Charleston Stage downsizes to face 'a perfect storm' 

Deep Cuts

Charleston Stage, the city's largest theater company, announced Monday that it laid off three full-time staffers and issued a 6 percent pay cut for everybody else, including Julian Wiles, the company's founder and director.

"We regret losing these fine staff members," Wiles said in a press release.

Wiles is also taking a nearly 20 percent deferment of his salary for one year. The cuts will save the company about $160,000 over the course of the year. The budget has been slashed by 30 percent, down from $1.6 million last year.

The news comes just before the opening of one of the company's most popular shows, A Christmas Carol. The production opens Thursday. To buy tickets, call (843) 856-5316 or go to www.charlestonstage.com.

Deep cuts were necessary, Wiles said, because of the cost of moving out of the Dock Street Theatre. The venue, operated by the City of Charleston, is under renovation until 2010. In the meantime, Charleston Stage has leased the Sottile Theatre and Memminger Auditorium. The cost of each is "more than double the cost of the Dock Street Theatre," Wiles said in an interview.

More significant to Charleston Stage's fiscal health is a huge fund-raising slump. More than half of its annual budget comes from charitable giving via individuals and businesses. That's down 43 percent compared to last year.

Wiles says he thought he was staying ahead of a historic economic crisis affecting arts groups across the city. But theaters are reporting ticket sales are down by as much as 30 percent while fund-raising has slowed to a trickle.

Or worse.

"Giving literally stopped by late September," Wiles says. "Everyone is still in shock by this terrible economy. But they need to understand that giving can't stop. Arts organizations are doing everything they can by downsizing and cutting their operating budget, but we still depend on charitable giving."

A press release sent Monday announcing layoffs and pay cuts contained language intended to remind the philanthropic community of this need.

It said Charleston Stage needed to raise $100,000 by the end of December, and then the same amount by season's end. In an interview Tuesday, Wiles said that if the money isn't raised in December, then it will be raised in January.

Providing a time line is a standard strategy among nonprofits to encourage donors to give now. If the money isn't raised this month, it will be raised in the short-term, Wiles said. Meanwhile, more staff cuts are possible, but not likely. Productions won't be cut, he said, because the company needs the revenue.

Wiles said Charleston Stage is now the size it needs to be to weather what he calls "a perfect storm." Last year, Charleston Stage had a staff of 15. By summer, it was 13. With this recent round of layoffs, only 10 remain, including six full-time actor-teachers who are the corps of the company.

Productions for the 2008-2009 season will continue as planned, except for one change. Instead of staging a big production of Crazy for You in April, Charleston Stage will present the smaller hit musical, The Producers.

While the former requires "massive costumes changes," the latter doesn't require as many technical resources. It's a move that may prove portentous in the coming months, as Charleston Stage begins planning the 2009-2010 season.

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