The "pay-to-play" scheme, which the City Council's Finance Committee endorsed Tuesday night, would establish a participant fee for the first time in the 78-year history of the theatre. If the full council backs the committee's recommendation, the fee would take effect in July and would raise about $35,000 in fiscal year 2011.
The committee instituted the registration fees despite an outcry from Children's Theatre supporters and participating thespians. Some, including the theater's Artistic Director Judge Luckey, argued that creating the new fees could discourage some of the city's low-income residents from taking part.
"I do think it would reduce the number of users," Luckey said, who said he personally opposes the fee. "I think it would reduce the socioeconomic diversity we've seen in the past year."
But after looking at a list of other Bay Area children's theaters, which charge participants from $65 to $265, the committee voted unanimously to institute the new fees. Councilman Larry Klein, who played and coached football as a youth, argued that the theater shouldn't be treated differently from local sports programs or children's-theater programs in other cities, all of which charge participants fees.
Committee members also observed that low-income participants would receive subsidies from the city, as they do in other recreational programs. Under the proposed fee plan, costs to participate would vary by productions, with the most elaborate productions requiring the highest fees.
"I don't see why Palo Alto's Children's Theatre programs should be so unusual and unique, as compared to anything else," said Klein, whose two sons both participated in Children's Theatre programs.
But Sylvia Sanders, co-president of the Friends of Children's Theatre Board of Directors, said parents who enroll their children in baseball or soccer programs typically don't have to pay for admission to games. She also said she was concerned about the effect the new fees will have on low-income residents and on the atmosphere in the theater.
"I suspect charging actors' fee will be destructive to theater's sense of community," Sanders told the committee. "Those paying the fee would expect a better part."
The fee proposal is part of Palo Alto's broader effort to reduce subsidies and require more cost recovery from local programs. The city is facing a $7.3 million budget gap in fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1.
The Finance Committee had already voted to raise ticket prices for Children's Theatre productions and has recommended a new "suggested donation" policy for the Palo Alto Art Center. Parking-ticket fines are also expected to go up by at least $3 in July as part of the cost-recovery effort.