Studio Theatre axed; Webb retiring?

Budget cuts make Starlight future uncertain

By Richard S. Gubbe

Cuts in arts and sports are the first to find the ax in a secondary education budget crisis. Now the purge is taking place at the junior college level with the elimination of the indoor Studio Theatre productions at Rock Valley College.

The structure of the Studio Theatre indoor plays – four per year – are linked to the school’s theater program, where students participate in acting, production and critiquing of the indoor and outdoor shows. The school has been a nesting place for fledgling actors, specifically those interested in theater performance. The result of its success has filtered into the community to form the base of a strong outdoor program.

RVC Director Mike Webb led a growth of theater in the region for the past three decades. He handled everything from the selection of scripts that exceeded $20,000 at times to the supervising of volunteers who took tickets at the events.

Webb has been a producer of revenue and of national talent. Outside of Chicago, the RVC theaters, indoor and outdoor, garner the most respect. He has provided refuge for those seeking asylum from math and science to go on to careers in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The likes of Joe Coots, recently one of the lead actors in the national touring show of the Broadway hit Kinky Boots, performed in more than 460 shows. Samantha Owen is employed in the competitive theater world in New York and will perform in the 2016 production of Phantom of the Opera. There are many others who have gone on to strong arts colleges and others who have made theater a part of their life from Starlight shows of 50 years past when seats were tree stumps.

Although Webb has been nearing retirement, the uphill battle he faces may not worth the effort.

“It might just be easier for me to retire,” a disconsolate Webb told The Times. The school is considering a consultant to replace him to steer the outdoor program and reinstate the Studio program if or when a budget allows. Housed next to each other, the indoor theater has been neglected for expansion with a modest 172 seats. Starlight Theatre is a strong outdoor venue with a star-shaped, open or closed roof.

There are differing formulas for the calculating of costs for both the indoor and outdoor programs. RVC Board Member Patrick Murphy told The Times the board goes off the numbers put forth by the administration. The administration reported them to the board, he said, which voted on each of the cuts presented at meetings.

Numbers reported in other media outlets have varied, some of which are direct program cost versus total actual cost that includes everything down to maintenance and utilities, and add in the proportionate amount of salary of the employee for hours relating to that program.

“When you go off of a (program) budget versus actuals, the budget doesn’t include full salaries,” Murphy said. “We include partial salaries, maintenance and everything else.”

Murphy said the decisions being made are based on meeting a school budget shortfall he says will be $7.4 million for this fiscal year. Murphy said the overall release of funds to junior colleges was supposed to be 30 percent of the average junior college budget, but schools got a mere 6.7 percent of state funding promised. He added the school is expecting nothing more for this year and the worst for next year.

“That certainly doesn’t make things easier,” Murphy said, adding that the average of 30 percent of budget money given to junior college was just an average.

“We got 16 percent. I don’t see any hope they will reinstate anything,” Murphy added. “We’re not expecting anything further in 2016 and 2017 doesn’t look promising.”

Starlight could be the next to go. “Starlight loses money every year as well,” Murphy, citing an average loss of nearly $3 million each of the last three years using actual costs. Other estimates have Starlight profitable in recent seasons.

The elimination of the arts at the high school level had a devastating effect in area public schools. Webb said the cutting of programs like Studio Theatre could have the same effect of depleting arts in the community and affect enrollment in the 14 classes currently offered.

Webb also sees a reduction in students enrolling in a theater program that has no outlet for expression and on-the-job training.

“I would agree with that,” Webb said.

Mike Mastroianni, Rock Valley College president, said in a statement to The Times: “We have approximately 50 students who enroll in theater courses each year, most of whom take those classes to fulfill general education requirements but never actually perform. Studio Theatre performances – like Starlight Theatre – utilize primarily community actors and some students choose to audition. As a playwright myself, I find it unfortunate that students who would have enjoyed a Studio Theatre experience will not have that opportunity for the foreseeable future. As a college president and citizen, I find it even more disappointing that the state budget crisis has placed Rock Valley College in a position where we can no longer provide funds to subsidize programs that do not break even.

”None of these decisions is easy for us or the other colleges, universities, and state agencies who have not received the funding owed to us for nearly a year. The lack of funding is having historic impact throughout our state right now, as well as affecting our ability to plan for future years.”

Whatever the actual or budget program costs, Studio in its current form, got the ax. If cuts continue, Starlight, with its far-larger deficit than Studio, could be next.

“I think some people knew what a gem it was,” Webb says of Starlight. “The rest of them, I can’t speak for them. I did the best I could under the circumstances. I did what I was told to do by the chief financial officer: sell tickets and control costs. They can show the money any way they want to. But I know that we are as close to positive as we can be except for department salaries and we do a lot of other things beside the theater shows.”

Webb has the belief that a bigger indoor venue would help produce more revenue if the proper resources were allocated.

“Seats equal revenue and that’s what it boils down to,” he said. “I got as much money out of 172 seats as I possibly could. I don’t know what else to do. If that’s the way they’re going to look at it, then that’s the way they’re going to look at it.”

With Webb’s possible retirement, Murphy said a consultant is being considered and would advise the administration on who to hire to replace Webb, whose rehearsal schedule begins in March and ends in July for the outdoor season.

“When they said they were going to hire a consultant, I was like, ‘Oh, Okay’ I chuckled to myself. Whatever. If that will make you feel better, I suppose. I can tell you how to do this. I’ve been doing it but okay.”

The state money crisis nixed any chance of a bigger place to increase revenue. The actors perform for free indoors and outdoors. The future of the arts at RVC is a mystery for now.

“I don’t know what their plan is for the future,” he added.

If Webb calls it a career at RVC finding a replacement here would be difficult. Jim Crow, the director of shows for Auburn High School’s financially depleted gifted program, is leaving at the end of the school year, leaving Rockford University as the last bastion of educational theater.

The light bill will be cheaper as RVC lopped off the head of the indoor Studio series after 32 campaigns of four shows each year. Unless reinstated, the state budget cuts have extinguished the hope for a new arena.

“It’s a benefit culturally that doesn’t mean much in these times of the budget crunch,” Webb said. “This is not an easy season.”

Trying to wash the gloom away for what should be a celebration of a milestone season, Webb, ever the showman, said, “Come out and support Starlight for the 50th season and maybe they will be around for another 50. Time will tell.”

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