Northwest News

New rental limits set off fight between Tacoma City Ballet, Broadway Center

“The Nutcracker” ballet might not seem typical fodder for a heated dispute.

But a decision by the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts on how long Tacoma’s Pantages Theater can be rented has set off a storm of argument between theater management and Tacoma City Ballet.

The Broadway Center announced Wednesday that from 2017, arts groups will not be allowed to rent the Pantages between October and May for more than 10 consecutive days that include “dark days,” when the facility is not in use.

The new policy, said the Broadway Center’s executive director David Fischer, “will allow the Pantages Theater to offer increased diversity of programs during this important and busy season. That’s a good thing.”

The only group that rents the theater for more than 10 days is Tacoma City Ballet, for its “Nutcracker” performances, a Tacoma tradition at the Pantages for 31 years and the company’s biggest single financial generator.

The policy change is a deliberate move by the Broadway Center to get the ballet out of the Pantages, contends Erin Ceragioli, who has run Tacoma City Ballet for 25 of its 59 years and choreographed those “Nutcracker” productions.

Representatives from most of the seven other local arts groups that, like the ballet, contract with the Broadway Center say they can see both sides of the issue.

The center, in addition to overseeing the Pantages, operates the Rialto Theater, the Theater on the Square and the Tacoma Armory.

The ballet and other art groups, known as Resident Arts Organizations (RAOs), regularly rent the facilities through the Broadway Center with rent discounts, first choice of dates and other considerations.

The RAOs do not have votes on policy, which is set by the Broadway Center’s 32-member board. The board approved last week’s change on how long the Pantages can be rented.

“The Broadway Center board can dictate what happens in (Tacoma) theaters, and now they’re targeting the ballet, because the ballet is the only one to be affected,” said Ceragioli, who has had contractual disagreements with the Broadway Center since the last “Nutcracker.”

Fischer said the board’s action came after the City of Tacoma asked members to review their policies and the center’s mission, which he defied as “keeping the theaters active and serving a diverse community.”

“We came up with a variety of policies which included trimming the amount of time any one group can spend in our most in-demand theater during the most in-demand time,” Fischer told The News Tribune.

In the past, the Broadway Center had not limited how long art companies could rent Tacoma’s theaters. That was in line with how operations are handled in other Washington cities.

In Olympia, the Washington Center for Performing Arts rents “entirely based on availability,” spokeswoman Anne Larson Matheson said.

In Seattle, many venues, such as McCaw Hall and smaller theaters, have productions that run for weeks at a time. The Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” for example, typically runs each year from late November to the end of December.

A VITAL TRADITION

For the last 32 years, Tacoma City Ballet has rented the 1,200-seat Pantages for its “Nutcracker” performances, eventually settling on a recent pattern of six shows each December.

The company arrives on a Tuesday, rehearses nightly during the week and performs Saturday and Sunday. It repeats rehearsals and productions the next week before shutting down – a total rental of about 16 days, plus load-in and load-out days.

That schedule won’t work under the new rental limitations.

The money “The Nutcracker” brings in is vital to Tacoma City Ballet, Ceragioli said. As with many companies, the traditional show is the bigger of its two yearly theater presentations, and represents one-third of its $473,772 annual income.

For the last three seasons, Broadway Center costs (rental, labor, facility fee) have gone up each year by $10,000 to $20,000, reaching about $72,919 in 2014 (figures are still being disputed between the two groups).

At the same time, ticket sales have dropped to $185,677 in 2014 from $206,397 in 2013. Attendance last year was 3,895, down from 4,792 the year before.

“Without ‘The Nutcracker,’ we will perish,” Ceragioli said.

WHO RENTS THE PANTAGES?

In a statement sent to supporters two days after the policy change, Fischer said it was implemented to “increase the diversity of performances” and “to accept requests from other RAOs, local arts producers and touring artists that typically have no access to the Pantages Theater before Christmas.”

Fischer cites the plays “A Christmas Carol” and “Black Nativity” or Wynonna Judd’s holiday show as examples of acts turned down in recent years because of scheduling.

Ceragioli counters that in the past other performances, including the Tacoma Symphony and Seattle Mens’ Chorus, have used the Pantages during “Nutcracker” dark days, as the sets can be moved aside.

However, said Fischer in the statement, “squeezing in” touring shows during “The Nutcracker” dark days can add up to $5,000 in additional expenses.

“That kind of extraneous expense increase was not sustainable for any single performance,” he said.

As far as other RAO use, of the other representatives interviewed by The News Tribune, only the Tacoma Concert Band wanted more Pantages use in December.

On several occasions, the concert band “requested a date in December at the Pantages but (because of) ‘The Nutcracker’ and Tacoma Symphony taking preference we have never been able to have the venue,” director Robert Musser said via email.

He added that he did not request a rental policy change, “and it came as a surprise to me. I’m also not saying one way or the other if I agree with that change.”

For acoustic reasons, the Revels and the Northwest Sinfonietta use the Rialto Theater instead of the Pantages.

The Tacoma Symphony performs in the Pantages but needs only a few days rehearsal and one night’s performance. It has no plans to increase its December schedule beyond its “Sounds of the Season” performance, which in the past has co-existed with “Nutcracker” production equipment in place.

The Tacoma Opera uses the Pantages only in spring. Director Noel Koran said he would like to add another weekend of performances, but has no plans to do so at present.

Though the 10-day limit will not affect most local groups, it will affect the potential to get other touring productions, said John de Loma, a former professional dancer who performed in Tacoma City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” for 35 years, from child to adult.

“It limits any major performing groups from coming to Tacoma,” said de Loma, now a Tacoma architect. “It takes up to a year to create a ballet. Will they come to just do four or five days? Probably not.”

MONEY DISPUTES

The new rental policy follows six months of disagreement between the ballet and the Broadway Center, including climbing labor costs for the last two “Nutcracker” runs.

Under their contracts, arts groups must use and pay for Broadway Center production crews. Ceragioli says the Broadway Center exceeded the contracted labor budgets for the 2014 “Nutcracker” by $11,000 and by $13,000 in 2013.

The overruns occurred, Ceragioli contends, without the required change orders – mutually-agreed-to changes from a contract’s original labor breakdown.

Fischer said he did not agree with the numbers.

“The ballet drove a number of changes which impacted expenses and were beyond the scope of the Broadway Center to control,” he said, adding that the budget deviated by only three to five percent of the total (about $48,000 for 2014.)

“In general,” Fisher said, “whenever there is a cost overrun or change in the estimate, we have always sat down with the client to review and, if there are issues that are the Broadway Center’s responsibility, we own them and make adjustments to the bill.”

Fischer said the center offered the ballet a recompense of $12,000 to cover both years, which Ceragioli declined.

For the ballet’s May performance of “Cinderella,” Ceragioli said Fischer did not include a labor breakdown – thus opening the door for work changes that could cost the ballet company much more money.

“The ‘Nutcracker’ bill just went higher and higher,” she said. “And we don’t know the financial output for ‘Cinderella’ yet because they haven’t reconciled the finances yet.”

THE NEW POLICY

The dispute between the ballet and the Broadway Center escalated Wednesday when the new rental policy was announced at a meeting with the center, the RAOs and Kim Bedir, director of public assembly facilities for the city.

“I think all of us were surprised (at the policy),” said RAO member Mary Lynn, executive director of the Puget Sound Revels. “You think: Is this a done deed, or is there room for conversation? In the room, we had strong feelings.”

During the meeting, Ceragioli said, Fischer said the ballet should do five or six shows in one weekend.

“But I just can’t do that with so many little kids (in the show),” she said later.

Without the Pantages, Ceragioli said, there’s no place to put on “The Nutcracker,” in part because many of the ballet’s sets and drops were constructed with the Pantages in mind.

The only other option would be the Temple Theater, she said, but that would require a huge investment to refurbish the facility from a cabaret event venue to a theater suitable for ballet.

After Wednesday’s meeting Ceragioli posted a protest of the new policy and a photo of the contract clause on the ballet’s Facebook page.

On Thursday, the Broadway Center’s attorney called the ballet’s attorney – “threatening to sue,” Ceragioli said. Fischer said the attorney merely was warning that the ballet’s language on social media posts was getting unprofessional.

On Friday, the ballet’s Facebook page was removed until its lawyer complained to Facebook.

Fischer said the Broadway Center was not responsible.

“We were not involved with that whatsoever,” he said. “I can’t speak for our supporters – who knows?”

None of the RAO directors interviewed had had problems or contractual issues with the Broadway Center management.

“It’s a very well-run complex,” said Andy Buelow, executive director of the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra. “I have no issues with them at all. The Broadway Center has to manage the theaters on behalf of the community. They have a lot of constituencies to which they have to answer.”

Lynn, who has directed Revels since its beginning in 1993, said she was much happier with Fischer’s directorship than past Broadway Center managements.

“Before (he came) there were lots of problems and tensions, things that seemed unfair, a lack of transparency,” she said. “When they hired David I personally felt totally supported. They’re invested in the success of all the arts groups in Tacoma.”

NEGOTIATING A SOLUTION

Lynn said she can see both sides of the dispute between the ballet and the Broadway Center and wants to see them work their way toward a solution.

On the one hand, she said, is a ballet company with a production that’s both a community tradition and a financial support; on the other are managers charged with fiscal responsibility for Tacoma’s historic theaters.

“It takes money to manage theaters,” she said. “And they are trying to manage a community’s theater, and when (an event) is in place for two weekends, they can’t put other things in there.

“There are chunks of our community for whom ‘Nutcracker’ doesn’t mean anything. That is a thing worth considering.”

As someone who oversees a long show involving youngsters in the cast and in the audience, as well as the physical demands of dance and the need for performers to have breaks between shows, Lynn said she is sensitive to Ceragioli’s point that six back-to-backing “Nutcracker” performances in one weekend would not work.

But, she said, with such a young audience, weekend shows at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. or adding more weeknight performances, as the Revels does successfully, might work.

“People regularly come to me and say how grateful they are that we have shows on Tuesday and Wednesday,” she said. “They have so much other stuff on their December weekends, that’s the only way they can see us.”

Cutting down on Pantages rental days would save the ballet money in one way, although going into a seventh day would mean a higher labor rate.

Fischer says he’s willing to meet with Ceragioli to negotiate the situation, although the 10-day policy is fixed.

A meeting has been set with both parties and Kim Bedir on June 22. City Councilwoman Victoria Woodards will also attend, and Tacoma Opera has been invited.

“I will be attending that meeting,” Ceragioli said, but added, “doing ‘Nutcracker’ in 10 days is impossible.”

“This is a sensitive issue,” said Buelow of the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra.. “I hope both parties can find a solution.”

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