By Ken Mammarella
Special to Delaware Business Times
Executive Director Bud Martin embraces a radical business philosophy for Delaware Theatre Company (DTC). “Live within our means,” he said. “Too often, nonprofits rely on somebody coming through with money, donors, board members.” He also is thinking outside the box to establish a potential revenue stream that’s unusual for a theater of its size: developing shows for Broadway.
Thère du Pont, president of the Longwood Foundation, which gave seed capital for the Broadway plan, applauded the theater’s creative turnaround. Martin “arrived in 2012 to a building with creaking infrastructure, an organization challenged financially and one pulling back its scale to make ends meet,” du Pont said in his keynote at the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce annual dinner. “He started by asking a different question. … ‘How do a I build an independent, repeatable, earned income revenue stream that’s not constrained by my building and/or location?’ ”
For DTC, that turned out to be Martin thinking about his experience as a director (who has the artistic vision for a show) and a producer (who has or obtains the money). He knew that multiple people or organizations can profit from a successful show by nurturing its creation. This development can include meeting with the playwright and creative team and hosting simple readings of script’s, workshops (with modest technical support) and finally productions. The feedback from audiences, producers and other insiders earns the theater that develops a show the right to earn money from it – on Broadway, national tours and performances elsewhere.
The upward spiral continues inside the building. The budget for the last pre-Martin season was $850,000, he said. That’s the budget for just one show in the 2018-19 season: “A Sign of the Times,” a musical mixing ’60s pop classics with a book by six-time Emmy winner Bruce Vilanch.
“A Sign of the Times” is the fifth musical DTC has developed, following Duncan Sheik and Nell Benjamin’s “Because of Winn-Dixie,” Maurice Hines’ “Tappin’ Thru Life” and Barry Levinson and Sheryl Crow’s “Diner” in 2015, plus Neil Bartram and Brian Hill’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” based on the Ray Bradbury novel, in 2017.
Although all five have marquee value in the title or the people involved, “there’s no guarantee but a lot of hope” for Broadway productions, Martin said. He turned down an offer for a Broadway theater for “Because of Winn-Dixie” because he didn’t have time to market it, so the show will be workshopped this fall to potential backers. “Tappin’ Thru Life” made it to off-Broadway.
“The Shuberts want ‘Diner,’ Martin said of an organization that owns 17 of Broadway’s 41 theaters. “But they don’t want to go up against ‘Waitress.’ It’s a matter of timing.” Both musicals are set in a diner and feature songs written by a female pop star.
“The effect of ‘Diner’ is enormous” for DTC, he said, citing 7,000 in the audience, half new to the theater. These newcomers were cross-sold into other shows and subscriptions.
It’s too early to gauge the plan’s success. The shows only date back to 2015, and Benjamin said at a recent Dramatists Guild Foundation Traveling Masters program at the Wilmington Drama League that five to seven years is fast for going from concept to Broadway.
But the plan has paid off at DTC’s Wilmington Riverfront theater. “Over the past four years,” du Pont said, “they’ve grown earned and contributed revenue by 69 percent. They’ve grown their subscriber base by 70 percent (vs. a national average growth rate of 12 percent). They’ve seen a 234 percent increase in their single-ticket sales. And they’ve more than doubled the scale of many of their educational programs.”
Total earned and contributed income rose from $745,000 in 2012-13 to $1.2 million in 2016-17. The bottom line also improved with the return of DTC’s wine auction fundraiser and a Shubert Foundation grant that’s growing each year.
A typical Broadway deal would give DTC one percent of gross receipts until the show clears costs, Martin said, and an additional 1.5 percent of later profits.
He exemplified the potential with the La Jolla Playhouse, which developed “Jersey Boys,” a musical that has earned more than $2 billion in its various incarnations. Martin estimated only 15 or so of the 73 members of the League of Regional Theaters develop shows for Broadway, and DTC stands out as one of the smaller league members.
The road to Broadway is increasingly far-flung, The New York Times wrote in December, but Martin feels Wilmington’s proximity to Broadway gives it a competitive edge.
Martin also cited growing relationships with local talent on stage and off, such as Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham. His “The Outgoing Tide” was Martin’s first play at DTC, and it and two more have all moved from the theater to Manhattan’s 59E59 Theaters, increasing DTC’s “visibility” in the heart of America’s theater world. DTC will earn royalties on future productions of these shows as well, he said. (Lower travel expenses are another appeal for local talent.)
Although there’s a clear business orientation, DTC remains decidedly a theater. “We take care of our artists, too,” Martin said.