Carmel Community Players retools after lost grant; group facing $75,000 debt, loss of longtime venue

Cash-strapped theater group Carmel Community Players has nixed its summer musical, canceled its Summer Camp for Kids, and pulled out of Carmelfest 2009 after being denied the public funding it has received for years.

Carmel’s City Council decided last month to withdraw its support for the 16-year-old CCP, giving $70,000 to rival Carmel Repertory Theatre, which is beginning its first season.

The veteran organization is beginning its season with $75,000 of debt and without a permanent home, since Carmel officials also evicted CCP from Studio 15 theater, a city-owned space the group has rented since 1993.

"We have been kicked in the gut repeatedly over the past couple weeks," CCP board President Michael Long said. "We have to focus our energy on fund raising and finding venues."

Carmel city attorney Douglas Haney said CCP never had a lease with the city and was occupying the small theater "at the pleasure of the city." Haney said CCP most likely will be allowed to stay until June 30, two days after the group’s "Little Women, The Musical" ends its run at nearby St. Theodore Guerin Catholic High School.

Though the city has no immediate plans for the venue, Haney said officials want to "reassess the use of the property."

"It’s obvious that the council decided not to give funding to CCP, but fund the Carmel Repertory Theatre," Haney said. "We want to keep our options open for the use of the building."

The Carmel council dispersed $458,975 in funding to 11 arts organizations last month, including Carmel Repertory Theatre, which is led by former CCP President Larry Creviston. Members decided not to give the older group the $10,000 Mayor James Brainard had recommended.

"Suppose we gave $10,000 to CCP, and it’s not enough to help them through the season and they go under," council President Eric Seidensticker said. "Then we wouldn’t have made a sound decision with arts funding."

And dividing the available $80,000 between the two groups didn’t make sense, he said, because "it might not have been enough for either one."

The council had to determine which group would be more likely to move forward with productions, he said. Even though the Carmel Repertory Theatre is new, city council members were impressed by the skill set and longevity of its management, which all were previously involved with CCP.

CRT Chairman Creviston said the city funding will cover only half the new group’s expenses. Leaders are applying for other grants and hoping for individual and corporate donations, he said.

Despite the setbacks, CCP members plan to stage a five-show season featuring Pulitzer Prize winners like "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in hopes of attracting larger audiences.

"People are being careful with their money and are more likely to see plays that are proven and that they have heard of," Secretary Lori Raffel said at the unveiling of the new season May 13.

Long, the CCP president, said most of the group’s past shows have not recouped their production costs. Its recent production of "Seussical: The Musical," for example, lost about $6,500.

"Most of our shows haven’t even come close to breaking even," he said. "We are looking for ways to cut costs and continue to operate."

The group’s budget for the coming season is $45,000 to $50,000, Long said, a sharp decline from past years. In the fiscal year that ended in mid-2007, CCP spent more than $112,000, according to its federal tax filing. It received an $80,000 city grant that year.

CCP’s debt is partially due to its multiyear lease on a warehouse used to store props and sets, temporary Treasurer Sue Smith said at CCP’s annual meeting.

"Thanks to our previous management that signed the lease without the consent of the board, we are facing serious debt," Smith said.

CRT’s Creviston, who was CCP’s president when the lease was signed two years ago, said the warehouse deal came together quickly because the facilities were renting out rapidly, but all board members were in agreement.

The funding decisions have sparked controversy in the local arts community, setting online forums such as Indianaauditions.comabuzz with discussion. Such backlash could be the reason some funders use outside committees to make grant decisions.

The Arts Council of Indianapolis, for example, uses a panel of experts, many from outside the state, said spokesman Mike Knight. He did not comment directly on the situation in Carmel but said his group’s approach is intended to "avoid conflicts of interest and provide an independent review of artistic quality, community outreach and impact."

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