State of the Arts: It wasnt the recession, it was the election
Vyto Starinskas / Staff Photo
Bruce Bouchard, executive director of the Paramount Theatre, is seen on the stage of the historic Rutland venue.
Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a weekly series of interviews with Vermont’s foremost arts leaders.
By Jim Lowe
Rutland’s Paramount Theatre fared the recession better than most, but the 2012 presidential election proved disastrous.
“We had four years of absolutely predictable margins,” said Bruce Bouchard, the Paramount’s executive director of five years.
“This year the shock was based on one small fact that was unknown to me — an honest mistake,” he said. “We front-loaded our season and had 14 events from Sept. 3 to Election Day. Twelve of those 14 events underperformed significantly.
“After the elections, it turned on a dime,” Bouchard said.
The Paramount Theatre, in addition to being one of Vermont’s historical theaters, first opening in 1914, is one of state’s largest and most important arts-presenting organizations. Its 2012-13 season attractions range from country star Travis Tritt and singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby to comedian Bob Newhart to “The Nutcracker” to the Vermont Symphony Orchestra with Robert De Cormier and Peter Yarrow.
“When I came here I truly believe it was an underutilized asset, and that we had to explode it out — to have it open as many days as we could,” Bouchard said.
Bouchard began his career as an actor, performing on Broadway, going on to directing and producing. Finally, with the Paramount, Bouchard became a presenter — and he hit the “stage” running.
“We were going to classical (music); we were going to create seven performance series, and market them as such, and raise money for them as such. Then we added the movies, 50 more dates a year,” he said. “To my shock and awe and surprise, we were able to take the theater in those four years from $695,000 (annual budget) to $1.3 million.
“In the first four years, it was steady, upward growth and mobility,” Bouchard said.
Of that $1.3 million, 35 percent comes from contributed income, including sponsorships, individuals, foundations and governments. The remainder, earned income, includes ticket sales for Paramount presentations, educational presentations, and performances in partnership with others, rentals of the main hall and Brick Box Theater, and concessions including the sale of wine and beer ($25,000 annually).
“The way this business works,” Bouchard said, “if you have 36 main stage offerings, not counting movies and other activities, your season is structured so number one goes up $300, number two goes down $1,500, number three goes up $2,500, number four goes down $1,600, number five goes up $6,000 — big win — and number six loses $5,000.
“So it keeps you on a steady even keel,” Bouchard said. “Projections equal reality. What we said would happen happened.”
That is, until last fall’s election season.
“Ticket sales were down 25 percent,” Bouchard said. “It never occurred to me. So the year has been crazy.”
The problem wasn’t unpopular performers. Tritt, a huge star, at the end of the summer, was 200 tickets short of break-even.
“Who’d have thought in Vermont that Bob Newhart would leave 330 tickets on the table? We never thought it,” Bouchard said. “That was a brutal run — and they were great acts.”
But, in other ways, the community came through.
“It’s been tough — but on the contributed-income side, we’re 32 percent up,” Bouchard said. “That’s just the nature of this community. There are too many people in this community who care about this organization. We’ll get through it.”
In fact, the Paramount is working through it. In November, after the election, comedian Ron Wright was a big success and “The Nutcracker” was even bigger. Last month, a co-presentation of Saskia Hagen Groom’s community theater production of “The Full Monty” proved a hit both financially and artistically.
“I’ll tell you, for a little town of 17,000 people, my God, this place has a lot of talented musical comedy people — who can sing it and pretty much act it,” Bouchard said.
“There was great energy in this building — a huge victory for both those parties,” he said. “Since then, every single act was break-even or a little bit plus. So we hope the bad part is over.”
Now the Paramount must make up its losses. Last season, the theater offered 36 main stage events, 25 other rentals, 10 outside promotions and 40 movie screenings.
“If we pull back 20 percent and do 28 (main stage) events, but 21 of them are of really recognizable high quality, that’s a good thing,” Bouchard said. “That’s a good retrenchment — pull back and get a lot.”
Another way to limit risks and increase revenue is “splits at the door,” where the presenter and the attraction divide the income as opposed to the presenter paying the attraction a performance fee.
Bouchard tells the story of how several years ago CAMI Theatricals, one of the country’s biggest tour managers, offered a last-minute date for the National Tour of “The Wizard of Oz,” but demanded a fee of $16,000.
Eric Malette, the Paramount’s programming director, said with only 30 days to promote the show, “No way!” Instead, Mallette offered a full split of the door.
“We handed them a check for $19,500 when they left the building,” Bouchard said.
For the coming season, there are a number of “splits” in the offing. Still, that won’t be enough.
“We’ll be making a big announcement soon,” Bouchard said. “The possibilities are endless. You have to keep your mind open. What are new ways I can make revenue come into the building?”
For inspiration, Bouchard only has to look to his neighbors, like the revered Weston Playhouse, that in recent years has survived two floods.
“They’ve been through ‘hell in a hand-basket,’” Bouchard said. “They’ve come through it by being adroit and nimble and making tough decisions — pulling back a little and making it not look like they are. They’re really good at their jobs.”
And Dorset Theatre Festival is being revived by the artistic direction of Dina Janis.
“Dina’s a super-smart artistic person and she’s learning to be a capable business person. But she’s doing it all on the art end — and learning the business end,” Bouchard said. “We’re fortunate to have those organizations.”
But mostly, Bouchard looks to his own Rutland audiences, a far cry from the cynical ones he performed for in New York.
“They love everything — I love that they love everything,” Bouchard said. “They are the most appreciative audience, by far, of any I’ve experienced anywhere.”