As the College of DuPage prepares to unveil its renovated McAninch Arts Center later this month, a staple of entertainment at the college for 27 years is shutting down for the rest of its season.
The Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, a professional theater group in residence at the college's Glen Ellyn campus since 1987, has canceled the last two shows of its season as it explores a more sustainable funding model with the college.
Associate Artistic Director Amelia Barrett, an associate professor of theater at the college, stressed the group is "not closing," and hopes to be back by fall 2014.
"This was our decision;" said BTE Artistic Director Connie Canaday Howard, who's also a theater professor, "this was not something forced on us."
"This was a decision we came to with a heavy heart," Barrett said, "that we should close this season instead of putting on our spring shows and confusing the public. We're going to take this time to retool and re-envision what our professional theater is."
The college first challenged the group to raise more money in the fall of 2012. A 501(c) (3) nonprofit group, the ensemble is expected to receive half its revenues through ticket sales and the other half through contributions that include support from the college.
Diana Martinez, hired as the art center's interim director in September, noted that most funding models for similar partnerships are a 70/30 split, with 70 percent of revenues coming through ticket sales. BTE has struggled to reach 50 percent.
As a whole, the MAC lost $519,000 in fiscal 2012 and in January the college's budget projected losses of $699,000 in fiscal 2013.
In the spring, the ensemble launched a pledge drive to augment ticket sales, hoping to take in $240,000 over three years. A letter accompanying the pitch said "in view of greatly reduced state funding and other financial challenges, BTE has been directed to stand on its own. It now must cover costs of box office and other related personnel, and contribute to the expenses of the physical facilities."
The pledge drive did not come anywhere close to its goal for this year.
"It became apparent that this is costing the college to keep this ensemble alive," Martinez said. "When they hit a loss, the college absorbed that loss. It was just not working."
Buffalo Theatre is not the first group at the MAC faced with the prospect of shutting its doors.
In January, after the New Philharmonic orchestra posted weak attendance numbers at two off-campus concerts in River Forest, college officials canceled February and March performances. But the college agreed to give the orchestra a three-concert reprieve in 2013-2014 after receiving letters and emails from patrons upset the ensemble might have taken its final curtain call.
The MAC is scheduled to reopen with a New Year's Eve performance of the New Philharmonic.
The Buffalo Theatre Group, meanwhile, has put on three shows in its temporary on-campus Building K home during the MAC's 14-month, $35 million renovation. Canaday Howard noted that a September performance of "Leading Ladies," the ensemble's last show, played at 78 percent of house, well above the 38 percent she said Chicago-area theaters are averaging.
Another factor of even greater concern to the ensemble is how to become more educationally viable.
Canaday Howard, an instructor at COD, teaches scripts in class. Students have the opportunity to observe productions with pre- and post-performance discussions. Some students work as assistant stage managers or crew members.
Martinez said engaging students is a priority in justifying expenditures and enticing potential donors.
Martinez said the MAC still has the ensemble's "spots on the calendar" for a return next fall, but who will fill the hole in the meantime has not been determined.
"We might bring in a couple of touring shows that have the opportunity to break even," she said.
Canaday could not specify what a new funding model will look like, but meetings with administrators are ongoing. Barrett said they are working with the College of DuPage Foundation on where to go, and imagines they will apply for grants. She said the model is expected to be vetted by spring for a fall reopening to become reality.
There are anxious times for people like Barrett, who first came to the college to audition for a BTE show, started teaching as an adjunct professor and came back for a full-time job in 2003.
"It is upsetting for our community, and for ourselves, but we're not looking at it that we're going away," Barrett said. "We have closed the rest of our season, but we're not closing our doors."