Ready for a revival – Will changes at Foothill Theatre put it back on track? |

Ready for a revival – Will changes at Foothill Theatre put it back on track?

On Monday, The Union looked at how Nevada City’s regionally respected Foothill Theatre Company saw its finances plunge into the red. Today, organizers explain how they plan to get back on track.

The desire for a fresh start and concerns over fiscal management prompted the board of directors to end Philip Sneed’s 12-year run as artistic director of the Foothill Theatre Company. It was a decision that Sneed said came as a surprise to him.

“I was given absolutely no notice that my position was at risk,” he wrote recently, “and no opportunity to address the board’s concerns – no probationary period, no chance to respond in any way.”

After a performance review that started last summer, the board decided to dismiss Sneed at a Jan. 15 meeting that left director Nancy Hoagland “emotionally exhausted.”

Sneed, who served as the company’s business manager and artistic director, was held accountable for piling up a $230,000 debt over a four- to five-year period.

But, said board member Terry McAteer, the deficit wasn’t the only reason the board decided to make a change.

“I don’t want it to be perceived that Philip was excused solely because of financial issues,” he said. “We just really looked toward a new vision for the company.

“We decided we needed a new look for this company. We needed a fresh start financially. We need a fresh start in terms of an artistic vision.”

The transition

Sneed’s severance package included three months’ pay with medical insurance – his salary was $32,000 a year, according to McAteer.

He also agreed to direct the company’s first production of the 2005 season, “Around the World In 80 Days,” and he will star in “New Voices of the Long Shadow,” which opens May 5 at the Nevada Theatre.

The board also created the position of executive director to run the company’s business affairs. Sharyn Cleary, who joined Foothill in January 2004 as marketing director, was hired for the job. Production manager Scott Gilbert was named artistic director.

“There’s an enormous amount of what Philip started and that is currently going on that I really admire,” Gilbert said. “A large part of my job is to maintain and continue the exciting things that Foothill does.

“I don’t think I’d be completely fulfilling my job if I didn’t look for opportunities to do what we do even better and to do new things that reach out into the community more, that get more people involved.”

But the theater-going public isn’t likely to see many changes until next year. Gilbert said it will be a challenge to finish the 2005 season and that he will start considering new initiatives in the fall.

“The focus of what Foothill Theatre does is quality, excellent theater,” Cleary said. “That’s not going to change. The restructuring will make it possible for us to support the artistic side even better.”

A turn to fund-raising

Cleary said she hopes to hire a new marketing director soon and is still accepting applications for the position of development director – a key position in the company and the subject of controversy in the recent past.

Foothill gets just 15 percent of its revenue from donations and grants. Most similar companies get half of their revenue from those two sources. The company has been without a development director since last July, when Tim Orr left to become general manager of the Sacramento Ballet.

Sneed believes the lack of contributed income caused some of the problems he had with the board.

“The problem, in my opinion – and where I’m certainly at fault – is overly-optimistic income projections, mostly on the contributed income side,” he wrote.

“We have not had full-time staff members committed to marketing (which brings in earned income) and development (which brings in contributed income) until recently.”

This is not a new issue for the company, said Alison Jones-Pomato, who served two stints on the board for a total of 121Ú2 years and left as president in December.

“During my first stint on the board, we had several successful fund-raising events,” she said. “But there have not been any in several years. There was no campaign to cultivate business support … but we had always budgeted for that income.”

Climbing out of debt

McAteer said the board has adopted a conservative budget for 2005 (it assumes a subscription increase of just 3 percent), and has trimmed expenses so that it can start retiring the company’s debt.

The company expects to retire over $175,000 of its debt by the end of 2007, according to McAteer. The debt-reduction plan assumes that income will average $993,000 a year through 2007 and that the company will end each of the next three years with a surplus.

A computerized accounting system has been implemented, and payroll will be handled by an outside company to keep Foothill Theatre on track, McAteer said. “Structurally, this company is very sound.”

Current and former directors interviewed by The Union expressed confidence in Foothill Theatre’s future and sadness over Sneed’s fate.

“Phil’s a very dear friend of mine,” said Jones-Pomato. “He’s done a tremendous job there. He’s built us into not only a bigger company, but a better company. … It’s really a tribute to Phil.”

Diane Fetterly of Nevada City, who founded the company in 1976 and served as artistic and executive director for 13 years, hopes the changes in Foothill’s structure and top personnel is for the better.

“I hope that what the change does is bring strength to the company,” she said. “They’ve taken a drastic step here. I hope it works.”

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