The Magik Theatre, San Antonio’s only professional resident repertory theater company, has presented more than 160 main-stage and touring shows to more than 2 million children and their families since its founding in 1994.

The nonprofit theater has consistently produced quality programming on a “shoestring budget,” but that shoestring is fraying badly for reasons many struggling theater companies across the United States are all too familiar with.

The Magik Theatre - Children's Theatre of San Antonio Chief Executive Officer Frank Villani. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
The Magik Theatre CEO Frank Villani. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

The Magik Theatre continues to evolve while simultaneously adapting to economic constraints, but Frank Villani, CEO and executive director since 2014, made one thing clear: Strong local support is essential for The Magik Theatre to continue providing programming and productions based on beloved children’s books that help promote children’s literacy.

Making Access to Children’s Theater Possible

The Magik Theatre isn’t the only nonprofit theater company struggling to maintain quality productions in a tough economy. In the past 15 years, the number of nonprofit theater companies in the U.S. has doubled while both audiences and funding have decreased.

Richard Rosen
The Magik Theatre Founder Richard Rosen.

Richard Rosen, The Magik Theatre’s founder and first executive director, has emphasized over the course of the theater’s first 20 years how the nonprofit’s primary goal was to serve as many children as possible, providing many of them their first – and sometimes only – exposure to theater arts.

(Read more: Celebrating 20 Years of Magik Theatre, Here’s to 20 More)

The Magik Theatre has done that by keeping ticket prices as low as $3 per student. Oftentimes, tickets are completely free.

School groups make up about 55% of The Magik’s total main stage attendance, according to Villani. Of the more than 80,000 school children who attend a production every year, 93% are in underserved schools paying the subsidized price of only $3 per ticket. Of that 93%, 7,500 – or about 10% – receive free tickets.

With only 7% of school groups paying the full price of admission – still at a reasonable $4-5 per school group ticket – the nonprofit theater must make up the difference in other ways in order to continue promoting children’s literacy.

Making Up the Difference While Fulfilling a Mission

The balancing act of keeping ticket prices low to provide children access to theater while maintaining a sustainable model as a nonprofit organization has been ongoing. Revenue and funding have fluctuated for various reasons: The prolonged construction in Hemisfair Park over the past two-plus years and the leadership changeover as founder Rosen retired have both impacted attendance. Budget shortfalls are being addressed in a variety of ways.

The Magik Theatre executives continue to adapt to the compounding realities of so many subsidized and free tickets over the theater’s 22-year run by devising a plan to erase its debt that in 2015 totaled $350,000.

In the last year alone, Villani reduced the theater’s debt from $350,000 to $250,000 by streamlining operations. The current plan in place will eliminate the debt over the course of the next two to five years, depending on the amount of funding the nonprofit receives.

“The trajectory we have followed at The Magik Theatre is so different from other artistic venues,” board member Penelope Harley said. “If you come up against a deficit like we have, most artistic venues take a slash and burn approach. Frank has come up with a sustainable model for the theater to maintain the theater’s mission.”

Children participate in Camp Showbiz,The Magik Theatre's summer arts program.
Children participate in Camp Showbiz,The Magik Theatre’s summer arts program. Credit: Courtesy of The Magik Theatre

That trajectory includes expanding the revenue streams in several ways that continue to fulfill the theater’s main goals.

The Magik Theatre started staging some of its shows at the Empire Theatre in early 2015. These shows have the same quality of performance, but incorporate the improved technical capabilities available at the Empire. The tickets sell for more than when performances run at The Magik Theatre and should, thus, help boost revenue.

The new Magik Performing Arts Center opened in 2015 and will double The Magik Theatre’s capacity in terms of arts education. The second location at 5953 Casa Bella in northwest San Antonio is a 5,000 sq. ft. space that allows for performances as well as outdoor activities. It will also host The Magik Theatre’s for the Very Young initiative, which relies on interactive performance to connect its youngest students to art and literature.

Opening the new location will help The Magik Theatre further realize its goal of reaching and maintaining sustainability as an enduring nonprofit.

“We’re undertaking an evolution rather than revolution,” Villani told the Rivard Report. “We all share in the same vision of the model for what The Magik Theatre is – a theater supporting children’s literacy for all children, not just the ones from families who can afford the ticket prices. But we’re in the era of theater arts that requires we use a data-driven approach to sustainability with maximum impact.”

‘Transformational’ Funding and the Way Ahead

Magik Theater's new managing artistic director Frances Limoncelli. Photo courtesy of Magik Theater.
The Magik Theater’s new Managing Artistic Director Frances Limoncelli.
Magik Theater's new managing artistic director Frances Limoncelli. Photo courtesy of Magik Theater.
The Magik Theater’s new Managing Artistic Director Frances Limoncelli.

Frances Limoncelli took over as managing artistic director of The Magik Theatre after founder Richard Rosen retired. She stressed that the theater’s values are reflected in everything it does: educational programs for incarcerated youth, summer theater camps, and classroom curriculum that is developed for every show is all done in the name of promoting literacy.

“For every show that is produced here, there is supporting classroom material and curriculum developed to support educational programs,” Limoncelli said. “At The Magik Theatre, we are passionate about promoting literacy and exposing all children, especially underserved children, to the arts.”

We discussed how the theater could eventually develop new productions that go beyond the elementary school-aged books typically featured in current programming. With so many excellent books for middle school-aged children dealing with difficult issues like bullying, low self-esteem, and pressure, one urgent need is to develop new theater programs for middle schoolers, Villani and Limoncelli both agreed.

“But we’ll need resources and the space to fulfill that long range vision,” Villani said.

The goal in detailing the financial challenges The Magik Theatre faces is to help the community understand how much it costs to produce high-quality art, especially art that helps turn children into avid readers.

“This debt didn’t happen overnight, and it can’t be paid overnight,” Villani stressed. “We will pay our debt over time; our creditors have been working with us on an ongoing basis.”

The organization’s earned revenue is roughly $1.2 million a year. Villani told the Rivard Report that about 25% of the monthly administrative budget goes toward paying off the debt.

According to Villani, this year is critical. With Rosen retiring, many funders may take a “wait and see” approach and hold back on their philanthropic giving to the theater.

The current plan includes soliciting additional support from funders who will understand the theater’s need for “transformational” funding so it can move ahead with plans for modernization and new programming for middle school-aged children.

“This city would be a much poorer city without a children’s theater dedicated to promoting children’s literacy,” Limoncelli said.

Transformational funding would help ensure San Antonio does not lose its only professional children’s theater company, and the many resources and programs The Magik Theatre provides for the more than 200,000 kids who benefit annually. A city on the rise cannot afford to lose artistic resources, especially those that help promote literacy in children.

Iris Gonzalez

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science, and veteran affairs. She won the Texas Veterans Commission Media Excellence Awards for her 2016 Veterans Day story "Life as a Veteran: What Veterans...