A story about theater companies no longer staging productions at El Cerrito High School inaccurately reported comments by Jennifer Boesing of Youth Musical Theater Co. Boesing said the West Contra Costa school district did not insist the company pay union wages to support staff but rather that the district is charging rates comparable with theaters with union technicians even though the El Cerrito theater is a nonunion facility.
EL CERRITO -- In an apparent situation of competing worthy priorities, nonprofit drama and music companies are saying they are taking their productions out of the El Cerrito High School theater because of recent large fee increases for using the multimillion-dollar facility.
Mark Streshinsky, artistic director of Berkeley-based West Edge Opera, said he received a pair of rate increases in the past year, one that effectively doubled his costs and a second that raised them another 80 percent.
West Edge completed a production of "The Turn of the Screw," an opera by British composer Benjamin Britten, at El Cerrito High this summer.
The company has switched to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre for its September production of "Vanessa" by Samuel Barber because it can no longer afford the rates at El Cerrito High.
Streshinsky said he tried to offset the first rate increase by taking less time to set up in the theater, but the second increase was impossible to overcome.
"I asked them to give me some warning if they were going to increase the cost, but they presented me with the new rates with no warning at all," he said.
West Edge ticket prices are $65 for seats with no view obstruction at Berkeley Rep. Nonetheless, ticket sales cover only about 40 percent of the company's costs, with most of the rest coming from private donations, Streshinsky said.
Likewise, Berkeley-based Youth Musical Theater Co. began using a couple of theaters in Oakland when the rates went up after one production in El Cerrito this summer, according to company director Jennifer Boesing.
Youth Musical Theater is a training company for musical theater for middle school through college-age youths, including some El Cerrito residents, Boesing said.
"We had a great run of 'West Side Story' there," she said. "It's sad it didn't work out better."
She said the district charged rental rates and required that the companies employ a number of support staff typically found in productions with union workers, which is not the case at the El Cerrito theater.
"There's a lot of nickel and diming over the fees," she said. "They are treating it like you have (professional) support, but you don't have the professionalism."
Even beyond the fees, Boesing said she is going to find it difficult to find dates for three productions a year since school events get priority.
"They basically say that anything at the school can trump you," she said. "The district doesn't know what they have and doesn't know how to treat it."
West Contra Costa school district Finance Director Sheri Gamba said the district increased the rates after it did a survey that showed that it was losing money on renting out the theater.
Gamba said she met with Streshinsky and told him his costs might have to go up but that the district was unable to determine how much until the survey was completed.
"Prior to implementing this fee schedule, we were charging nothing for energy use, safety inspections, depreciation to the theater and other costs," she said. "I talked to Mark about how we could make this theater viable without encroaching on education funds for students."
Gamba said the issue of the district requiring outside theater companies to overpay for support staff never came up.
"It's a very sophisticated theater with a lot of moving parts," she said. "It requires a certain number of staff members to insure safety and preservation of our assets."
City Councilwoman Janet Abelson said it is "very disappointing to El Cerrito" to lose the productions.
"(The theater companies) are nonprofit organizations and operate on very little money," she said. "It would be a shame to lose them, but it looks like for next season that is probably what is going to happen."
Councilman Mark Friedman, who is also on the city's Arts and Culture Commission, said El Cerrito has been trying to improve its cultural offerings.
"We are certainly lacking in live music venues and a broader range of performing arts," he said. "Whatever we can do working with the school district to have a broader range of events, I'm all in favor of that."