After nearly 40 years, StageSource announces its closure
Founded in 1985, StageSource, a subscription model nonprofit organization that worked to welcome, connect and support local theater artists, is closing up shop. Launched during a time when fundraising telethons were televised, and Google was nonexistent, StageSource, at its start, used phone recordings to share auditions, hosted parties to cultivate community and even published a pamphlet that listed upcoming theater productions (that later went digital). But, with dwindling membership numbers, smaller audiences in theaters due to the pandemic, and loss of the theater workforce, StageSource’s board decided to shut down the organization.
StageSource's interim executive director and longtime member Mary ElizaBeth Peters said in a statement, "In recent years, even prior to the pandemic, StageSource membership levels had plateaued, creating financial challenges for the organization, and when theaters began to reopen after the COVID-19 shutdown, many members had either left the industry or left the geographic area. With fewer productions locally, there were fewer job opportunities, leading to a further decline in membership renewals and associated revenues. The StageSource board did not see a clear path forward to sustainability."
Though the organization also accepted donations and other funding and board members supported fundraising efforts, it relied on membership fees to run.
Dawn M. Simmons, co-founder and artistic director of the Front Porch Arts Collective, led StageSource as the executive director from 2018-2021, and remembers when individual membership numbers were good, hitting around 2,000, she said. Later, they fell between roughly 1,400-1,600 at one point. The staff of three with a budget of about $250,000 worked incredibly hard, Simmons added. She served as director of programs before leaving the organization and returning later for the leadership role.
But before the pandemic, membership was plateauing, said Michelle M. Aguillon, StageSource’s board president. At the height of the pandemic, when on phone bank duty, she called members to see if they wanted to renew their membership.
“I remember speaking to a couple of artists that said, ‘I moved out of the area because I couldn't get a job, or I really can't afford that right now. I'm already struggling to find work,’” Aguillon said. “Trying to find a way to move forward and be sustainable. It was harder and harder to find and it was getting very challenging.”
"Trying to find a way to move forward and be sustainable. It was harder and harder to find and it was getting very challenging."Michelle M. Aguillon, StageSource board president
StageSource's memberships are listed on the website at $70 for individuals, $35 for theater lovers and $35 for students, and organizational memberships range from $165-$825. Cost, Simmons said, isn't something that StageSource wanted to be a barrier. StageSource always aimed to make membership and, therefore access to resources affordable.
And even though StageSource tried to make it affordable by not exponentially raising fees each year, which Aguillon always appreciated, "it makes it hard [for the organization] to sustain [itself] when you do that several years in a row," she said.
Still, despite the organization's financial challenges and the introduction of the internet (and social media), StageSource held on. Its long run might be due, in part, to its ability to respond to the changing needs of an evolving theater community whenever possible.
Over the years, through the work of several leaders including Jeff Poulos, Julie Hennrikus, and Simmons to name a few, the organization launched the Diversity/Inclusion/Gender Parity Task Force and published a report that details how to frame conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion and gender parity on and off stage along with proposed action steps and available resources. StageSource also created the Line Drawn initiative that aspired to "create safer and more equitable work environments," and Prop Co-Op, a shared props storage warehouse serving New England theaters. They also developed the Gender Explosion initiative that created events for and by trans artists, addressed the need for self-care and advocated for anti-racism.
As its time winds down, StageSource's leaders are hoping to find homes for some of the programs, including "job fair, annual auditions, Prop Co-op, Line Drawn, Gender Explosion, A11Y, Expo and Circle of Friends," which Peters listed in her statement.
Membership-model organizations, especially in the arts sector, aren't novel. Local organizations such as ArtsBoston, Boston Dance Alliance and Boston Singers' Resource still exist, but others in the U.S., such as the Minnesota Theater Alliance and the Los Angeles Stage Alliance (amid controversy), have also buckled.
For StageSource, there's no final closing date yet, Aguillon said.
Sunsetting an organization is complicated and there's still much to be done. "We've been told it could be six months. It could be two years... There's a lot of moving parts," Aguillon explained.
"The arts sector, along with the world, is changing so rapidly that I think that everyone is thinking about what's needed right now."Catherine Peterson, ArtsBoston executive director
What's clear is that those who relied on StageSource will miss it.
Former StageSource board president Scott Edmiston, a professor at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, has fond memories of StageSource, which helped him connect with the theater community when he first moved to Boston.
Edmiston talked of regional auditions, sharing ideas and StageSource's celebration that he said was called "The Party." "It didn't matter if you were an artistic director or worked in the box office. We'd hire a band, we'd all get dressed up, and we celebrated the end of the season."
On Jan. 23, StageSource announced its end on Facebook. Some supporters asked questions about their recently renewed memberships while others shared sentiments in the comments section or made posts of their own.
"Sad to hear this," wrote Evan Turissini, theater artist and Actors' Shakespeare Project director of marketing and communication. Turissini added, "So many people in this area rely on StageSource for information and services, and the work StageSource did is at the forefront of so much growth in the Boston theatre scene."
Kristina Stevick, artistic director at History Alive, Inc. in Salem, shared, "As a producer, I've depended on it for years. And I can still remember dog-earring the paperback annual guide and taking notes from the weekly hotline recording as a young actor."
But what of the space that StageSource leaves behind?
"The arts sector, along with the world, is changing so rapidly that I think that everyone is thinking about what's needed right now," said Catherine Peterson, executive director of ArtsBoston. "And it's an opportunity to think afresh about what the priorities are and what is the business model that can make it work? I think it is a real wake-up call."