In March, Dallas Children’s Theater was about to debut its production of “Last Stop On Market Street” — based on the 2015, award-winning children’s book by Matt de la Pena — when it had to call a halt and tell actors and crew members, there would be no show. Its production of “Miss Nelson Has A Field Day” was halfway through its planned tour when its seven-member troupe had to be brought home. Venues across the country were shutting down, so the tour couldn’t continue.
For three months, the nationally-recognized children’s theater has kept going because of donors and a Payroll Protection Program loan — retaining all of its 29 full-time staff members. But the DCT is heavily reliant on ticket revenue, classes and tours — all of which have dried up. And the company has cancelled the four shows remaining in its season — with its next show anywhere from six to nine months away.
So – in an all-too-familiar public statement these days — the DCT has announced five employees were let go, pay reductions are being put in place with the “highest priority” given to “maintaining healthcare benefits for the retained staff.”
The DCT, the press release says, “is forced to focus on preserving cash if it is to survive until it is feasible to return to producing its unique brand of family shows.”
The full release:
DALLAS CHILDREN’S THEATER IS FORCED TO MAKE STAFF ADJUSTMENTS AND PAY CUTS
(DALLAS, TX) – It has sadly become the cry heard around the world; another performing arts organization is having to come to grips with the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its service to the community. Faced with the likelihood that the next successful live production is six to nine months away, Dallas Children’s Theater (DCT) informed its staff of cutbacks effective June 29.
For years, twenty-nine full-time staff members along with a host of part-time workers, seasonal artists, and volunteers have been responsible for nine to 12 major productions annually. On March 17, just days before its production of LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET was scheduled to open, DCT had to inform actors and crew members that this inspiring production about the value of service, compassion for others, and kindness would not make its debut. Generous donor support and a Payroll Protection Program loan enabled DCT to retain all 29 full-time staff members for another three months even though no productions were taking place. Now, though, as the timeline for a return to core business becomes more and more protracted, the organization is forced to focus on preserving cash if it is to survive until it is feasible to return to producing its unique brand of family shows.
DCT is one of the anomalies among nonprofits in that it derives a majority of revenue from activities such as ticket sales, class enrollments, and a touring company that typically travels to 26 states and 60 cities annually. These revenue streams have mostly been shut down. Every summer, the organization serves upwards of 1,100 children in its usually sold out Showbiz Summer Camp. This summer, DCT is hopeful for a third of the business via what are largely virtual offerings until further notice. Halfway through its national tour of MISS NELSON HAS A FIELD DAY from the popular Viola Swamp series, the 7-member touring company had to be brought home due to nationwide bans on public gatherings. Here in Dallas, staff informed patrons that the final four productions of the season totaling 102 performances would be canceled. All totaled, DCT annually derives more than 70% of its income from these sources. At this time, less than 10% is being generated from these revenue streams. Additionally, DCT requires a minimum capacity of 75% for most productions to be economically viable. Unfortunately, achieving these levels does not appear to be a reality in the immediate future given a hold on actor negotiations until safety standards are defined, and the reality that ideal-size audiences are not fully ready to return to these types of indoor spaces according to surveys.
Executive Artistic Director Robyn Flatt has seen her share of challenges in the theater’s 36-year history, but certainly none as onerous as current events. “It’s devastating,” Flatt said. “All of the people who are a part of this organization have invested a lot to make DCT a place where children, families and artists like to come. We’re proud of our warm and welcoming culture, and to have to do this to people who are like family is beyond anything I could have ever imagined.” Flatt added, “Ask any of the five people who have been with me for 30+ years, we’ve weathered some unbelievable storms over the years, but this crisis definitely poses the greatest threat to our future.”
Even with these reductions, DCT is still retaining 83% of its full-time workforce. However, everyone remaining in the organization is being affected by reductions in hours and/or pay. DCT placed the highest priority on maintaining healthcare benefits for the retained staff at the current levels and plans to continue to do so for as long as is possible. Five employees had to be terminated as part of the plan.
While DCT is currently suffering a devastating setback, the theater’s board and staff are working together to ensure the organization comes back strong on the other side of this crisis. According to Board President Todd Ranta, “DCT is a North Texas treasure we can’t afford to see go down without a serious fight. Their work has touched generations of families in North Texas and beyond, and we plan to do everything in our power to ensure they continue to inspire young minds for generations to come. This is an intermission. The curtain will rise again. In the meantime, like any forward-thinking organization, DCT is pursuing streaming options to augment its unmatched stage work and is offering its amazing catalog of classes for ages 3 to 18 virtually. As a board and leadership team, we will continue to meet weekly until our operation is fully back up and running. When it is feasible to do so, we will be there and ready for our children and families with great onstage stories.”
In the meantime, Ranta said, DCT is pivoting in new directions and will be announcing an innovative fall season of virtual and socially distanced events in the coming weeks. DCT has created a Brighter Days Campaign to raise funds over the next year to support ideas on the drawing board and to help the organization ramp back up to productions such as LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET and others they expect to present next spring and beyond. Ranta added, “There are not a lot of major cities in the country with a major performing arts organization solely focused on children and families. Supporting DCT is a smart investment in the arts in Dallas and beyond. It’s just good business for Dallas to be a part of preserving it.”
Anyone interested in supporting DCT or learning more about this campaign can reach out to Sandra Session-Robertson at [email protected].
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