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Foreshadowing? NYSTI’s Jan. 2010 production of And Then There Were None.

Final Act?

As the New York State budget cuts continue to take their toll, it’s looking particularly grim for the New York State Theatre Institute. So grim, in fact, that it may very well be curtains for NYSTI if funding needs aren’t met—and soon. NYSTI’s troubles became very public with the publication, last April, of a highly critical report by the Office of Inspector General, a report that led to the resignations of the entire NYSTI board and the retirement of founder and producing director Patricia Snyder. As it stands now, the fiscal gap for NYSTI is $200,000; state funding for the theater officially runs out as of Dec. 31.

“We’re riding on a wing and a prayer,” said David Bunce, the company’s current producing director, when asked how prospects looked for meeting their funding needs in such a narrow timeframe. Bunce said that he is aware of the apprehension and cynicism that’s been generated about putting any more funding towards the theater, and how it has affected public perceptions. Bunce added that he knows taxpayers don’t want to see their dollars poured into an institution only to watch it go belly-up in the coming months. However, he argued, if this is the attitude taken by the public at large, NYSTI will be shut down for good.

Bunce remains hopeful about the theater’s plight, though he acknowledges the urgency of the situation. “Most importantly, we need to get everyone on the same page about this; corporate, public and private [donors].” In order to survive, NYSTI will need community commitment as well as a show of support from the state—a level of support that has not, to this point, been forthcoming. It was now-lame duck Gov. David Paterson’s administration that began the phasing out of state funds to NYSTI almost two years ago when a re-merger with the Egg was proposed, long before the IG report made NYSTI’s position much worse. (The merger idea was subsequently dropped.) NYSTI are currently utilizing every outlet they can to get the message out about their need for support.

“NYSTI has not received funds in the past because we are a theater, [but because] we are largely centered around education,” Bunce said. And, indeed the educational mission of NYSTI is unique. “We work with teachers, see what books are being used in classrooms and choose our shows one year in advance accordingly. How many state agencies do that?”

Bunce also pointed out that the last chunk of funding NYSTI received from the state was $1.5 million—about half of what they’ve received in the past for a year’s operations—and that if the theater tried to carry on the same way it has in the past on that funding, it would prove impossible.

NYSTI has proposed that the state provide 50 percent of their budget, and that the rest would be met by fundraising; there has been no response to this proposal. Currently, the ranks of NYSTI employes have shrunk from 28 to 15. Bunce added, “All of these people . . . have taken on second and third jobs, or have taken over the jobs of people who have left.”

In the event of the theater going under in its current incarnation, Bunce suggested that there may be something else on the horizon.

“I’ve talked with Philip Morris from Proctors, as well as the Sage Colleges President, Susan Scrimshaw, about collaborating together,” Bunce said. “We are ‘The Little Engine That Could’! I’m still hopeful.”

—Dana Kowalski

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