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Theater struggles to stay in the black

The Spanish Lyric Theater's founder says its situation is "quite bleak,'' but it will finish the season.

By MICHAEL CANNING

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 2000


TAMPA -- Like the la Cenicienta character of its Cinderella adaptation, the Spanish Lyric Theater is making it to the ball in full regalia, but just barely.

At a Thursday meeting, the board of the 41-year-old Tampa theater company addressed its current financial straits. Belying the trademark luxurious costumes, stage sets and live orchestra accompaniment of SLT productions are steadily declining ticket sales, a lack of corporate sponsorship and a $5,000 debt eradicated just in time to save the final two shows of its season.

Though SLT founder and artistic director Rene Gonzalez described the theater's current situation as "quite bleak," he added, "we will be getting the money to finish off the season. But there's a cash flow problem now."

Private donors have recently stepped up to ease the SLT's most pressing debts, but Gonzalez estimates that attendance is down by 150 at each of the four big, one-night shows the SLT stages each season. "At 150 per show," said Gonzalez, "you're talking about $3,000. And you multiply that by four, and you've got $12,000."

Cultural attrition is the leading factor in the theater's declining ticket sales. Specializing in traditional Spanish operas, or zarzuelas, the SLT has historically appealed mainly to Tampa's older Latin residents. The aging of this audience, coupled with their offspring's assimilation into modern American culture, has meant diminishing returns for Tampa's longest-running Hispanic theater.

The SLT's board of directors created two committees at Thursday's meeting to combat its problems. One will try to land corporate sponsorships, and the other will handle public relations and marketing. SLT board member Jose Vivero said repeat sponsors will be particularly prized, "so we can count on a budget and know exactly what money is coming in on a regular basis." The task facing the marketing committee may prove to be more challenging over the long term. As the march of time has slowly decimated its core audience, the theater has recognized the need to find or create a new one. Doing so by crossing ethnic lines is one possibility, but not an encouraging one, according to SLT board member Mario Pasetti.

"A lot of my Anglo friends are becoming interested in what is Spanish now," Pasetti said. And they will go (to SLT shows), but they're not steady."

Pasetti thinks opportunities might lie in presenting shows that relate to the myriad Latin populations that have emerged in the area besides Tampa's long-ensconced Sicilian, Spanish and Cuban groups. "We have an awful lot of Hispanic communities. We have to start catering to the different Hispanic communities: Mexican, Colombian, Puerto Rican, Cuban, the whole schmear. Just do shows around these different types of people we have represented here in Tampa."

Still Gonzalez feels that the theater that he founded in 1959 while attending the University of Tampa has come to be neglected in spite of its multicultural services.

"We really reach out to a tremendous amount of people, to the entire city of Tampa," said Gonzalez. "Not just to the Spanish-speaking community, because we do a tremendous amount of shows in English as well. We showcase a lot of wonderful talent that's not necessarily Hispanic talent. We're the only organization that's a really true representative of the what the bicultural community of Tampa is all about. But, if the bicultural community of Tampa does not think it's sufficiently important, so be it. We've had a good run."

Remaining on the SLT's slate for this season is an English production of Fiddler on the Roof in March, and a Spanish production of Bohemios in May.

- Michael Canning can be reached at (813) 226-3408, or at canning@sptimes.com.

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