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Striving to make sure the show does go on

Geva Theatre Center Inc. has a challenge ahead of it, but Tom Parrish has been there before.
 
He comes to the job with experience in turning around struggling theaters. In a landscape where all arts organizations have had difficulty finding funding, Geva has been no exception. When Parrish took over last year, the theater faced a deficit of nearly $700,000.
 
The situation is similar to what Parrish faced when he became executive director of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Mass. Shortly after he took the job, the theater’s board met to consider whether the organization could survive.
 
Parrish was able to turn around Lowell with an effort to increase individual donations, and he has similar plans for Geva.
 
"We can’t afford to not meet budgets, as we have in the past," says Parrish, 33. "We have to move forward in a positive financial situation."
 
To create that situation, Parrish has been forced into what he sees as difficult choices, including layoffs, but he says the goal of a theater that can sustain itself from year to year is worth the sacrifice.
 
As he tries to correct a revenue imbalance, Parrish also aims to build enthusiasm for the organization, which had about $7.5 million in revenue in the fiscal year that ended July 31, 2011. Geva employed 52 full-time workers, 29 part-time workers and 225 actors/over-hires/jobbers as of the end of its fiscal year July 31.

Background
Theater management was not the first love for Parrish; nor was it his intended career path.
 
He got his introduction to the stage when he was 3, serving as an assistant for his grandfather, who was a magician. As he grew older, he took more control of the operation, putting up posters in his neighborhood and offering his services at birthday parties.
 
Parrish’s love of performing brought him into acting as a high school student, when the school play "Guys and Dolls" called for a magician to be a busker in one scene and the director recruited him. That and other experience-Parrish sang in a high school choir that performed at Carnegie Hall and on the "Today" show-led him to conclude that performing was right for him.
 
But Parrish also was the class valedictorian, with a love of math and science, and his parents thought he should be a doctor. They won out.
 
"I was valedictorian, so I was supposed to be a doctor, and that’s what I did at first," says Parrish, who attended Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland as a pre-med major with a theater minor. "But I quickly realized that I was in it for disingenuous reasons, so I became a theater major."
 
This led to another realization, one that came harder: He would not be an actor.
 
"I attended the National Theater Institute in Connecticut, which was sort of my semester abroad. But while I was there, I learned that I didn’t have what it took to be an actor," Parrish says. "So from there I got into theater management-which was good, because it blended my analytical nature with my love for theater."
 
After college Parrish gained what experience he could, working in Detroit and Cleveland, learning all aspects of theater management, including running the box office and marketing.
 
He went on to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he obtained a master’s degree in arts administration and later an MBA in management consulting-finishing first in his class both times. He pieced together enough senior management experience to take a job as general manager of the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
 
"That was a great experience because it was a smaller theater, and in smaller theaters managers do everything," Parrish says.
 
But San Diego was more than a stepping-stone for Parrish. The theater played host to the largest African-American arts festival on the West Coast and was able to debut plays that would become nationwide hits, including "3 Mo’ Divas."
 
After three years he took the position in Lowell, finally becoming the leader of a larger theater. But Parrish would not have much time to enjoy it.
 
"Within six months of taking that job, we were talking about closing the theater," he recalls.
 
Parrish worked with the board on a plan for shoring up the theater’s finances. During the recession they reduced the budget by 25 percent but also took creative measures to bring in new subscribers.
 
"At the time one of the other local theaters closed, and we were able to bring in some new people by honoring their existing subscriptions," he says.
 
The biggest change came in the makeup of the funding streams, Parrish says. Theaters typically operate on a budget in which subscription revenue and donations are roughly equal, but the formula at Merrimack had gotten out of proportion.
 
"The turnaround at Merrimack came after we made more efforts to get our subscribers to become donors too," Parrish says. "The ticket cost doesn’t cover the total cost of a production, so when people were only buying subscriptions, it wasn’t covering all our costs. We worked hard to leverage our good subscriber base and get more donations."
 
The efforts worked. Merrimack operated in the black for all five years when Parrish was there, and by the time he left for Geva last year, it had a $1 million surplus on a $2 million budget.

Challenges at Geva
Parrish stepped into a similar situation when he arrived at Geva last year. The theater suffered the same kind of income imbalance as Lowell, with the portion of revenue from subscriptions and ticket sales much larger than that from donations. Geva had operated at a deficit for nine of the previous 10 years, Parrish notes.
 
"When you’re too reliant on revenue from subscriptions, it makes you more susceptible to outside factors like the weather or the World Series keeping people away," he says.
 
As a result, Geva was unable to take creative risks or make needed investments, Parrish says.
 
To correct the imbalance, he has been on a mission to expand the number of donors while emphasizing Geva’s importance in the region. The organization has begun a more concerted effort to make donors feel they are involved in Geva, he says.
 
"As we’re making the case for more charitable support, we’re engaging these donors and allowing them to go behind the scenes to see what good their support does," Parrish says.
 
Geva now offers a chance for donors to view the theater behind the curtain and meet with the actors and directors, he says. The lobby of the theater has become what Parrish calls an analog social network, with pictures, a message board where patrons can share thoughts and memories, and information about players.
 
"Our goal is to put the patron at the center of the organization, because that’s where the theater lies, in the space between the stage and the audience," Parrish says.
 
At the same time, he also has reached out more to community leaders. He spent his first year on a "listening tour," meeting with civic and business leaders to learn about the region and how Geva fits in.
 
"It’s really important to understand that community psychology, where we’re com-ing from and where we want to go," Parrish says. "We then see what stories we can tell on stage to help the community get there."
 
Bringing in Parrish involved a restructuring for Geva. The theater used to operate on a co-CEO model, with leadership split between an artistic position and executive director, but since 2004 both artistic and organizational direction had come from Mark Cuddy. Cuddy saw a need to return to the co-CEO model, and he says Parrish is the perfect selection.
 
"We needed someone who could share a common ground about what a theater needs, and working in non-profit theater, Tom had that background, which not everyone does in the managerial world," says Cuddy, Geva’s artistic director. "He comes in with a real vision, and because of it we have the first business vision for the theater since probably the year 2000."
 
After making the decision to return to the co-CEO model, Geva worked with a nationally known search firm, which allowed it to extend its search nationwide. As a result, the process yielded a group of strong candidates, said Geva chairman Peter Messner.
 
Parrish stood out among them, Messner said. Though turning around Merrimack Theater was important, other factors impressed the board.
 
"It wasn’t just his working through financial difficulties; it was the elevation of the theater that he could offer," Messner says. "It’s amazing to have a person with as much experience as he has in his young life. He has a great combination of theater and financial background and a lot of energy."
 
Geva has several advantages on its road to recovery, Parrish notes. He says the organization has the largest subscriber base in the region, beating out local sports teams and other arts organizations.
 
Not every step will be easy or popular, Parrish says. Part of the strategy to put Geva back in the black has involved cutting staff.
 
"We can’t afford to not meet our budget anymore," Parrish says. "It’s unfortunate that we have to do that, because we’ve got a lot of great people. But it’s what we have to do to move toward growth."
 
The layoffs caused consternation among the former staff at Geva and allegations that the layoffs were focused on older employees, but Cuddy says this was not the case.
 
He notes that much care went into the decision. In a letter to donors, the theater says the senior team spent months analyzing options and decided to focus on reducing fixed costs and overhead, leading to the elimination of five full-time positions in administration, marketing, development and production.
 
"No one likes reducing workforce, but we had a very thorough process and it was all explained," Cuddy says.
 
The theater also instituted unpaid furloughs in the gaps between productions, the letter says.
 
For Parrish the last year has been exhausting, and he says most of his time has been spent working at Geva or meeting with community leaders. But the Corn Hill resident has made time for walking and attending events downtown. He also unwinds at home with books and video games.
 
Parrish says his first year in Rochester has also been fulfilling.
 
"I feel really optimistic about what we can do," he says. "When I came here, I knew we were going to make it a strong organization, and now we’re doing that."

Looking forward
Plans for Geva are boosted this year by its 40th anniversary. As the organization celebrates its place in Rochester, it has planned a strong slate of programming that includes Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning plays.
 
"We’ve got one of the most exciting seasons ever planned," Parrish says.
 
He believes the just-closed production of "You Can’t Take It With You" will turn out to be one of the highest-grossing shows in Geva’s history, and he is passionate about "Freud’s Last Session," which opened this week and portrays a meeting between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis.
 
"This play was a huge hit off Broadway last year and comes in with a lot of buzz," Parrish says. "It will be a very popular show here."
 
The strong programming is expected to bring an immediate boost while Geva works more on long-term issues, Parrish says.
 
With a stronger footing, Geva could make needed capital improvements, Parrish notes. The deficit already has shrunk to $200,000, and donations are up 20 percent in the last year, he adds.
 
"We have a roof that’s leaking over the auditorium, and we had to install a system to keep it away from the audience and stage," Parrish says.
 
Because of the building’s needs, erasing Geva’s annual deficits will take a little longer, he says. But he is confident that the theater is on the path to financial strength.
 
"We’ll get through this," Parrish says. "I’ve done this before, and it’ll take a lot of people coming together. This is Rochester’s theater, and it’ll take all of Rochester to turn it back around."

Tom Parrish
Position: Executive director and CEO, Geva Theatre Center Inc.
Age: 33
Education: B.A. in theater arts and economics, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, 2001; MBA and M.A. in arts administration, concentration in management consulting and strategy, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, 2003
Residence: Rochester
Activities: Attending charity events, dining, playing with his dog, walking, reading, video games

10/19/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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