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Study shows money troubles eating away at not-for-profit theater

The arts in the United States have been feeling the pinch of the economic times - and nowhere more than in the precincts of the resident professional theater. From New York to California, such theaters are struggling to survive the most complex economic crisis in a generation.

The nature and extent of the trouble are documented in ''Theatre Facts '82,'' the most recent statistical and financial survey conducted by the Theatre Communications Group, a New York City service organization. Since 1974-75, TCG has been charting the course, the ups and downs, of the not-for-profit producing groups that dot the American performing arts landscape. Today, TCG constituent and associate members number 209 - 123 of which participated in the national survey.

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The good news is that these 123 theaters presented 36,727 performances before an audience of 13.1 million in 70 cities in 35 states and the District of Columbia. The playhouses employed 15,800 people - artists, directors, administrators, technicians, and craftspeople.

But there was also considerable bad news.

* For the first time since 1978, the 22 theaters in TCG's ''sample group'' (those providing the most detailed economic analyses) ended the year with a substantial collective deficit.

* More than 20 of the group's theaters ceased operations in the course of the past three seasons. They included the 30-year-old Phoenix Theatre in New York City, the PAF Playhouse on Long Island, the Steamboat Repertory Theatre in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and the California Actors Theatre in Los Gatos, Calif.

* The 1982 survey incorporates the first full year of data since the Reagan administration took office. It reveals what a TCG official calls ''the early results of the ravages of sweeping federal cuts . . . upon the delicate ecological balance of the entire nonprofit sector.''

According to the report, federal government aid through the National Endowment for the Arts decreased more than 9 percent from the 1981 level. This funding covered less than 5 percent of total operating expenses; it was the lowest such percentage in the history of the survey. State support increased 3 percent, compared to the 7.1 percent inflation rate for the corresponding fiscal period.

The growth of corporate support slowed significantly in 1982. The average grant ($1,133) was only $36 over the 1981 figure.

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The most important source of contributed income is individual giving. Here again, the growth rate fell. Private support totaled $2.9 million in 1982, as against $2.7 million in 1981. The number of individual gifts increased, but the size of the contribution fell slightly.

Nonprofit theaters earn more of their income at the box office than do any of the other comparable performing arts institutions - symphony orchestras, dance groups, and opera companies. The theaters in the TCG survey generated almost 75 percent of their earnings through ticket sales, an increase of 17 percent. Other income derived from concessions, the sale of T-shirts, bookshops, cable-TV deals , and other sources. One theater receives royalties from an oil well.

Robert Holley, TCG director of management services, says, ''Clearly, the administration's call on the private sector to 'fill the gap' has not been heeded.''

In a foreword to the survey, TCG executive director Peter Zeisler draws a striking contrast between the struggles of the American nonprofit theater and the ''quantum leaps'' of the British nonprofit theater since World War II. He cites specifically the British National Theatre, the Royal Court, and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

''The implications are clear,'' Mr. Zeisler writes. ''Until we make the arts central to our society - and stop treating them as an afterthought - we will continue to limit our expectations and restrict our potential for glory. . . . We need a portent - or at least a signal - from our government that public funds for the arts will not continue to be eroded and that our nation's government will once again become a leader in our efforts to explore the soul of our country through its art.''

Will the signal be forthcoming?

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