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Richmond Theater Troupes to Merge

Henley Street Theatre Co. and Richmond Shakespeare agree to consolidate operations.



Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. — "Hamlet," Act 1, Scene III

In a move to shore finances in a changing local theater market, Henley Street Theatre Company and Richmond Shakespeare have decided to merge.

The agreement calls for the companies to slowly consolidate operations during the next two years, says Jacquie O'Connor, managing director of Henley Street, who's taking over management of Richmond Shakespeare. The decision seemed like perfect timing after recent leadership changes at the two nonprofits, she says.

"James Ricks, our longtime artistic director, announced in the fall that he would be resigning at the end of the season," O'Connor says. Richmond Shakespeare "had an interim artistic director, Jan Powell, who had done some amazing work. This little seed was planted in our minds."

Economic pressures also played a role. While Henley Street is smaller, it has long operated conservatively and debt free. But Richmond Shakespeare has run a financial deficit for several years. In its most recently available tax returns, for fiscal year ended June 30, 2011, Richmond Shakespeare reported $41,811 in net losses. Henley Street reported a net gain of $36,820 for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2012.

"Henley has a proud history of financial [conservatism] and being debt free," O'Connor says. "We are bringing to the table a strong strategic plan to eliminate past debt [at Richmond Shakespeare] and shore up funds."

The move comes a year after one of the region's biggest theater mergers, when Barksdale Theatre and Theatre IV tied the knot to become Virginia Repertory Theatre. It also follows changes at the Firehouse Theatre Project, which is working to get its bearings after the rocky split with its former artistic director.

Still recovering from the recession four years ago, many of the community's larger corporate donors have cut back on donations to smaller theater nonprofits, O'Connor says. Ticket sales typically account for just 60 percent of a theater company's revenues, she says, with the rest from private donations.

The consolidation will allow the companies to operate more efficiently — only one managing director and one artistic director, for instance.

Phil Whiteway, managing director of Virginia Rep, says the merger bodes well for the theater community, which exploded with new theaters and nonprofits in the mid-1990s. "This town is blessed with a lot of excellent organizations, but I have worried that the size of this town … may not have the capacity to support as many small- to medium-[sized] organizations," he says. "Now you've got so many more choices, which includes theater, of things to do in town."

The plan to merge during the next two years is intended to give the organizations time to meld without disturbing their core operations, O'Connor says. Both of the theaters' boards will remain intact during the interim. And no, a new name for the combined company hasn't been determined.

"People have been telling us for years to merge," O'Connor says, adding that the two-year window isn't intended to leave the noncommittal door slightly ajar. "We are certainly committed to a two-year journey."

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