Funding’s an issue for venerable nonprofit.
Impressive achievements fuel the many ambitions of the Cayman Drama Society, but there are big challenges facing the front of the house.
Sponsors are scarce in the current economic climate, government stipends are shrinking, benefactors seem to be in short supply and volunteers scatter because of downsizing and rollover.
What’s a nonprofit to do?
“In order for us to increase the entire level of what we’re doing, we need a greater level of funding,” says Executive Committee member Sheree Ebanks, who has been affiliated with the society for decades.
It’s a tough assignment for the small but venerable group that relies 100 per cent on volunteers – there is no paid administrator – and a modest government stipend that helps pay the insurance on the Prospect Playhouse, which the Drama Society owns.
Yet, the group is definitely committed. In fact, Ebanks says, they’re all over-committed and that’s one of the challenges.
“Today everyone is so busy,” says Ebanks. What started as a small, really close-knit group of families and friends in the 1970s lasted pretty much through the 1990s, she says, but then in the 2000s the “old-timers” decided it was time to hand off to a younger – and as it turns out, much busier – generation. Plus, “a lot of our thespians are transient, so that’s where we’re challenged a lot,” she adds.
Having said that, however, there’s no way the plucky production group is put off by this. Instead, they simply roll out one idea after another to meet the challenges head-on.
“The one thing the Playhouse has always done is adhere to its core value: The productions were always going to be professional and first-rate,” she says. “We have a full production committee, whereas in the past people would come in with ideas but didn’t want to be involved.”
Even with a production committee in place, the Society still needs anywhere from four to six producers to cover the full range of shows. Plus, it’s short on all manner of backstage help – experienced or not – for its wide-ranging shows. Most recently, the Drama Society put on the double bill of Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba by Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca and directed by Nick Dereza, who is no longer on island.
“Nick brought in a whole lot of people last year [for another production] and when he directed this year, they all came back,” Ebanks says. But the actors, also volunteers, are often transient or may simply just not have the time required by the tight six-week schedule of readings and rehearsals, she adds.
Wish list takes centre stage
Undaunted, Ebanks and the executive committee, chaired by Richard Johnson, have a forward-looking list of projects, ambitious by any standards, let alone for an all-volunteer group.
“We’re looking at how we can boost our online presence, with ticket-buying, for example. It comes down to everybody being a volunteer and having the time to do that,” she says. Ditto when it comes to getting on Facebook and Twitter.
Other projects, either current or on the horizon, include:
Participating in education
The Society has its own little black-box theatre, Ebanks points out, and a student producer. Cayman Prep and John Grey high schools offer drama classes, so the Society partners with the schools to bring in students to help backstage, giving them an opportunity to learn sound and lighting (which helps O- and A-levels with their related exams).
“We’re committed to a junior production every year,” Ebanks says, citing Toad of Toad Hall (2010) and Annie (2009), giving young actors the opportunity to take part in an adult production. The shows are set up to accommodate students’ schedules.
The Society is trying to get annual sponsors or benefactors, as well as sponsors and advertisers for playbills. A few have come on board and in order for that to happen on an order of magnitude, “We need to go out and do proper sponsorship presentations,” Ebanks says. Which, again, takes considerable time, effort and expertise. Keep in mind that licensing fees alone for a popular musical can cost upwards of $3,000 and you start to get the big picture.
Other funds come from membership, roughly 200 people are lifetime members ($200 each); a yearly membership is $20, and five years is discounted to $80. Another issue that arises, however, is finding an efficient way to remind members to renew.
Nevertheless, the shows break even, owing in large part to bar receipts (“The best prices in town,” Ebanks reminds) and ticket sales.
Shakespeare in the house
“Going forward, we’d like to do a Shakespeare play once or twice a year,” Ebanks says. “We’re trying to get drama teachers involved since they always study [Shakespeare] in school.”
Also on the wish list: a summer exchange programme for students to study acting in the United States and for their US counterparts to come to Cayman. Some discussions have taken place regarding summer workshops that would teach acting, among other things.
“A lot of it takes funding,” Ebanks notes.
Ultimately, she says, it boils down to this: “In order for us to increase the entire level of what we’re doing, we need a great level of funding.
But there’s giving as well as receiving.
“We want to participate in more charitable organisations,” says Ebanks, not only to bring recognition to the Playhouse, of which some people are still surprised to learn of, but also to help out others in the community. To that end, the Playhouse is home to the annual telethon of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations and it also hosted the Cayman Youth Choir as part of this year’s Cayman Arts Festival. With these and similar events, the Playhouse is able to attract people who might not have attended before.
Featuring a snappy little bar and a venue that can present video screenings of popular productions, the Playhouse could become a Mecca for casual evenings out, as Ebanks envisions. “We’re going to start to build on that,” she says.
“We’re looking for corporate sponsors who’d like to see more cultural events in the Cayman Islands.”