Taking a little artistic license

In the language of the theater, an "angel" is someone who finances a production, sometimes with the hope of making a profit, other times simply with the desire to be involved in the magic and excitement of "show biz." You may never have thought about being a theatrical angel, but you are one now. Here's how it happened:

Over the past few months, Bud Brewer, the incoming board chairman of Civic Theatres of Central Florida, has been working to erase the $350,000 debt the 73-year-old Civic has amassed over the last several years.

How a theater company with an annual $1.4 million budget could run so deeply into the red in the first place can be traced to the former board's bad decision-making. First, it hired John Loesser (the son of Broadway legend Frank Loesser) as producing director in the early 1990s. But Loesser's experience was mainly in booking entertainment rather than producing theater. In three years he saddled the company with a $200,000 debt.

After he left, and following a succession of short-term replacements, the board put its faith in Marti Miller, an ex-insurance agent, who freely admitted she knew absolutely nothing about theater but could be counted on to balance the books. She added another $150,000 in unpaid bills, as attendance plummeted in response to subpar productions (often staged by inexperienced directors) and competition from an increasing number of smaller theater companies.

This past winter the Civic began passing the hat to keep operating. And though some money trickled in, stringent conditions were placed upon it by a few large funders. For instance, a $100,000 grant from United Arts was contingent upon the organization "finding alliances within the local theater community."

The bleeding continued into the spring. Word went out that the institution may have to close its doors after the current season. The Civic's staff was slashed from 20 to five. Miller herself was forced out after it was learned she might have run afoul of state insurance regulators in her former business dealings. Several board members jumped ship, and creditors, including the Orlando Utilities Commission (which is still owed $80,000), began demanding payment.

So Brewer began his search for a way to comply with the "local alliance" mandate, while also trying to find an angel who could pay the bills. He felt he had succeeded with the potential pairing of the Civic's facilities at Loch Haven Park with the burgeoning acting program at the University of Central Florida. But UCF was unwilling to agree to this marriage of convenience if it had to put up a $350,000 dowry. When Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed a line item that would have done just that (slipped into the state budget by outgoing Sen. Toni Jennings), Brewer began knocking on the doors of local government.

And that is how you and I, fellow angel, have become part owners of the new Civic/UCF Theatres of Central Florida. Because this past week, Brewer successfully leveraged $150,000 in bailouts from the Orange County Commission and the Orlando City Council, with unanimous votes in both bodies. And even though the money is contingent upon the Civic raising the other $200,000, and the merger with UCF, it is still a hefty sum in taxpayer support that our local leaders have laid on the line in our names.

Now, I am not against government support of the arts. As a performing artist for 30 years and as an administrator who has chaired a local arts council, I'm fully aware that even the best arts organizations often need help -- both private and public -- to make ends meet. Even at its height, the Civic could only count on 75 percent of its operating costs to come from box-office receipts.

However, in some sense our elected officials have used our money to reward failure, mismanagement and poor judgment, even as other struggling arts groups strive to be fiscally prudent and thoughtfully run. Brewer insists this is a one-time life line and that the new company will "raise the bar" for quality theater in this town. But other than UCF, which gets a $3.7 million facility for the half million needed to get the new enterprise through its first year, it's hard to know just how the rest of us will benefit from our $150,000 stake.

Exactly what kind of entity this new theater will be, how it will avoid past mistakes and what benefits it will render both to local theater professionals and the audience at large, appear less important to our elected officials than the fervor they seemed to feel in financing a "really big shew." In spending our money thus, they have made angels of us all. Let's just hope the devil doesn't get his due.