With city budget pressures causing changes and cuts throughout Palo Alto, rumors about the future use of the Lucie Stern Theatre have been flying in the local theater world.
Some directors and other regulars have been speculating that Palo Alto Players, West Bay Opera and TheatreWorks -- the three companies that regularly perform at the Lucie Stern -- will have less access to the Middlefield Road facility that has long been their home. One rumor has the Palo Alto Children's Theatre moving in to take their places altogether.
City officials deny the rumors, and the three companies say they plan to stay at the Stern. Still, some in the theater world have expressed uncertainty about how budget woes will affect priorities at the theater.
The facility operations previously fell under the purview of Palo Alto's arts and sciences division head Linda Craighead, until she retired in 2009. Her position was left vacant "due to the budget crisis," Community Services Director Greg Betts said, and the city eventually consolidated theater operations under Children's Theatre director Judge Luckey, who now manages operations both at the Children's Theatre and the main theater at the Lucie Stern Community Center. As arts manager, Luckey also oversees the Teen Arts Council and some programming at the Cubberley Community Center theater, Betts said.
Luckey said he has no plans for the Children's Theatre to perform at the main theater.
"The Children's Theatre ... is an ideal training ground for children, with good acoustics; they don't need amplification. The Lucie Stern is really too large for that."
Regarding Palo Alto Players, West Bay Opera and TheatreWorks, Luckey said: "The only thing we're taking over is the management of the theater. Those three user groups are very set in their position. They have a very loyal subscription base."
The Children's Theatre does make some use of the set shop at the main theater, and sometimes uses its rehearsal hall as a classroom, Luckey said.
Classes have been an increased focus of the Children's Theatre since Luckey came on board in 2009. The theater has been bringing in teaching artists and has turned a library room into a classroom, he said. In fiscal year 2010, the theater's income from class registrations was 42 percent of its $240,837.25 in revenue -- compared to 38 percent for ticket sales from its core productions.
Luckey does have a city mandate to increase revenue at the main theater, he said. At the moment, "It does not generate enough to cover the cost of keeping the doors open."
According to city budget figures, direct operating costs for running the theater (such as cleaning and supplies) totaled $122,303.09 in fiscal year 2009-2010. User-group revenue from Palo Alto Players, West Bay Opera and TheatreWorks came to $58,671.
The three groups pay no theater rent, and the city covers maintenance and utility costs for the building. Instead, the groups pay the city a surcharge on each ticket sold. The $1 surcharge goes up to $2 this year.
"We are looking at organizing, making it more efficient. That is the only goal we have," Luckey said.
Some of the organizing changes mark a significant adjustment for the groups that have been at the theater for decades. The Lucie Stern was built for the Palo Alto Players, who have performed there for 80 years. West Bay Opera has been there for more than 50 years, and TheatreWorks for 40.
"What we're finding now is that there is a shift from the normal routine that we've had for many decades," West Bay Opera general director Jose Luis Moscovich said.
Moscovich emphasized that his company has not had its hours cut back and said he has a "very good working relationship" with Luckey. But he said he's feeling more pressure to justify and plan his company's every hour in the theater, something that's difficult to do in an organization powered by many volunteers.
"The pressure to make money is generating pressure on small companies to be much more organized and much more efficient. It can be done up to a point," he said.
"It may be that even though it's a small issue right now, it does give us an opening to start thinking about what the goals should be in terms of supporting these long-standing companies that are operating without subsidy except for use of the theater."
Luckey is also trying to increase revenue by attracting more one-time rental events, such as lectures. But there's not much wiggle room; he estimates the theater is filled some 42 weeks a year by its three resident companies.
City space overall is at a premium, with the Palo Alto Art Center and the Mitchell Park Library currently closed for renovations. Performances and classes have been relocated throughout the city as a result, including to the Lucie Stern complex. The Fortnightly Music Club, for instance, moved its concerts from the art center to the Stern ballroom.
"I feel for Judge," Moscovich said. "He's been put in a position to have to generate revenue from what's essentially a cultural facility."
For their part, Palo Alto Players officials issued a statement saying: "Palo Alto Players are happy to be celebrating our 80th season of performances in cooperation with the City of Palo Alto. ... Our patron Lucie Stern provided the theater for Palo Alto Players, and we look forward to being there for many years to come."
Players officials declined additional comment.
At TheatreWorks, Managing Director Phil Santora told the Weekly: "As far as us being in the theater, we have no indication that there's going to be any problems with scheduling or doing what we need to do."
TheatreWorks, which also puts on shows at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, has often looked at other venues for performance, rehearsal and shop space, Santora said. At the moment, there's nothing concrete, he added. "If something evolves, that would be great, but we love being in Palo Alto."
Moscovich, too, said he's "always looking at other venues" but that he doesn't have any plans at this point. His desire for another venue wasn't sparked by debate over city policy, he said, but by a more prosaic concern: The Lucie Stern's orchestra pit is too small for all his musicians.