Improving Playhouse

Clock ticking toward grant challenge deadline worth quarter million

By ERINN FIGG

This holiday season, Playhouse on the Square administrators are keeping their eyes on the calendar as they rise to a challenge worth a quarter of a million dollars.

Playhouse on the Square supporters attend the theater’s fundraising event, Curtain Up, on Friday night. Playhouse on the Square has until Dec. 31 to meet a fundraising challenge to raise $250,000.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The company has until Dec. 31 to raise $250,000 toward its Act II Enhancement Fund Campaign. If this mission is accomplished, the Memphis-based Jeniam Foundation will award Playhouse a grant matching those funds.

Since May, when the foundation issued the challenge, Playhouse has raised approximately $216,000. With a little more than six weeks left to raise the additional $34,000, company leaders say they’re confident they can reach that goal, though the economy has them facing some minor hurdles.

“Fundraising for any nonprofit, especially the arts, is challenging enough. When you add the current state of the economy, it gets more challenging,” said Tina Fockler, board member and chair of the Act II committee. “Some of our core donors have had to give a little less because of it.”

Community response, while enthusiastic, also shows signs of a strain.

“This time around, it’s been slower,” she said. “Some people may be thinking, ‘Well the building is up, so they’re done.’”

The new Playhouse on the Square’s initial capital campaign for $15.5 million was split into two phases. The Breaking New Ground Capital Campaign provided the $12.5 million for construction of the new building on Cooper Street and Union Avenue in Midtown. Now, the Act II Enhancement Fund Campaign for the remaining $3 million will cover property maintenance and staffing.

“We’ve gained a lot of square footage with the new building, but we’re maintaining and running it with the same staff we had before,” Fockler said. “We need to be able to compensate them accordingly, as well as hire new staff.”

Maintaining the building is particularly important because it serves as a showcase for all aspects of the Memphis art community, Fockler said, including collaborations with Opera Memphis and Memphis Symphony Orchestra. It includes a gallery dedicated to artwork from students at Memphis College of Art and is home to Ballet Memphis. It’s also a venue for the annual Indie Memphis Film Festival, which attracted a record crowd of more than 8,000 attendees this year.

Erik Jambor, executive director of Indie Memphis, said Playhouse on the Square enhances the movie experience.

“Filmmakers fall in love with the space, not only because of how good it looks, but also because how great it sounds,” he said. “Because it was built acoustically for stage actors, it works perfectly for films.”

Ultimately, the current fundraising efforts are all about longevity, Fockler said.

“The main goal is to make sure this building is here for years to come, for generations to enjoy,” she said. “And we want the community to feel proud about investing in Playhouse, whether they come to the show, ballet, a film series, whatever gets them through the door.

“We want them to feel like this is their home because they invested in it.”

Theatergoer Sherri Stephens, administrative associate in the Department of Theater and Dance at the University of Memphis, already feels that way.

“I have seen many of my students and faculty there,” she said. “Playhouse generously recruits from our department’s ranks and the results are quite rewarding, offering students perhaps their first professional auditions and performance, design or directing gigs.”

She and her family take advantage of the Pay What You Can program, which allows people to enjoy productions regardless of financial situation. The program gave her the opportunity to raise her children with an appreciation for theater, she said.

Stephens’ appreciation for the venue extends beyond affordable entertainment. She said there’s a “homegrown feel and attitude” behind its variety of award-winning performances.

Playhouse supporters can contribute to the Jeniam challenge victory in several ways, said Mike Detroit, associate producer at Playhouse on the Square.

For donations starting at $150, donators can have a personalized star on display in the building’s event room. Contributors of $1,500 and higher receive naming rights to a chair in one of the four theaters.

“It’s a nice way to memorialize somebody or honor them, especially with the holidays approaching,” Detroit said.

Donations can be made at playhouseonthesquare.org or by calling Detroit at 937-6464.

Founder and Executive Director Jackie Nichols said if the Jeniam challenge is a success, it will serve as a model for future ones.

“Challenges motivate other people to give when they know their money is being matched,” Nichols said. “Next year, we’ll pursue additional challenges in the community to help us get to the next level.”