Flashpoint Theatre, which has presented fresh works since its founding in 2004, announced last week that it will be closing in 2016, citing financial hardship. “We’ve grown artistically a lot in the last few years and that has translated to our costs being higher,” said Samantha Wittchen, chair of the board of directors. Although she saw higher levels of production as great accomplishments for the company, the funding streams were not keeping pace. “If we kept operating, we might’ve run into some cash flow issues,” she said.
Flashpoint was founded by five graduates of Drew University, and its mission, which has remained throughout the years, was to produce socially provocative and emotionally resonant works of contemporary theater while supporting diverse, emerging artists. The company has produced 12 Philadelphia premieres and one world premiere, Hands Up: 6 Playwrights, 6 Testaments. Cofounder Michael Osinski left the company after six seasons but remained impressed with the company’s bold, adventurous direction. He hopes that other theater companies can continue to do similar work — work that challenges audiences with questions “about the way we’re living, the way we’re treating each other, and the sort of people that we want to be,” he said.
The decision to close Flashpoint comes on the heels of the cancellation of the company’s yearly hallmark production, The Santaland Diaries, which would have been in its 12th season, as well as the termination of its four staff members in early November. Wittchen explained those decisions as moves to reduce expenditures.
A shocking announcement
Both of those decisions came as a shock to the staff, including artistic director Thomas Weaver, who had been with Flashpoint since the fall of 2010. The staff wasn’t privy to Flashpoint’s closure until the official announcement. The board had previously contemplated closure only as a hypothetical option to alleviate the company’s financial woes; they didn’t consider it as a concrete solution until they realized the company’s declining financial situation wasn’t going to improve.
Although Weaver had endorsed moving the company to a summer-only season starting in 2014 in order to take advantage of the relative lack of live theater in the region during those months, the Santaland cancellation disappointed and frustrated him. The move reflected a fundamental, honest disagreement between the board and the staff about the management of the company and what was fiscally responsible, stemming from genuine concern on both sides for the good of Flashpoint.
“We were of the opinion that we raise money by creating work, which is ostensibly the product of the theater company,” said Weaver. “[The board] felt strongly that we couldn’t continue to produce work while we were facing a debt.”
With the board steering away from financial risk-taking at the expense of artistic production, the staff did not want to continue on Flashpoint’s trajectory. “There was a choice presented to the board saying that either this has to change, or we have to go away, and the board chose to let us go,” Weaver said.
According to Wittchen, “The staff hadn't experienced these kinds of measures before, and they were unwilling to operate within the confines established.”
In any case, loss of Flashpoint will not diminish its legacy in the Philadelphia theater community as a company that jumpstarted the careers of actors, designers, and technicians; treated people well; and challenged normative perspectives.
A larger pattern
Flashpoint’s demise is a result of the dearth of funding available for the arts and can be seen as a reason to push for more. “We need to be doing a better job of cultivating the next generation of arts supporters,” Wittchen said. The Philadelphia theater scene is surely vibrant, but it cannot thrive without financial and audience support.
Weaver is truly grateful to the board for all it did for the company over the years, despite the disagreements at the end, and he calls his experience at Flashpoint the most meaningful of his life. “It is far and away the most important and valuable and fulfilling thing I’ve ever done as an artist,” he said.