Brainstorming to Save Venture

Emotions run high at brainstorming session to save Venture Theatre

January 05, 2013 9:00 pm  •  By Jaci Webb

Emotions ran high during the two-hour meeting where tears flowed from theater volunteers like Amy Casano who said Venture Theatre saved her life. Others, including the founder of the Itty Bitty education program, Wendy Kessler, said Venture has lost its way.

The bottom line, according to the two Venture board members who attended the meeting – Don Sommerfeld and Dane Jorgensen – is the theater was not bringing in enough money to cover its $30,000 monthly expenses.

Sommerfeld reiterated what board member Joan McCracken told The Gazette on Friday that the board was not aware of the community theater’s financial trouble because it was kept hidden. He blamed the former producing artistic director Robert Wood for hiding Venture’s shortfall. Wood was laid off from his position on Dec. 31. Three staff members remain and trustees say they will eventually appoint an interim director.

Jorgensen said there must be more fundraising events to keep the nonprofit theater afloat. He said the board is working on a business plan that will not only help the theater dig itself out of debt, but stay fiscally healthy in coming months and years. He said the theater’s primary creditors include the IRS for payroll taxes due, the city of Billings, and the landlord of the building.

Sommerfeld said that during the board’s 21/2-hour meeting on Friday, the issue on the table was whether or not to keep Venture Theatre open. He said some board members were convinced they should close the theater, which was been in existence in Billings for 20 years.

“I’m one of the board members who voted to keep Venture Theatre open,” Sommerfeld said. “No one can realize how much sleep has been lost by the board in the last 30 days. We realize that we cannot continue to operate the way we have been. There has to be restructuring and the board is aware of that.”

Some of the fundraising ideas thrown out by participants at the public meeting included producing a cabaret show featuring Venture performers; producing more inexpensive shows like Point of View Teen, Wet Ink, and Funky Bunch; and offering patrons the chance to purchase a seat with their name on it.

“I would love to have a seat with my name on it,” actor Sam Herbert said. “I think we could charge $200 a seat.”

Actress Vanessa Dent suggested hosting a live concert to raise money. During the meeting, actress Susan Kennedy Sommerfeld got a text message from George Moncure, owner of Yellowstone Valley Brewing Company’s Garage Pub, offering to host a fundraising show.

Lynn Al, Venture’s Conservatory director, said she has set up an email at saveventure@venturetheater.org to field ideas for fundraisers. Venture’s board is also compiling names of possible donors to help raise the money. The board is meeting at 7 a.m. on Jan. 7 in Conference Room C at the Mary Alice Fortin Center at Billings Clinic. Anyone with ideas for raising money is welcome to bring their suggestions.

Wendy Jam, the mother of a Venture theater student and actress, said Venture Theatre is such a positive force in Billings, it can’t close.

“When an organization has done so much to shape your child in a positive way – we just can’t lose that,” Jam said.