Once it was the largest and most powerful theater in town, perhaps in the state. It was courted by the city. It was the critics' darling. And it had a near-monopoly with an astounding 4,500 season ticket holders.
It likely will never be that again. Madison Theatre Guild is working very hard just to overcome its near-death this summer. Despite the loss of status, power and audience over decades, organizers hope that there's still a place for Madison's oldest theater company.
The Guild had progressively become so marginalized since the early 1970s that comparatively small amounts of debt crippled it this year. By July the troupe faced late sales tax and penalties totaling almost $15,000. It nearly lost the venue it helped found, the Bartell Community Theatre, which it owed between $5,000 and $7,000. The Guild board of directors was a revolving door of appointments and resignations; it was not legally constituted and seldom met.
The troupe's nonprofit status was at risk. No one knew which draft of bylaws the corporation was operating under. The annual meeting of its dues-paying membership had not been held since 2005. There were insider concerns about the handling of box office cash, and public records were unavailable or nonexistent.
All of that has changed.
"I feel that the Madison Theatre Guild board has made tremendous strides over the past several months, through the work of many Guild members," says its new president, Gary Albrecht. "The facilities have been cleaned and organized, meetings held regularly, financial reports in order, and we have had a very successful fall production."
Lee Ann Cooper, the Bartell's managing director, praises the turnaround. "Things are looking up for the Guild," she says. "It continues to be an active and reliable member company, and the transition with their new board is working smoothly."
Specific cash policies are now in place. Bylaws are being revised. In late August the general membership elected new officers and a new board. Another membership meeting is already scheduled for January.
Just as important, an anonymous donor has stepped forward with a $20,000 donation, arrangements for which are still being made. The money is both a carrot and a stick. It comes with a condition: "That we get our fiscal house in order," says Albrecht. "There's a feeling that, you know, 'I don't want to give that kind of money and then next year turn around and you're back where you started.'"
Recovery has been a team effort. "Everybody jumped in," says Chrissie Valdez, Guild vice president. "There was stuff to clean up financially, with the building, with every which way. People pitched in. And some worked as a team to get the financials together. They worked with everyone they could find, right away."
"It's a huge job. It's taken a lot of heavy lifting," says Albrecht, who works as an administrator at Cooperative Educational Service Agency, which sells services and programs to school districts.
And the corporation is again fiscally transparent - records are available and up to date. "That's my job," Albrecht says.
Much remains to be done, but the first step back from the abyss was the long-delayed meeting of the general membership on Aug. 28. From a corporate standpoint, the Madison Theatre Guild is different from other area nonprofits in that governance resides with its membership. Around 60 Guild members attended the meeting. Not yet an officer, Albrecht had joined the board in March. Valdez, who continues as vice president, had been on the board only since April.
"There wasn't any yelling, but you could sense hostility," says Valdez, who works as a pharmacy technician at Group Health Cooperative. "I was a little hurt at wanting to be pushed out. I had done nothing wrong, and I had worked really hard to make each show a success."
Says Albrecht, "It was pretty hard for me to take anything personally because I hadn't been involved very much."
News of the donation was announced at the meeting. That allayed some member concerns - enough to return Albrecht and Valdez to a new board.
Dig in and help out
Money alone wasn't enough to guarantee that the Guild would continue. Once the new board met, the deciding factor turned out to be the size of that semi-hostile membership.
"First we had to decide if this was worth saving," says Albrecht. "Everyone around the table, each one of those board members, said absolutely yes, given the interest in the annual membership meeting."
Valdez recalls her surprise at the turnout. "I was very happy to see the huge crowd of people out there that wanted to help. People asked, 'Well, why didn't anyone call us to help?' I said, I'm really sorry, but at the time I didn't know who you were."
She recalls that the split with membership began long before she joined the board, in 2005.
"I think the main problem with the board that existed previously is that it was assembled with the idea of having friends around to work through things," she says. "It was missing people with experience in marketing, administration, accounting and management. With only one or two people on the board who had previous experience, it became overwhelming to those who had to keep the books in order, manage the building, keep track of volunteers, run the shop, and watch over the shows."
This autumn's decision to continue wasn't so much to gamble on the future, but to bank on the past. "I think artists see these kinds of challenges and really want to dig in and help out," says Albrecht. "And also, I think the history is important. Many people mentioned that to me, so there's a lot of pride there."
There's a lot to be proud of in the history of Madison Theatre Guild. It was founded in 1946. In Madison, only the University of Wisconsin has been producing plays longer. At its peak, the Guild had a $900,000 annual budget and enough season ticket holders to fill Overture Hall twice.
The first board meeting was held in the Union Theater. For many years, the troupe produced on stages at local high schools. The school district viewed the community's only theater group as arts outreach. It provided $28,000 plus in-kind services, and it covered staff salaries. Before the Overture Center for the Arts, even long before its predecessor, the Madison Civic Center, theater in Madison was Madison Theatre Guild.
The Guild become so powerful that, in 1965, its participation was seen as critical to the success of the planned Frank Lloyd Wright-designed civic center (today's Monona Terrace). One city council committee forbade construction of any civic center unless the Guild was the anchor tenant. Another possibility was a new $500,000 facility for the Guild near Lakeside Street. The Guild held out for a city purchase of today's Barrymore Theatre.
None of those plans came to pass, and as consolation the city offered the Guild a vacant building, Fire House No. 7, at 2410 Monroe St., for $1 a year. The troupe moved in on Sept. 10, 1967, and has been there ever since.
Those were the glory years, and the Guild spread its wealth. It assisted the fledgling Madison Opera and in 1969 assisted the founding of the Madison Civic Repertory Theatre - today's Rep. The Guild produced a children's series, Broadway revivals and original plays. The troupe held an annual gala and had hopes of becoming the "true Wisconsin state theater," according to one managing director. At the time, it was not a vainglorious dream.
Then the audience and talent pool split. Today traditional Guild fare is produced by, among other companies, Children's Theatre of Madison, Strollers Theatre and even the Rep.
Waxing and waning
The Madison Theatre Guild has almost failed several times in the last 25 years. In 1984 the company rang up $14,000 in debt and was forced to demolish a building addition used as a set shop. New leadership put the troupe back in the black. Then school district support, which had long dwindled, was finally cut off in 1996. After a few years of staggering, new leadership again turned things around. In 2000, an Isthmus article was headlined "Madison Theatre Guild Is Back on Top."
Seven years later, it appeared that the Guild was finally, really dying. "I worked in a year when I could say the Guild was dead," says Valdez.
While the Guild's finances have waxed and waned and waxed again, one continuing problem is finding a niche. "That's one of the questions that came up at the annual meeting," says Albrecht. "What should set Madison Theatre Guild apart from other companies?"
For the moment, says Valdez, popular but edgier shows will be programmed. The Guild recently closed a profitable production of the Reduced Shakespeare Company's Complete History of America (Abridged). The rest of the season will be David Mamet's Duck Variations (opening Jan. 3), Margaret Edson's Wit (depending on availability of rights) and Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods. Thomas Kasdorf continues as artistic director.
One challenge is engaging and organizing the membership. Another is fund-raising, especially grant-writing. Small donations are being received at performances, and Target Stores recently gave the Guild a $1,000 grant. The current board appears light in arts administration experience, but Albrecht hopes that talent will step forward. Shows have been budgeted, but an annual organizational budget is still in the works.
Then there's the firehouse. Once the 1939 building was an asset envied by all other production companies. But it's old, requiring constant upkeep.
The firehouse provides storage for the Guild's extensive costume collection. Costume rentals once covered building costs and a costumer's salary. Today the costumer's position is voluntary - all Guild positions are now voluntary - and business has slackened. The Guild is assessing the degree to which the firehouse remains an asset.
"We have to think about what our liabilities are here," says Albrecht. "No change is envisioned anytime soon, but everything is on the table. We need to be thinking about a wide range of options, not just that this is our home and will be our home for the next 100 years."
Valdez is thrilled with the work that the board has done in the past four months. "It isn't something that we can do alone, though," she says. "We need all of our old volunteers, patrons and artists, as well as new volunteers, patrons and artists, to join and become a part of saving a Madison tradition. Our doors are open to everyone."
Continuing and potential Guild members are invited to the next general membership meeting, at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 28, at the firehouse, 2410 Monroe St.