New director of Missouri Theatre starts making changes

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:19 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 27, 2009
R. Eric Staley, the newly hired chief executive of the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts, poses for a portrait on Friday. A graduate of MU, Staley's career has been spent working with nonprofit organizations, including the Central Missouri Food Bank and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

COLUMBIA — Six weeks ago, R. Eric Staley officially assumed a role as chief executive officer  of the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts. Staley inherited the job after an extensive renovation left the theater with unpaid expenses.

Staley declined to discuss events he did not oversee, but he talked about changes he has made to stabilize the theater.

Q. What new developments have you enacted over the last month or so?

A. We’ve started to become considerably more aggressive in terms of our programming. We have met with a good number of our membership groups or partners, depending on the language that you want to use.

I think the most exciting piece is we’re starting to fill out our 2010 calendar, and we’ve also come up with some new programs.

There’s going to be a special program on the 16th of November, a celebration of the Missouri Theatre. It’s going to feature Sutu Forte and the best of Moulin Musique.

Sutu Forte is a performer who’s been here many times, and Moulin Musique is kind of a vaudeville review group that she has.

We’re bringing in some guest artists for that. It’s all going to be a wonderful fun evening. So, I think that’s probably the emphasis, programming.

Q. Would you call these changes significant?

A. Absolutely. One of the things the theater probably has not done well was to forecast its programming future, and that’s extremely important, of course, because it is a major part of the revenue stream.

You’ve got to know what your revenue stream is in order to evaluate what your expenses can be. So the more we know about the future and the more we have contracted in a formal way, the better we are at predicting a financial forecast. So that’s significant.

Q. Have you made changes to the kinds of performances you are booking?

A. A couple of goals that we have, in terms of performances: One, we recognize the that classical music is the heart of the Missouri Theatre, so we are looking at every opportunity we can to expand classical music throughout the year and not just focus on “Hot Summer Nights,” which is kind of the sense that people have of things. So that’s a priority.

We are also looking at more eclectic programming. We realize one of the things that needs to happen for the theater to be successful is to develop audiences. So we are looking at performances that will appeal to wider audiences than we’ve had in the past.

Q. Have you felt any resistance to these changes internally or externally?

A. Everybody’s budget is tight, of course, whether you are for-profit or not-for-profit. I mean, the Missourian has a very tight budget and a big debt load.

There has been kind of a sense in the not-for-profit community that the Missouri Theatre is a venue that they can use almost for free, and that’s not the case. We have re-evaluated the actual costs of running the theater, just keeping it open on any given day, and what the true costs are that are associated with a performance.

When we meet with our partners and our member groups, and we talk about the contracts they’ll be working under in the future, those numbers are larger than the numbers they have experienced in the past.

So yes, that does create a little resistance, but does it create ill will? Absolutely not. They understand entirely why that is.

Q. Have there been any surprises in the last month? Unexpected challenges?

A. Probably, if I would even call it a surprise, it is just how many people are so incredibly supportive of the Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts.

Over 1,500 people have contributed financially in a significant way to the strength of this theater, and that’s a large number. Those people are emotionally involved. They’re physically involved.

We’ve got a strong volunteer corps. We have a lot of people who participate in auxiliary efforts, like the Women’s Symphony League.

I knew that that existed, but I was surprised at the strength of that asset.

Q. What is your main priority right now?

A. To structure programming in the future, so that we meet our costs. Of course at the end of the day that is a financial priority, but it is also a programming priority.

The more people we bring into the theater, the more successful we are. It’s simple math.

Q. How would describe Missouri Theatre’s relationship with members of the art community?

A. I think it’s improving. Probably there was always a good relationship with many of them, but we are strengthening those relationships. We are meeting with the representatives of those various groups in an atmosphere of mutual respect for each other’s mission and doing some really good planning.

I haven’t come out of a single meeting here where I didn’t feel extraordinarily positive about how the conversations occurred.

Q. What are your plans for getting the theater out of debt?

A. The theater will get out of debt through successful programming. We have a business plan. We have a development plan. We know the true costs of operating the theater now.

Before you can get out of any kind of a financial difficulty you have to know how deep the hole is. We fully understand that now, and we have charted a course out. So I’m feeling very positive about that.

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Lunar Standstill October 27, 2009 | 5:36 a.m.

In his deliberations of change for the MO Theatre, I do hope that R. Eric Staley will address the quality of the snacks sold at the downstairs venue. (Which is often the only snack bar open even though there is one upstairs also)

The art patrons I personally know, do not eat skittles, potato chips and sugary sodas...where is the quality coffee, baked goods and fruit?

I understand the downstairs snack bar is contracted out, but surely R. Eric Staley will give this some thought and consideration in addressing MO Theatre patrons taste. I'm not saying we are high-brow....but potato chips and skittles? Come on!

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