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Playhouse Merced in financial crisis

The Board of Directors of Playhouse Merced is facing scrutiny over the nonprofit organization’s financial status and the controversial departure of Artistic Director G.B. Blackmon III.
The Board of Directors of Playhouse Merced is facing scrutiny over the nonprofit organization’s financial status and the controversial departure of Artistic Director G.B. Blackmon III.

Nearly a month after Playhouse Merced parted ways with its artistic director, members of the Board of Directors revealed the nonprofit organization is running out of money, and the upcoming 30th show season at the popular downtown venue is in doubt.

During a well-attended public meeting on June 26, the PHM board presented a financial report that showed their cash balance went from $311,000 in January of 2022 down to $57,000 in April of this year. According to Board Treasurer Dr. Kristina Sogocio, at the current rate of spending they likely didn’t have enough to remain operational for more than three or four months.

Board Secretary Myisha Reed added: “Unfortunately, post COVID, the fundraising landscape is not the same as it was pre-COVID. So generally speaking, most nonprofit organizations are not pulling in the same amount of financial donations as they were pre-COVID. So the amount of money that folks are willing and able to donate across the board is significantly lower than it was before.”

For the immediate future, the one saving grace for the theater is this week’s annual PHM fireworks fundraiser, which can bring in upwards of $20,000 in revenue.
Some members of the community who attended the board meeting questioned whether it was the responsibility of the Board of Directors to handle fundraising, while others expressed confusion at how the financial situation could have changed so drastically.

The board did not elaborate on why they were running out of money, and clarified that the only responsibility the board had was fiduciary oversight.

Controversial post

Meanwhile, there has been an ongoing controversy about an announcement the board made to the local community earlier this month on Instagram: “We would like to inform you that effective June 3, 2024, G.B. Blackmon III will no longer be serving as the artistic director of Playhouse Merced.”

The post stated the fact plainly, and without elaboration. It ended with a mention that the board looked forward to announcing their upcoming season soon.
At the time, community members did not hold back in their social media reactions about the news and Blackmon, who is also considered a well-known local performer.
“This announcement speaks volumes to the character of PHM board members; completely lacking in heart, professionalism, and basic common sense,” commented Heather Ybarra, a fellow local performer. “GB has poured countless hours into this theater and worn himself thin for the better of his community. The comments section shows the respect and appreciation that should have been expressed by PHM. That said, GB’s passion and dedication to the arts has not gone unnoticed, and neither has this tactless post.”

There were dozens of other comments echoing disappointment with the announcement. On June 13, Playhouse announced they would hold their meeting of the Board of Directors, which would include time for public comment.

At the board meeting on June 26, the board clarified that finding a candidate for the artistic director position who could fulfill all the needs of the role was a difficult task — especially one who was willing to accept a non-profit salary.

This prompted a comment from audience member Robert Hypes, a former PHM artistic director who split with the organization on amicable terms in 2018.  “The only things that you can sell are tickets, conservatory classes, sponsorships, donations,” Hypes said. “You can’t expect one person to do all four things if you’re not compensating them. I don’t like the term non-profit salary. I feel like you should look at it like ‘How do we compensate quality people enough to run an organization and trust them enough, and we’ll pay them accordingly, and that’s how we get high quality people.’ And it’s a risk if you don’t have the money right now. So we pick up different options.”

Hypes clarified that while it was not the board’s responsibility to fundraise, it was within their purview, along with other displays of solidarity and support mentioned by community members in attendance. “Though it’s not in the by-laws, when board members purchase season tickets every single year or donate every single year, they send a message to all of the volunteers, to the staff, to the community: ‘We support this organization actively and we’re involved.’”

Some community members in the audience were concerned that the manner in which the Board had announced the departure of the previous artistic director would discourage future candidates.

“When a board shows heavy handed action towards management, I don’t think it really inspires a lot of people to feel comfortable approaching that role. So it sounds like the social media posts around G.B.’s departure, there were some issues with that. But I think it would be in the board’s best interest to address that head on rather than rushing it under the rug,” said Collin Lewis, executive director for the Arts at UC Merced.  “I think the community was shocked when that post came out … It doesn’t provide inspiration to anyone to try and take on that role.”

Board President Sheilah Brooks responded: “Well, I will say that we definitely have heard the community loud and clear. We aren’t necessarily brushing anything under the rug. We are moving forward. That’s one of the reasons why we ended up having the meeting today, because we knew individuals wanted a voice.”
Brooks also clarified that the post in question was how they were advised to make the announcement.

Focus on youth conservatory

The board shared that given Playhouse’s current finances, they are forced to prioritize which of their programs would be their focus.
“The mission of the Playhouse way back when it started out with the conservatory, and that has always been a priority through the years. In looking at our options, we’re hoping to reinvest in the conservatory and make it a much more robust program,” said Treasurer Sogocio. “By doing so, we hope that will help us regrow, and then hopefully translate to our main stage.”

One revelation from the meeting was the community’s support. Over 30 people attended the board meeting, and a large portion of them expressed that they were interested in offering their support to keep Playhouse up and running. Some shared that they had not recently been offered any opportunities to volunteer, while others said they had been outright denied the chance.

The status of the upcoming season remains unclear. The board stated that they weren’t currently making any plans outside of the conservatory. No specific next steps were established during the meeting, though the board shared they are considering doing a focus group, and wanted anyone in the community interested in volunteering to reach out to them.

This is not the first time Playhouse Merced has been in dire straits. In 2007, Playhouse Merced was in danger of closing its doors after losing a few major sponsors and experiencing cutbacks in donations, despite strong ticket sales at the box office.
In recent years, community donations, corporate sponsorships, government grants, partnerships with local school districts and youth conservatory fees have helped keep the community theater afloat.

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