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Scene Change 

The resident companies of CenterStage pull together to cover cost increases.

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Scott Elmquist

Nearly all of the resident companies of Richmond CenterStage are coming under one roof Sunday for a preview show of their fall seasons. It's the first time they've performed together since the venue's grand opening five years ago.

The Curtains Up event will feature highlights from City Dance Theatre, Elegba Folklore Society, Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare, Richmond Ballet, Richmond Symphony, School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community, Virginia Opera and Virginia Repertory Theatre.

But this isn't merely a feel-good reunion. It's a fundraiser to help offset a rise in rental rates for the resident companies that use the Carpenter Theatre stage.

"We have not raised the rent in those five years — it's stayed flat," says Dolly Vogt, regional manager for SMG Richmond, which books and manages the CenterStage venues. "But about a year and a half ago I informed the groups that use the Carpenter the rates would go up $100 a day."

The increase, which went into effect July 1, brings rent to a range of $1,150 to $2,700 per day. Rental fees vary according to day of the week and purpose of use — rehearsal or performance.

Vogt says the increase was necessary because of rising utilities, labor costs and refurbishing costs. Rental costs remain the same for groups that use smaller CenterStage venues such as Gottwald Playhouse and Rhythm Hall.

Before it raised rents, Vogt says, SMG studied comparable markets and found its costs were in line with most of them, "right in the middle."

No group has indicated that the rental hike will force it out, says Ryan Ripperton, chair of the resident company association.

"Our discussion with [CenterStage] hasn't been so much that the rates are too high, but that they are so much higher than the market in town," says Jan Powell, director of Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare — "more than twice, sometimes three times what we pay in other locations. At a certain point, when we can't turn a profit at all, it becomes unsustainable."

In 2012, Richmond Shakespeare pulled out of CenterStage because of high fees, moving shows to St. Catherine's School. Vogt says she's since reformulated the rent to work with the company — now merged with Henley Street — and the Richmond Symphony on a cost-per-day basis, considering what they can afford.

But after previously holding half of its six four-week productions at Gottwald in the past, Henley has only one on the books this year.

Vogt says that she understands the hardship that rental increases mean for all the arts groups, particularly the smaller ones.

"I'm much more sensitive than I was five years ago. It was a learning curve the first year," she says. "They [smaller groups] opened the books to me and we're trying to keep the rates down because their budgets are so tight. Even $25 is a lot."

The Sept. 14 fundraiser is meant to help the Carpenter groups in the short term. Proceeds will go into an account that will be used to keep rents flat through the year, Vogt says. In addition, a matching grant from the Carpenter Foundation, which supports many of the resident companies, will serve as a buffer.

Steve Rogers, the chairman of the CenterStage board, says by email that the venues are working to stay financially sound: "With the Altria Theater restoration nearly complete we are focused on building sustainability in operations and adequate financial resources to be responsive to the needs of the arts education program and our arts partners."

Curtains Up will be held at the Carpenter Theatre on Sept. 14. Tickets start at $25 for adults and $12 for children younger than 15, and are available at RichmondCenterStage.com. Proceeds will support CenterStage and the missions of its resident arts companies, including those not performing at the event: African American Repertory Theatre, Broadway in Richmond (Jam Theatricals), the Richmond Forum and Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond.

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