Bank helps theater troupe succeed at every stage

Bank helps theater troupe succeed at every stage

 

“The opening night of ‘Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge’ by Christopher Durang
in 2002 was one for the books,” said Tracy Bridgen, artistic director of the City Theatre Company of Pittsburgh, an arts nonprofit and Huntington customer. “It was enormous pressure — opening night of a world premiere of a very notable writer’s play that was commissioned and developed by City. The house was packed with friends, critics, the board of directors and, most notably, Chris Durang (a Tony Award-winning playwright and actor).

“The opening night of ‘Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge’ by Christopher Durang in 2002 was one for the books,” said Tracy Bridgen, artistic director of the City Theatre Company of Pittsburgh, an arts nonprofit and Huntington customer. “It was enormous pressure — opening night of a world premiere of a very notable writer’s play that was commissioned and developed by City. The house was packed with friends, critics, the board of directors and, most notably, Chris Durang (a Tony Award-winning playwright and actor).

“Act I began with a huge response! Roaring laughter, rounds of applause, building and uniting the audience in a wonderful crescendo until … the power on the city block went out. The house went to black, the emergency lights kicked on and the actors stood stock-still onstage as the audience went silent.”1

Bridgen handled the situation like a pro; after all, the show had to go on. But the moment was a stark reminder of the precariousness of artistic moments. For many arts organizations, economic footing is equally tenuous.

For more than 40 years, City Theatre has been the cultural anchor of Pittsburgh’s south side. The company, founded in 1975, first performed in schools, parks and housing projects. But in 1991, the troupe raised the curtain in its remodeled Bingham United Methodist Church, a venue featuring a 254-seat main stage and a 110-seat black-box theater.

City Theatre offers six plays each season, all of them Pittsburgh premieres with a few world premieres mixed in, and all new plays written within the last three or four years.

“We’re taking risks on things that have never been done before,” Managing Director James McNeel said. “The possibility of failure is there, and that’s what makes it somewhat exciting.”

Despite the chance for failure, the troupe thrived. The New York Times called City Theater “Pittsburgh’s most innovative theater company.”2
Sometimes City Theater has become a springboard to wider success. For example, George Brant’s “Grounded,” a one-woman show addressing the culture of drones in the military, premiered at City Theatre in Pittsburgh and a few years later arrived at New York City’s Public Theater, in a new staging directed by Julie Taymor and starring Anne Hathaway.

When City Theatre signed with Sky Bank in 2005, few banks wanted to take on an arts nonprofit’s risks. The troupe had debt, and McNeel said, and “not the most obvious business model in the world.” But Sky backed the troupe anyway.

Like many nonprofits, City Theatre relies on a complex funding model built on support from subscribers and government, grants and individual and corporate donations. When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, much of this funding evaporated. City Theatre, which employs around 100 people in a given year, was in danger of going dark for good.

“The reason we’re still here,” McNeel said, “is because the businesses such as Huntington stepped in and gave us the best possible gift, which was a little bit of time for us to get ourselves reorganized and stable.”

Specifically, Huntington maintained the nonprofit’s accounts in good standing and continued providing a line of credit to help the nonprofit keep a healthy cash flow.

“Huntington inherited us. The fact that they stuck with us speaks to the fact that they’re a different kind of bank,” McNeel said. “They were willing to sit down with us and examine where we’d been, and take a look at where we wanted to go, and they said, ‘Yeah, we can work with that, and we’re willing to make some working capital available to you.’

“We certainly needed that capital for a little while, but we also haven’t had to dip our toes into that line of credit for the last few years. I think that shows that it was a sound choice by Huntington to take a chance on us, and I don’t know if a lot of other banks would’ve.”3

Today, City Theatre helps playwrights develop new work and offers educational programs to support to emerging artists. Huntington Bank backs these school-based workshops and City Theatre’s Young Playwrights Festival, which curates the six best student plays and then produces them with professional actors, directors and designers. Huntington also supports the City Theatre financially through a corporate giving program and sponsors the troupe’s annual gala at Heinz Field.

“We’re certainly not a big customer for Huntington,” McNeel said. “And yet we’ve never felt like we were being treated like a small one. We feel very important to them.”

With a little luck, the lights will remain on for decades to come. Break a leg, City Theatre!

Michelle and Moira
City Theatre’s Young Playwrights Festival brings to the stage several plays chosen from submissions to the Young Playwrights Contest. Photo Credit: City Theatre

CityTheatre_Exterior_color_creditMyraFalisz
With the financial help from corporate sponsors like Huntington Bank, City Theatre continues to stage regular productions from its home in Pittsburgh’s historic South Side neighborhood. Photo Credit: Myra Falisz, City Theatre