Fees, policies amended for Katharine Cornell Theatre

Tisbury selectmen last week approved new rules and higher rates for the use of the Katharine Cornell Theatre (KCT), a popular venue for performers.

The most significant changes increase rental fees, require payment in advance, and revise the cancellation policy.

The rental fee for commercial and for-profit groups that use the theatre in Vineyard Haven increased from $100 a day to $200 a day.

Although there was a proposal to also double the rental fee for nonprofit groups from $50 a day to $100, the selectmen agreed to modify the increase to $75 and delay the effective date until 2012.

All booking cancellations will now incur a fee. Cancellations made 90 days or more before a booked date will incur a 15 percent fee. Cancellations made less than 90 days before a booked date will incur a 50 percent fee on the total dates canceled.

Previously, groups that rented the theatre for 10 days or more had the option of paying a deposit of 50 percent of the fee in advance and the balance 30 days prior to use. Under the amended regulations payment must be made in full at the time a booking is confirmed.

Hillary Conklin, the selectmen’s administrative secretary, handles all of KCT’s bookings, scheduling and rental details. The theater is located above Tisbury Town Hall on Spring Street in what was formerly a Congregationalist church built in 1844.

Given that the KCT regulations have not been amended since 2002, Ms. Conklin recommended some proposed changes to the selectmen in December. They agreed to review the regulations and hold a public hearing January 25.

Selectmen Jeff Kristal and Geoghan Coogan conducted the hearing. Tristan Israel recused himself from taking part in the board’s actions because he sometimes performs at the KCT as a musician.

Deciding factors

Ms. Conklin told the selectmen that operational expenses for the 130-seat KCT keep going up and its use by nonprofit groups has grown tremendously. Of 156 bookings in 2010, 142 were at the nonprofit rental rate, she said.

Although the town likes to cater to local nonprofit groups who use the theater, Ms. Conklin said there is a need to look at the rental fees in terms of the expenses involved, since heating costs alone may run $50 a night.

Ms. Conklin provided a list of other Island venue rental fees she researched before she made her recommendation to double the theater rental fees for both nonprofit and for-profit groups.

Ms. Conklin said one of the reasons for the revised cancellation policy is that bookings are made far in advance on a first-come, first served basis. She said groups that cancel often do so only days before an event. As a result the town loses about $800 every year because she does not have time to rebook the dates and the space goes unused.

Nonprofit groups weigh in

In comments from the public, Island Theatre Workshop board members Lee Fierro and Kevin and Joanne Ryan implored the selectmen to reconsider doubling the rental fee for nonprofit groups like theirs. Established in 1968, ITW started as a summer workshop for children and evolved into the Island’s longest running year-round theater company.

“Here we have one place that has made it possible for people who have practically no money at all to perform at a minimal price,” said Ms. Fierro, ITW’s artistic director.

Mr. Ryan, ITW board vice president, said the group could understand the town’s need to maintain an essential level of income to cover expenses, but was surprised that such a steep rental increase would be imposed so suddenly.

“You know, this will be a $2,500 rate increase to our organization, and we count on donations and revenues from putting on the shows; we don’t have a huge fund behind us and we don’t have large donators,” he said.

Mr. Ryan warned that KCT could disappear as a theater on the Vineyard if the rates follow what has been a trend in other venues, and nonprofit arts organizations and performers can no longer afford to use it.

Ms. Ryan, ITW’s treasurer, said that since the nonprofit group already has trouble making its budget with rental fees at $50 a day, it would be a hardship to come up with the extra money for the 50 dates they already booked this year, especially in this economy.

Both she and Mr. Ryan suggested the selectmen consider a seasonal heating fee for winter performances, instead of imposing a blanket rental fee increase.

Selectman chairman Jeff Kristal also read additional comments in a letter from Richard Paradise, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society and Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival.

Mr. Paradise said The Film Society has used and rented the KCT for more than 30 annual events over the past nine years, and that any increase in rental fees would have an adverse effect on the number of screening and types of films the nonprofit group could continue to present.

“Our programming breaks even most of [the] time, because the film rental fees are usually in the range of $400-500 per screening,” Mr. Paradise wrote. He said the Film Society depends on KCT’s low nonprofit rental fee, especially when other venues charge so much more.

Ms. Conklin pointed out that the town is also feeling the economic pinch, and that it isn’t fair to keep asking the taxpayers to shoulder more expenses.

“Before you guys arrived, the selectmen were talking about how much they were going to have to cut from budgets this year, and we’ve all been looking for little ways that we could get a little more money in, and I really think that our fees for the theater are behind the times considerably,” she told the ITW board members.

Both Mr. Kristal and Mr. Coogan were sympathetic to the economic plight of nonprofit groups.

“Do we need it to go up to $100? I don’t know necessarily that we do, but I think obviously there are expenses, and we’ve got to find the place where we cover the costs and we’re not pushing you out of business,” Mr. Coogan said to the ITW board members.

As a compromise, they voted to approve the amended KCT regulations, with the exception of the rental rate for nonprofits, which they set at $75 a day. They also delayed the effective date until 2012, to give nonprofit groups time to budget and fundraise for the added expense over the next year.

In a follow-up phone conversation with The Times last week, Ms. Conklin said there has been give, as well as take, on the part of both ITW and the Film Society. ITW volunteered to repaint the KCT stage floor several times, and the Film Society purchased and donated the current movie screen in the KCT for the town’s use.

Ms. Conklin said copies of the amended KCT regulations would be available at town hall.