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Struggling YTN rallies support, city listens

Island residents, city officials and members of the arts community are rallying to save Youth Theatre Northwest. Less than a week after the theater announced that it was on the brink of financial starvation, the community has come together to keep the Island’s only theater afloat.

More than 40 people filled the small Blue Room of YTN last Thursday during an “emergency meeting” to discuss dwindling funds. According to YTN Executive Director Manuel Cawaling, the “Save YTN” meeting was organized to educate the public about the theater’s dire economic situation and urge Islanders to help the theater raise at least $100,000.

“It’s pretty bad,” Cawaling said when asked about YTN’s financial situation. “I don’t know how to make the next bills. I don’t know how to make payroll next week.”

A small, nonprofit organization, YTN has been hit especially hard by the recession. In the past year, the theater has seen a 50 percent drop in individual donations, a $23,000 decline in tuition revenues and a $6,000 drop in ticket sales. Meanwhile, the theater faces an increase in fixed expenses such as rent, insurance and health care.

The biggest loss, according to Cawaling, has been in individual donations. During the past six months, families have watched their expendable funds diminish along with the economy.

Julie Ogata, a Youth Theatre board member whose 7-year-old daughter, Cienna, is a budding actress, said that YTN has been a remarkable confidence booster for Cienna. To let the theater slip away, she added, would be a small travesty.

“We’re at a point where it’s critical,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful experience for children. My daughter just loves it here, and I’ve seen her grow so much already.”

The goal of “Save YTN” is to raise $100,000, the majority of which will be used to balance the theater’s fiscal budget, maintain payroll and continue educational programs.

“If we don’t raise this money in the next two weeks, we may have to shut our doors,” Cawaling said. “The economy is going to get worse before it gets better.”

Eager to help, those who attended the Feb. 19 meeting offered a number of cost-cutting and revenue-boosting ideas; from double- or triple-casting to auctioning off posters. All of these efforts will help, Cawaling said, but the crucial task is to build capacity.

“Our immediate need is to get into positive cash flow. But for the long-term, we have to start building relationships with corporations and individual donors. We have to become a different organization in order to survive this economy,” the director said, urging members of the audience to spread the word and push for donations. “We’re all here because we believe in YTN. This is our call for action.”

Island thespians are not the only ones looking out for YTN. The city of Mercer Island has also expressed a willingness to help.

During last Tuesday’s City Council meeting, member Dan Grausz asked the board if there was any way that the Mercer Island Arts Council could help support YTN at this difficult time. He also directed his question to Arts Council Chair Helen Martin, in attendance to present the council’s 2008 annual report.

“I’m concerned about the future of YTN. This is one of the few long-term sources of arts production on the Island. I would ask the Arts Council, if you need guidance from City Council, to look seriously at YTN and see where this might fit with your priorities and how [we] can help them survive,” Grausz said.

In response, Martin said that she and Councilmember Bruce Basset, who is the Arts Council liaison, had already met Cawaling to discuss the theater’s situation. Although their discussion was preliminary, Martin agreed that using city funds to help the theater was a possibility.

Grausz asked his fellow Councilmembers if they would be willing to put YTN’s financial situation on the agenda and “facilitate” a solution. Agreeing that more information would have to be collected on YTN’s situation before a dialogue could begin, the Council moved to pursue the motion.

“We will set up a lead-in with YTN to identify the parameters and bring this issue back to the Council for approval,” said City Manager Chip Conrad.

Sign-up has already begun for YTN’s biggest fundraiser, “A Feast Among Friends,” which will be held on April 18. For more information on “A Feast Among Friends” and other ways to donate, visit: www.youththeatre.org.

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