Turnage’s future depends on all of us

Published 10:14 am Monday, November 5, 2007

By Staff
The easy part is over.
That’s hard to say when you consider it’s taken 10 years to land financing and renovate the Turnage Theater, but that may have been “easy” compared to what lies ahead.
The actual renovations only took about a year. As big a task as it was to stabilize a 70-year-old building and bring it up to code, its went well as projects go. The hard part, the long-term part, will be the operation of the theater now that it’s been finished.
There are dozens of little details to attend to. What acts will play there? How much will tickets cost? What movies will be featured? The answer to any of those will dictate what people will or won’t pay to see.
Robert Chumbley, the Turnage Theater Foundation’s interim director, is going to be walking a tightrope.
As much as the Turnage can be viewed as a cultural attraction to downtown Washington, the operation of it can be viewed as a business.
Chumbley said last week he’s already been approached by people who want to use the facility for free. That can’t happen. The Turnage has bills to pay just like any other business. But in some ways, the Turnage isn’t a business. It will put on performances that people wouldn’t otherwise be able to enjoy, and it might have to lose money on some events in the process. But to continue to operate for the long haul, it will have to generate income.
Chumbley also realizes that ticket prices alone won’t be enough to make the operation work. Private donations from patrons of the arts will also be required. Typically, you can expect that for every dollar you get in ticket sales it may take another dollar from donors to make ends meet. Good performances don’t come cheap, and the Turnage wants a reputation of putting on good performances.
It will, in the end, boil down to basic math. If a theater production charges $10,000, and the theater can seat 450 people, you’d need to charge $22.22 just to pay the production company. That wouldn’t cover Chumbley’s salary, or those others employed by the theater. It wouldn’t pay the electric bill. It wouldn’t pay toward that cost of renovations. It’s possible that the Turnage could charge $25 and still lose money.
There are acts booked well past January, but Chumbley isn’t ready to announce them until there is a system in place for people to buy tickets for those events. That’s understandable, but it’s also frustrating for people who want to see the Turnage prosper and want to see what’s in store.
Early on, there may be weeks between performances. That’s not because Turnage officials don’t want to see the theater used often, they don’t know what the public is willing to support.
To its credit, the Turnage is trying to keep all ticket prices under $40, and under $20 if possible. Kids would get in for about half that amount.
To present classic movies would be a low-risk venture for the Turnage, and it’s something they are going to pursue.
Instead, the Turnage could offer classic movies, some that many people have never seen except for on television. They may be art films that might attract a limited following, but would offer something that until now was only available in places like Wilmington or Durham.
In the end, Chumbley will need to draw a following that is as varied as Beaufort County. If ballet doesn’t appeal to you, country music might. The Turnage will have to be a venue that can offer both. If it does, we hope the public will support it.