Roanoke’s longtime professional theater company faced a nightmare before Christmas when a COVID-19 outbreak iced its holiday show for a week.
“What we saw in ‘Holiday Inn,’ we had one positive case” that in five days grew to 11 cases, “a classic true outbreak within the people that work together, live together, are social together,” said Ginger Poole, Mill Mountain Theatre’s producing artistic director. “It truly touched performers on stage, backstage crew, stage management and members of our orchestra.”
The development would have been unpleasant for any stage production, but especially unfortunate for Mill Mountain Theatre, which had already lost a week of performances from the musical that opened its 2022 season because of a casting controversy. The total losses on two of the theater’s biggest shows added up to more than $100,000.
“We lost just over $70,000 from ‘In the Heights.’ We lost just over $35,000 for ‘Holiday Inn,’” Poole shared. “Writing out those numbers hurts.”
The losses for those big musicals put the theater in a tight spot — especially as ticket sales for other shows in the 2022 season, such as “Fun Home” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” were “light,” as MMT business manager Larry Kufel put it. Including the losses from “In the Heights” and “Holiday Inn,” the theater fell short in budgeted ticket sales income by $239,000, setting the company up to conclude the year with “a six-figure unaudited operating loss,” Kufel said. The exact figure is not yet available.
However, because of careful planning, actively reacting to shortfalls by trimming costs, and judicious use of federal COVID-19 grant funding — and generous support by patrons, donors and corporate sponsors — these harsh setbacks ended up being hurdles that could be cleared rather than impassable barriers.
The losses did leave Mill Mountain Theatre without much padding to take another big financial hit, which helped inspire the decision to make the 2023 season all musicals, with a roster including Broadway hits “Jersey Boys,” “Matilda: The Musical” and “Elf: The Musical.”
“You know Roanoke loves their musicals,” Poole said. “2023 is the ‘Season of Song.’”
Returned from the brink
As happened with all arts organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic put Mill Mountain Theatre in a precarious position. In the Roanoke theater’s case, MMT was forced to cancel its season opener “Dreamgirls” 10 days before its premiere and eat the entire cost of set construction and payments to cast and crew. Staff reductions quickly followed, and the slow road to recovery came after.
“We were one of the first theaters that kind of figured out how to manage COVID, whether that was backstage, or housing, or front of house or our audience,” Poole said. “All of that federal relief money that so many of the arts organizations received, which was very generous, we got all of that.”
Federal COVID-19 relief funds through various programs arrived piecemeal through 2020 and 2021 but ended up totaling $525,000, allowing the theater to continue covering payroll and prepare for a relaunch while hardly any revenue was coming in.
“The CARES Act grants critically helped MMT through all these crises and we were fortunate to continue to receive support from our donors and sponsors throughout this tumultuous period of time,” Kufel said.
There’s another factor, though, that contributes to Poole’s reassurances that “we’re okay. We’re still doing fine.”
“We had an amazing comeback in year 2021,” Kufel said. “We sold as many tickets to two great musicals, ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ and ‘Legally Blonde,’ and our holiday production, ‘A Christmas Story,’ as we did in all of 2019 before the pandemic.”
Thus, the shows still go on. “The losses suffered in 2022 have depleted our cash levels, but we are still solvent going into the 2023 season,” Kufel said.
Poole and the theater she directs have experience managing even bigger problems.
Founded in 1964 as Mill Mountain Playhouse and at present classified as a “small professional theatre” by Actors’ Equity Association, the union that represents stage actors, MMT faced its first major existential crisis in 1976. The Rockledge Inn atop Mill Mountain — where the players performed in the theater’s earliest years — burned to the ground, a suspected arson that remains unsolved. The theater survived by moving into the then-empty Grandin Theatre, continuing its productions inside the historic Roanoke movie house until 1983, when the company relocated to Center in the Square, a downtown organization created to provide low-cost or rent free housing for arts and culture nonprofits.
The theater’s second life-and-death crisis struck in January 2009. MMT had for years been spending beyond its means, and in that month, overwhelmed by debt and with overdrawn bank accounts, the theater went dark. Poole, hired as education director just a few months before, became MMT’s only employee in order to teach classes that parents had paid for without being aware of the company’s dire financial straits. She ended up leading the nonprofit as it slowly and cautiously came back from the brink, its debts paid off or forgiven, its annual performance season rebuilt from a single children’s performance to a packed year of concerts, musicals and challenging topical plays, fueled by operating budgets of more than $1 million.
Mill Mountain Theatre’s operating budget in 2022 was $1.17 million. Despite the losses, the budget for 2023 will be higher, $1.24 million. “This is because we have increased the number of shows in a run, with fewer shows,” Poole said.
MMT has reduced the number of overall shows from 12 in 2022 to nine in 2023. “We did take a couple of things away just to, honestly, give ourselves a break so that we’re not just producing every single month,” Poole said. “We’ve hit it hard since 2020. It was that moment of like, let’s take a breath.”
Before the pandemic, Mill Mountain was in the process of improving wages and benefits for employees, Poole said. The CARES Act funds provided breathing room that has allowed the theater to start following through on these plans.
“All of this was strategically in the works even before COVID. We didn’t put a pause to any of these, we were able to continue them right on track where we needed and wanted them to be,” she said. “We’ve used COVID as a moment of growth internally that we’re really, really proud of, but in making those big, big commitments and promises, we’re not endangering ourselves financially. We’ve done it systematically, we’ve done it strategically, and we can sustain it.”
Rough going, beautiful endings
Poole had long wanted to bring Broadway and film megastar Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights” to the Roanoke Valley. That happened in spring 2022, but only after a rocky start that saw the production canceled, then quickly uncanceled.
The licensing agreement for “In the Heights” requires the casting to match the Latino characters as described in Miranda’s script. Mill Mountain initially cast a non-Latina actress in a lead role, which caused other cast members to mount a protest on social media, which snowballed into national theater news. The actress, the show’s director and other members of the initial creative team left the production. At first Mill Mountain wavered, as attested by the show’s quickly withdrawn cancellation, but ultimately it chose to rapidly recast the part, hire a new team and go forward.
“We now had lost a week of rehearsal,” Poole said. “We need three solid weeks to mount anything to be of Mill Mountain caliber. I wasn’t willing to truncate a rehearsal process and put something up that honestly wasn’t ready. So we still rehearsed for three weeks, we ran for two weeks versus three weeks.” She’s proud of what resulted. “It was very well received. It was a beautiful production.”
“Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” was originally intended to be the holiday show for that 2020 season that did not happen. (“The Diary of Anne Frank,” also first planned for 2020, was put on by MMT this past fall and experienced no disastrous complications.)
In the case of “Holiday Inn,” the COVID-19 outbreak happened midway through the four-week run. The full third week of performances was canceled. The show resumed with only three performances left before Christmas.
With both shows, using strategies developed after the theater went dark in 2009, MMT offered patrons the option of rolling their tickets into later performances of the same show, or into seats at other shows offered in 2022 or 2023, or receiving a refund. For the final three nights of “Holiday Inn,” Poole said, “they were really full houses to the point of even announcing a sell-out, because we were moving so many of those people from that third week. It was a beautiful way to close the show because the houses were full, they were happy.”
For more about Mill Mountain Theatre’s 2023 season, visit https://millmountain.org/2023-ticketsavailab/.