Idealism kept the curtain rising at the Brattle Theatre for four years; the group of young actors who organized Brattle went into business with little else. They had a building, and they were confident that their talent and enthusiasm would bring the audiences of Irving Berlin and Oscar Hammerstein back to William Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw. They were right. But even though appreciative audiences filled their theatre, and although the group won national acclaim for its repertory, Brattle never made any money. The company sliced its salaries to subsistence and some of the members dipped into their pockets to subsidize the others; still, during the four years Brattle lost $35,000.
For some of the actors remaining was doubly difficult. They received offers which would have meant much higher salaries than Brattle could afford. They stayed because of their idealism; producing serious theatre was important and they optimistically thought that in time Brattle would issue financial statements printed with black ink. It never did, and as the deficit grew the ardor began to fade. Members of the original company left for Broadway, the Old Vic, radio, and television. Others gave up theatre completely, leaving only a few to decide whether or not the Brattle will reopen.
Those who remain realize that Brattle failed because the enthusiastic actors were poor businessmen. They cared more about elaborate costumes and sets than balanced budgets. They brought a production to New York and hardened professionals outsmarted them. Over-ambitious, they scheduled plays they could not afford and brought in well-known actors who commanded salaries five or six times as high as the ones they gave themselves. When they finally discovered that idealism is a liability in a theatre's front office, they were already heavily in debt.
With a fresh start, Brattle will probably not trip again. Benefitting from four years of mistakes, Bryant Haliday, Brattle's general manager, produced three plays this summer, profiting to the extent that the theatre did not lose money and the performers received adequate pay. Now the going will be easier, since the City of Cambridge has granted Brattle a liquor license. This will provide an extra source of revenue, as it has for the Boston Symphony.
To renew production, however, Brattle must have $20,000 to pay old debts and fill the gaps in personnel. While contributors have pledged $10,000 the Brattle Corporation may have to sell the theatre if it does not get the other half, which can only come from outside subscriptions, within the next few weeks. To encourage larger contributions, Brattle has followed the Symphony's example, reorganizing itself into a non-profit corporation, so that gifts are tax-deductable. This money will go into a trust, and the Brattle will not touch it until there is $20,000 then, only to produce again.
Experience has shown the Brattle Company that the theatre has a business as well as an artistic side to it, and they must attend to both. Haliday and his group still believe in repertory theatre, but idealism alone will no longer keep the curtain up. The audiences which have applauded Brattle must become its angels, trusting that, once on the stage, the Brattle Company will not step down again.