After operating at a deficit for the last three years, the Liberty Theatre is on track to break even this year and there are big plans on the horizon.
In a presentation Monday night to the Astoria City Council, Jennifer Crockett, the theater’s director, told councilors she wants the Liberty to live up to its tagline as “Astoria’s living room.”
She and the board have introduced a variety of new shows and programs, and hired an artistic director, but they are “on the cusp” of overloading their three-person team, while at the same time struggling to pay for operations, Crockett said. Crockett, hired last September, remains the only full-time staff member.
“So we’re kind of on that tightrope right now. Money is coming in, but we ended in a deficit last year and have for the last three years. We’re on track to do better this year, but we’re not able to hire yet,” she said.
Still, they were able to offset last fiscal year’s deficit through donations. Though the theater is only about a quarter into its fiscal year, Crockett said, “With our fundraising and our ticketed events we’re tracking with right where we should be this year to break even.”
Crockett highlighted several challenges the theater faces, including ongoing maintenance of the 1920s-era building and the need to better understand how to bring people through the doors. In tracking who bought tickets and attended shows last year, Liberty staff found that most attendees lived in Clatsop County and only 28 percent were from outside the area.
Industry standard is closer to a 50-50 split of locals and visitors, Crockett said. “So that gives us some idea of what work we can do.”
Councilors commented on the variety of the theater’s recent offerings. Crockett said the theater is simply trying out ideas: What do people want to see? What works? What doesn’t work?
“I appreciate the diversity of shows there,” City Councilor Zetty Nemlowill told Crockett, saying she’d been to a show by folk-rock band Blind Pilot and chaperoned a school field trip to a ballet performance.
“The inclusivity is really important,” Nemlowill added. “There are school children who had never been there before, and that’s really cool that they could go out and see a live show in a beautiful venue like that.”
An $8,000 grant from the city will be spent on out-of-town marketing, trying to draw in more visitors. Another grant will allow the theater to purchase and install its own sound system soon. Crockett said they have had to rent sound equipment from Portland for every performance. Getting their own system in place will save them several hours of setup time and about $1,500 per show.
Despite the theater’s tight budget, Crockett thinks it is likely she will begin to add stage crew and an administrative assistant soon. Having these people in place would free up more of her time to devote to fundraising and outreach.
Much further down the road, the theater staff and board hope to renovate the backstage area so the Liberty can accommodate plays, operas and Broadway productions.
Groups interested in coming to the Liberty to put on these types of shows have left disappointed after seeing the theater’s limitations, Crockett said. Groups she has approached, hoping they could work with the existing backstage area, have told her “no.” To renovate and redesign that back area to accommodate set changes, actors and equipment would “catapult us up to a completely different level,” she said.
City Councilor Cindy Price noted that Crockett and Astoria Library Director Jimmy Pearson were hired around the same time.
“Just as we’ve seen this transformation, real transformation, begin in earnest at the library with Jimmy Pearson’s library directorship … I’ve seen the same thing at the Liberty Theatre with your directorship there,” she said.