By ALICIA LEONARD
By the time the new year rolled around the DeFuniak Springs Herald began to receive information from concerned citizens that the Florida Chautaqua Theater was no longer available for rental to citizens or groups.
One of those citizens was Ann Robinson, president of The Florida Chautauqua Winter Assembly in the Land of Summer. That group was turned away after requesting a rental. Robinson told the Herald that, due to the overwhelming response to the film festival and radio hour held at the theater last year, she moved as soon as the Assembly was over to secure a rental for this year’s Assembly, but was told that the theater was not available.
Robinson, a former president of the Florida Chautauqua Theater Board and board member in the 90s and early 2000, said she had always questioned that the by-laws for the board had not been properly followed because board members were not respecting term limits specified in the by-laws. “I’ve always followed by-laws of any organization and there were board members on when I was there that had been there forever, probably 15 years.”
Robinson said that during the time she and other citizens were working to build funding for a matching grant for restoration of the theater, she was under the impression that the theater was to be a community place for families to gather and events to be held along with a strong emphasis on creative arts. “I guess I didn’t foresee what was going to come along. We asked the community to buy bricks and I even purchased seats in my family’s memory. We put on shows just to buy an air-conditioner for the building. We raised $10,000 in the community for that one item. Even though the theater is its own entity under a non-profit organization, it’s supposed to be for the community.”
In 2008, Robinson’s group rented the venue last year for $1,750, which included a $250 cleaning fee. “In March 2008, I called to reserve the theater for 2009,” said Robinson. “Beth (Campbell)-Work answered the phone and when I told her we wanted to go ahead and reserve the space for this year she told me that she didn’t think they would be renting the theater anymore. She told me the reason was that they didn’t make a profit on it. But I asked for her to reserve our dates anyway in case they did decide to rent it, our dates would be on the books. I went to the theater a few months later to check on the dates and the rental and met with Cindy Roehm. Cindy told me they had gone up on the price and were still not sure they were going to rent it. She told me it would be $1,500 per day, plus $250 to clean up. So I just said, ‘OK, book me for two nights.’ She told me they had a board meeting coming up and the board might decide not to rent it at all and she would let us know. Two weeks later I received a letter stating they had decided not to rent it at all.”
Robinson said the thought of the theater turning down $3,000 in todays economic climate did not make any sense to her. When asked why she thought the rental was turned down, Robinson responded, “I think there are two reasons. First I was told that none of the board members wanted to stay and house manage the productions there at night and second, because I think it has become the private domain for Beth Campbell-Work and her productions. I’m particularly appalled at how she puts those signs on the doors saying, ‘Your check is due today!’ That’s not us, we don’t need to do that. I resent the people of DeFuniak being asked to donate to that theater and then being shut out of it.”
Robinson said if anything comes from her speaking out, she hopes that, “We can see the by-laws followed. There are people on the board that were there when I was there. Diversity and new ideas are a good thing. I’d also like to see the local artistic community feel more welcome there and be able to use or rent the building for more diversified productions and shows.”
Cindy Roehm, president of the theater board, told the Herald that it was conflicting schedules with their own in-house productions that caused the board to vote down Robinson’s and others rental request for the space. “If it fits into our schedule, we then present it to the board.”
She said insurance rates have also risen to $500 per rental and $10,000 a year on the building itself. “We literally work to keep the doors open and pay the insurance. It’s very hard for some reason for us to get insurance on this building and events. We had no other course but to raise our rental rates,” Roehm said. “Our utilities are phenomenal. We used to clean the building ourself, but now we pay someone to clean and I guess the biggest issue we have, since technically we have no staff, only volunteers – we are not technically setup to be a rental organization. That is not our primary focus. Our primary focus when we fixed this building was to use it for theater and artistic programing. For our needs – which our primary goal is to serve the people of Walton County. We bought this building for Florida Chautauqua, Inc. It’s just like the Little League fields, they use their fields for their leagues. So, our first commitment is to our people. When we plan our calendar, our events take precedent.”
As far as the theater being utilized, Roehm says the theater is always in use except for summer months, “We do take the summer off. If you call here in the summer, it may be weeks before you get a call back. We found that we would put in four intense weeks leading up to one of our productions and then, if you rent the next week, as an all-volunteer organization, who’s going to be there? Who’s going to run it after you have spent the last four weeks working so hard on your own productions.”
Roehm said this has lead to an a addendum being added to the rental agreement. “We added a clause that states when we agree to rent it, someone on the board must volunteer to be here. People say it’s not being used. But they are only looking at when tickets are being sold or on opening night. We have kids in here working on their shows six days a week. Just because a ticket is not being sold does not mean it is not being used.”
“We have never said that the building would not be rented again. That is the furthest thing from the truth. We were approached by both Chautauqua organizations this year. Neither rental request was approved. One for time sake – we had a production ongoing – and we were told by another Chautauqua group that our facility was not adequate and we were not prepared to rent, so we did not rent to them this year, but that was simply due to timing. I feel that is is our responsibility to provide a safe environment here. The people of this town have worked too hard, our community has worked too hard for us to not be good stewards of this building. We have become very specific on our rental contract.”
Roehm says much of the talk surrounding the theater is over a misconception. “This is not a public building. It is owned by a non-profit organization. We use volunteers to build sets. Many do a wonderful job, but it may take them longer to build a set onstage and then we can’t move it during our rehearsals. Most groups don’t understand that we are continually under construction during our shows. When we rent, we do it more as a service.”
“The public funds that were expended on this building was for a 10-year period. The period was past, over two years ago. The bottom line is, if we don’t stay in the black, we will no longer be in existence. We have been in existence since 1977. We have to do productions that will keep our doors open, but we also feel a commitment to the artists in our area and if we have someone come to do a show or speak, we may not be able to pay them much, but we feel artists should be compensated for their work,” Roehm added.
The economy has also touched the theater. “Our crowds for the last two shows have been smaller than in the past. Our workshops are full, but we didn’t have a waiting list this time. We also had more kids request scholarships this year and several of those scholarships are provided for by donors we have. We are in a fund-raising campaign right now. We expect the economy to keep affecting us for the next year or so,” Roehm said.
“One major source of income and the primary focus of the theatre has been its children’s productions. The parents pay Beth for the workshops. Those funds come back to us in the form of a production and that generates great revenue for us. We would love to have more plays, but the way we’re set up, the only time it would be possible would be in the summer.”
Roehm discussed this issue with board members and their term limits, “I’ve been on since the 80s, coming in and out. About five years ago there was a push by people that thought our board had been around a long time. There was a letter that was sent to our board members, kind of insinuated that if you have been around a long time, you should leave. That was a tragedy and should have never have happened. People that are committed to something, that’s in their heart, you can’t just walk away from something. Many people say this is a Cindy Roehm/ Beth Campbell-Work organization. Right now, we both probably put the most hours in here, but it is by no means run by us. We have a 13-member board that makes the decisions for this theater. ” The term limit for board members is three years, after which, “Roehm said, “You’re supposed to be renominated. What if Ann Robinson or Diane Pickett had to remove themselves from their organizations after three years? If you are passionate about what you do, why put a limit on that? I don’t think people should malign someone for having a passion and a commitment.”
Roehm said, “There is a perception that we are not sharing, but we share costumes with both the Chautauqua and with Grit and Grace and many more. We help where we can. We get letters all the time from families who are so happy that their child or grandchildren have a place to learn theater. It’s about the kids and I think there is room for everyone here in town. We are all volunteers here and we think it’s not about the adults and the bickering, we think it’s about the kids.”