just take this story and make it yours. So, of all the things that you have to think about when you’re building a theater– you know, you have to think about the concessions and the bathrooms and the ramps and the seating and the sight lines and the stage entrance and the drop floors and the fly systems, and all the rest. But when you’re on the Cape, you have to think about the seagulls.

Jeffry George: <laughs> I can’t believe you remember this story. So, when it came time to figure out how we were going to deal with a fire, or anything like that, I had experience, from building a theater before, you can reduce the cost if you don’t do a… and I even forget what the system is called, but they’re not smoke hatches. It’s– you know, immediately, it’s a system that draws the smoke out. But being where this theater was, and the fact that it was far enough away from Route 6, the smoke hatches was a really good idea, because it was going to be a lot less expensive, so we saved money there; and we knew that the outside noise wasn’t going to bother us that much, except for the rain. You know, the rain, you can hear it during a performance. But those are big, shiny objects on the top of the roof of the building, and so seagulls, they look for flat, shiny areas to take their little oyster and to drop it from high above, and they would shatter on the smoke hatches. Well, then that jumps off onto the rubber roof. So we ended up with holes in the rubber roof because of those smoke hatches. They really did it. Well, when I came back in 2012, and after having that experience down in Florida, I said, “Okay, we’re going to go get two plastic owls, fill them with sand, and put them <laughs> on top of the building.” And let me tell you, ever since we did that, we haven’t had any instances of seagulls dropping oysters.

Anita Walker: So take that, beach theaters. Jeffry George, Executive Director and Artistic Director at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater– another of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

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