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Nonprofit theaters lure more people, funding - but still lose money

Attendance rose and income increased for the nation's nonprofit professional theaters in 1983. Yet for the third year in a row, these important producing organizations experienced a collective deficit. Such are the mixed findings presented by Theatre Facts 83, the 10th annual survey by Theatre Communications Group (TCG) of 189 resident playhouses across the United States.

''Theaters are devoting increasingly substantial amounts of money and manpower to fund raising and marketing in an attempt simply to hold the line,'' observed Robert Holley, TCG's director of management services, who wrote the report.

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The 189 theaters covered in the survey put on 2,616 productions for 47,195 performances. The playmaking involved 21,000 artists, administrators, technicians, and craftspeople. Attendance exceeded 13.6 million admissions.

Total operating costs amounted to $189 million; total income, $185.9 million; total deficit: just above $3 million.

The survey discovered that theater earnings (including box office receipts) increased appreciably last year. So did income from three of the four major sources of contributed support: individuals, foundations, and corporations. Corporate support, which rose 26 percent in 1983 over 1982, became the third leading source of contributed funding. The average corporate gift declined significantly, however. Fewer than 10 percent of all corporate gifts were for $2 ,500 or more.

Only the federal government - the fourth major source of contributed income - failed to keep pace with inflation.

The persistent gap between income and expenses prompted TCG director Peter Zeisler to comment: ''There is a major hurdle still to surmount. By reorganizing the American theater as a noncommercial institution over the past two decades, we have demonstrated that the theater is primarily an art form, not a business. What we have yet to do is ensure that it can prosper in that mode. Repertoires cannot be chosen primarily for nonaesthetic reasons that have more to do with what can be afforded or what will 'sell' than with what is artictically important to do. . . .''

In the foreword to Theatre Facts 83, Washington's Arena Stage producing director Zelda Fichandler recalled the originating thought of the nonprofit professional theater movement - ''that the theater should stop serving the function of making money . . . and start serving in the revelation and sharing of the process of living. . . . What has been built in the past third of a century is an American national theater - the fastest growth of a new form for the arts in history.''

TCG has also recently published Theatre Profiles 6, a handsomely illustrated guide to 174 resident production companies, edited by Laura Ross. The theaters, in 36 states and the District of Columbia, range from companies devoted to classics, new plays, musicals, and mime to experimental theaters, ethnic and children's theaters, and theaters for the deaf.

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To quote Mr. Zeisler again:

''The companies in this volume constitute our national theater and carry the promise of the future of this art form in America. They have nurtured the works of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights of each of the past five years, and according to Variety (the show-business weekly), they spawned more new work that appeared on Broadway than Broadway did itself in nine of the past 10 seasons.''

The theater profiles contain salient facts about each company, including special programs and services and lists of plays produced over the past two seasons. According to the new guide, Shakespeare is still the most frequently produced dramatist, with Shaw in second place. Moliere, Dickens, Lanford Williams, and Tennessee Williams (to whom the volume is dedicated) rank high. David Mamet, Marsha Norman, Sam Shepard, Christopher Durang, Amlin Gray, David Henry Hwang, and Albert Innaurato are among those ''continuing to climb steadily.''

As the third of its most recent publications, TCG, on March 19, launched a new national magazine, American Theatre. Subtitled ''the monthly forum for news, features, and opinion,'' the periodical will cover a whole range of theater-related topics: the creative and managerial, media and government, trustees and voluntarism. The publication is edited by Jim O'Quinn. Contributing editors are Arthur Ballet, Robert Brustein, Joseph Campbell, Gordon Davidson, and Michael Feingold.

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