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While supporters, trustees and performers fight to keep Venture Theatre open, the community theater has come under closer scrutiny.

A group of the theater's board members and supporters are working to find out what went wrong and are implementing changes to prevent future problems.  

By Wednesday afternoon, at least $35,000 had been raised to help cover the theater's $130,000 deficit, which board members discovered last month following an audit.

Longtime volunteer Susan Scariano has taken an unpaid interim director position with the downtown theater. Originally, the board suggested the theater would close at month's end if the deficit wasn't made up. They now say they are confident they can close the financial gap quickly without harm to the theater.

“If fundraising efforts have significant success, Venture will stay open even if the total goal is not achieved by Feb. 1," board secretary/treasurer Camilla Saberhagen said.

To build confidence with prospective donors, the board laid out its rescue plan Wednesday, said board President Brooke Buchanan.

Those plans include: separating the business and the art management of the theater; bringing on community partners to share operating costs; and exploring the idea of housing independently promoted entertainment.

The bulk of the $130,000 debt is owed to the IRS, the city of Billings, and the building’s owner, Mike Schaer. Venture’s board pledged to donate at least 10 percent of the debt.

Venture's 2011 budget topped $506,000. In the current season, Venture is scheduled to produce six musicals, five other main-stage shows and two youth productions. Last fall's Youth Conservatory enrolled 70 students, but enrollment figures from spring semester are not yet available. The theater's educational outreach program for elementary schools, Venture into Schools, has 10 schools signed on for spring projects.

From its earliest days in the 1990s, Venture’s founders Lysa Fox and Mace Archer produced shows that challenged actors and pushed artistic boundaries.

The theater moved into the existing space on Montana Avenue in October 2003. Archer left in 2007 to pursue acting opportunities in larger markets. Fox left in 2008 to pursue a graduate degree. Robert Wood was hired the same year as producing artistic director.

Wood was fired following the December audit and the theater is now being operated by the three remaining paid staff members and several volunteers.

Fox said during her tenure there was never an excess of money, and they often survived from show to show. But, there was never a deficit like the one that was discovered last month. She said she was crushed when she heard the news. Fox is director of the musical theater department at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill.

“It’s been really hard to see how much they’re struggling,” Fox said. “I don’t know the answer. It’s a lot of work to always be reaching out. We opened our doors to people who wanted to rent our space. It was necessary to our success. By the time we were on Montana Avenue, we weren’t necessarily in the black anymore, but we were operating successfully.”

Fox echoed what others pointed out during a meeting earlier this month, noting that Venture has been producing more musicals in the past few seasons and fewer of the cutting-edge dramas that the theater cut its teeth on.

“Even though we did musicals, and many very successfully, that’s not what people came to Venture to see,” Fox said. “Those words ‘engage, inspire, and challenge’ were chosen very deliberately. Our mission was based on engaging, inspiring, and challenging not only artists, but also our audience.”

Fox said she believes Venture can overcome this financial hurdle and thrive artistically.

Blaine Jensen, a Venture board member from 2005 through 2008, said the theater has never held a fundraising campaign like other nonprofits do regularly. That’s because until now, Venture never had the need. Now is the time to develop a fundraising board, he said.

“The Kennedy Center representative who came through a few years ago said that 35 to 40 percent of your income is made off of programming. The rest is donor-based. Part of what made Venture special was that it ran the opposite. It was more like 70 percent of its revenue coming in off programming, making it self sustaining.”

Those days were coming to an end when Wood took over.

Wood said he did not want to discuss the financial situation at Venture with The Gazette. He provided this statement: "I believe that Venture folks have the best intentions to work long hours to get the job done. I am left with so many moments and the memories of so many great people. Venture will survive and thrive.”

Jensen, who was on the board when Wood was hired, said Wood came with stellar credentials, including a master’s degree in theater management from Carnegie Mellon, plus a master's of fine arts in directing. Wood increased the number of shows Venture produces each season in order to generate more income.

“The shortfall was discovered at the time Robert came in. He knew he was dealing with that when he came in,” Jensen said.

Jensen believes that Wood has not moved away from producing edgy shows.

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“He opened with ‘Reefer Madness,’ Jensen said. “’The Vibrator Play’ was sold out every night. ‘Red’ and ‘Steady Rain’ are challenging shows. Venture still does work you won’t see anywhere else. It gives you big city exposure out here on the Plains. All that work gives the youth something to aspire to.”

The Grandstreet Theatre in Helena, which until recently was viewed as a sister theater to Venture, shares some of Venture's struggles, with less than 50 percent of its annual income coming from ticket sales, according to Marianne Adams, education director at Grandstreet. Like Venture, Grandstreet offers youth acting classes and does outreach at area schools, two reliable sources of revenue. They also held a big fundraiser in December and the board conducts a two-week pledge drive each spring.

“Our biggest income is tuition, followed by the fund drive, which is even with the ticket sales,” Adams said.

The first Adams heard of Venture’s financial struggles was a year ago via a nonprofit newsletter. Adams said Grandstreet has been around since the mid-1970s and relies on a strong, fundraising board of 15 members.

“We have been lucky over the years because we have a board that loves theater and doesn’t really want to control the artistic side,” Adams said. “They understand their job is to maintain the financial health of the theater.”

The Grandstreet’s annual budget is similar to Venture's, running at about a half a million dollars.

The Missoula Children’s Theatre, a much larger entity, operates a community theater and a children’s theater program with an annual budget of $5.6 million, according to Teri Elander, international and public relations director at MCT.

She said they generate $325,000 a year from community theater programming, which includes five main stage shows per year. MCT has operated with a deficit in the past, but was able to turn its finances around with a line of credit at the bank and some belt tightening, Elander said.

Venture has organized a fundraiser for Jan. 30, which includes four different 45-minute cabaret shows. There also is a Feb. 1 comedy show, featuring Venture’s Funky Bunch and community improv group, Projectile Comedy.

Myra Nurre, an instructor in Venture’s Conservatory, believes Venture is worth saving because it transforms young lives. Nurre herself began as a youth inspired by work she did at Venture Theatre, including “Footloose” when she was a student at Skyview High School. After earning a music performance degree at the University of Montana, she returned to Billings to teach.

“I appreciate being here and being invested in the kids because I can see what the youth conservatory does for the kids, especially the ones who are quiet or who haven’t embraced their individuality. Venture is a place that inspires them to be who they want to be.”


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Entertainment Reporter

Jaci Webb covers entertainment for The Billings Gazette.