Curtains for West Side Story: Western Playhouse suspended for 2017 season


Due to a drastic cut in state allocations, Western has suspended the theater program Western Playhouse for the 2017 season.

Making its debut in 2012, Western Playhouse is an equity theater company that performs three full length productions per summer and casts actors, dancers and stage technicians from across the country. The program was created to give Western students an opportunity to work with professional performers, as well as gain equity points towards their own membership in the Actor’s Equity Association.

President Robert Vartabedian has been working with departments across campus to adjust departmental budgets to compensate for a $1.62 million withholding of state allocations to the university. After much review, it was determined that the 2017 Summer season of Western Playhouse would be suspended due to its lack of profit.  

“We systematically looked at the last five years of Western Playhouse. We looked at the attendance and revenues, and the revenues have increased and attendance has increased, but still not to the extent of being something that would qualify for being an initiative that would have a higher probability of making money than losing money. So, after many meetings and analysis of a lot of data, we made the decision to suspend it,” Vartabedian said.

Despite offering an applied learning advantage for prospective fine arts students, the Western Playhouse has consistently operated at a fiscal loss since the program began in 2012.

Western Playhouse Producing Director and Dean of the School of Fine Arts Robert Willenbrink is disappointed in the lost opportunity for fine arts students, but is hopeful the program will be revived in the near future.  

“The decision to suspend Western Playhouse came from the $1.6 million [withhold] the university is facing. Things have to be withheld, so what that means is with our budget, things we’ve planned for have to be pulled back,” Willenbrink said.

Prior to the state withholdings, Western Playhouse had been scheduled to perform the Broadway musical West Side Story. Due to sudden cancellation, several professional contracts are now under review, and Western will forfeit the down payment for the play rights to West Side Story, as well as the contracted salary and benefits of an equity stage manager.

Western Playhouse co-founder and Executive Director of the Western Institute Gordon Mapley described the loss of the down payments and prior investments as minimal compared to the savings the university will see with the suspension of the summer program.

“There are some investments we’ve made that are in essence a loss because of canceling Western Playhouse. The savings will far exceed the loss, and the savings in terms of dollars can be applied to the budget shortfall,” Mapley said.

For Fiscal Year 2016, the state appropriations accounted for approximately 41 percent of the university’s operating budget. Due to the sudden withholdment of funding in addition to the suspension of Western Playhouse, the university will continue to make cutbacks throughout the remaining fiscal year to compensate for the state withholdings.

“These decisions are never easy, and whether it’s not replacing a faculty member or replacing a faculty member with a non-tenure track faculty member; or delaying technology purposes or suspending Western Playhouse, these are all things nobody wants to do. Each brings with it its own downsides, but we have to balance the budget,” Mapley said.