Last Wednesday night, Barbara Beckley got a familiar feeling of relief, as the Colony Theatre's production of "Falling for Make Believe" successfully completed its first preview performance at the 270-seat nonprofit Burbank venue. The usual suspense in the weeks leading up to that first night was now behind the theater's artistic director, even as another worry was always nearby.
"Once a show is running, we all breathe a little bit," says Beckley, who has been with the Colony for more than 37 years. "The hard part is getting it going. Any theater person will tell you that."
The new show is an original play written by Mark Saltzman originating at the Colony: a musical biography of the lyricist Lorenz Hart, composer of the standards "My Funny Valentine," "Manhattan" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," among dozens of other instantly recognizable songs co-authored with Richard Rodgers.
"This is the first time his real story has been told," she says of Hart, a closeted gay man in the 1930s and '40s, a man who possessed great gifts, but who suffered from depression and alcoholism before dying at age 48 from exposure. "It explores that side of his life, and it's done very tastefully."
But Burbank theater-goers no doubt noticed the absence of any scheduled productions after the Hart show ends its run on May 19. That marks the end of the current Colony season, and in a normal year, there would be another season scheduled to unfold within weeks. Not this time, as the theater's ongoing financial problems remain unresolved.
"After all the ups and downs of the past year, we were thrilled we able to get the financing to make it to the end of the season," says Beckley of the theater, based for a dozen years in the heart of downtown Burbank after a quarter-century in Silver Lake. "I absolutely didn't want to be one of those theaters that closes and leaves subscribers holding tickets they can't use."
On Oct. 27, an emergency "Save the Colony" fundraising campaign was launched, but fell short of the $500,000 the Colony hoped to raise by January. That amount would have funded two shows and allowed some rebuilding of staff and marketing resources, while paying off some debts. But that didn't happen, in spite of an emotional outpouring of support from the theater's regular clientele, including a 3,000-member subscriber base.
Some large donations came in at the beginning of the drive, but most arrived in the form of $25-to-$100 gifts from fans, small amounts that Beckley insists "add up," though it wasn't enough to keep the Colony's usual seasonal plans alive.
"The letters just brought me to tears," she says of correspondence from theater regulars. "There's a lot of people who would be heartbroken if we closed our doors, but none of them have deep pockets."
A challenging economy has hit the Colony hard. In the last year theater management has laid off half its six-person staff and cut its overall budget by 17 percent after already cutting back on production costs with smaller casts and less elaborate sets. The theater will not close, Beckley says, but she is not yet prepared to announce the Colony's plans for another season.
"We have some irons in the fire," Beckley says. "When we have something to announce, we will announce."
Until then, the theater will survive by hosting outside events and rentals.
Beckley describes the theater's returning fans a particularly faithful group.
"They skew older, which is actually pretty typical of subscription theaters," she says. "About 10 percent come from Burbank and, the rest come from all over. People drive up from Orange County and the West Side. People drive from Camarillo — long distances. I wouldn't do it, but they do, and it is quite remarkable."
"Just hang on," Beckley says to Colony supporters of the financial uncertainty. "Meanwhile, come see the show."
Follow Steve Appleford on Twitter: @TCNArts.