Stoughton Opera House looks for long-term stability

The historic venue’s supporters want to raise $1 million to start an endowment.
 

Madison percussion ensemble Clocks In Motion's stage setup for its February 2016 show at the Stoughton Opera House.

Madison percussion ensemble Clocks In Motion's stage setup for its February 2016 show at the Stoughton Opera House.

The Stoughton Opera House, a historic theater with a capacity of just under 500 that resides on the top floors of Stoughton’s City Hall Building, has become an unlikely success story over the past 10 years. It’s expanded its audience with bookings ranging from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Huun Huur Tu to Aimee Mann to comedians like Steven Wright and Emo Philips, in addition to its bread-and-butter programming of country and folk, which has included pretty big gets like Gillian Welch, Josh Ritter, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Rosanne Cash. A bit like The Shitty Barn in Spring Green, the venue has a solid following right at home and a good number of people willing to make the drive from Madison, and that frequently adds up to sold-out shows. Some seasons are better than others, but it consistently punches above its weight and does all its booking without the help of the bigger show promoters who usually bring such acts to the Madison area. And that’s on top of the challenges of keeping a 115-year-old theater in beautiful shape.

Currently the Opera House is doing OK financially, all things considered. The City of Stoughton pays for about half of its staff and contributes additional support, and the rest of its support comes from ticket sales, memberships, and a local non-profit called the Stoughton Opera House Friends Association, formed in the early 1980s when local citizens banded together to rescue the venue from neglect. Last year’s city budget shows revenue outpacing expenses. But it would still lose money without its city subsidy, and supporters understand that local governments in Wisconsin aren’t exactly flush these days. Two events coming up this week—this weekend's Catfish River Music Festival down in Stoughton and a July 6 show at the High Noon Saloon—will raise money for the venue, which Opera House director Bill Brehm says will go toward immediate needs.

To help the Opera House build on its success, the Friends Association wants to raise $1 million for an endowment. That would create a pot of money that supporters can grow over time through investments and additional donations, while spending some of it to maintain and upgrade the venue. "The city has been very good about supporting us, but there are needs that the city just can't reasonably afford," says Jonathan Lewis, vice-chair of the Opera House board.

Brehm and Lewis would also like to grow the venue's staff. Currently it has only one full-time employee, event coordinator Christina Dollhausen, who in many ways is the public face of the Opera House. (Dollhausen passed on my inquiries for this story to Brehm.) Brehm spends 75 percent of his work time on the Opera House and part-time in another staff role at the City of Stoughton, though he does note that he works 50- to 60-hour weeks, which makes him closer to a second full-timer. A third employee, assistant coordinator Julia Blaikie, also is part-time. That's a staff of 2.75 people, plus a lot of volunteer help from the Friends. Lewis says that a comparable small-town historic theater, the Woodstock Opera House in Woodstock, Illinois, has a staff of 17.

"In the ideal world, we would like to see a director, event coordinator, box office manager, development director, technical director, and perhaps even a couple more positions," Brehm says. "In reality, we would like to see our box office manager [Blaikie] move from 30 hours weekly to 40 hours weekly and also be able to hire additional help with sound, lights, and artist hospitality."

Brehm also wants to keep the booking work in-house. I couldn't help but wonder about this, what with the multinational Live Nation now active in the Madison market through the Orpheum, and bigger locally based companies like Frank Productions and Majestic Live expanding their footprint through different venues and new outdoor concerts. I haven't heard of any of those companies trying to get involved with the Opera House, but could see why a venue with an already-strong following would be attractive.

"One of the places where the Opera House has a real advantage over some of the other Madison area music venues is that we have a strong sense of identity and where we fit within the overall cultural landscape of Dane County... When we book a season we think of it as curation,” Brehm says. "My view is that [other promoters] are always eager to absorb new venues. It would be a terrible shame to see the Ma-and-Pa aesthetic of the Opera House become part of the big-box-store aesthetic of the larger promoters in the area.”

Lewis also says the Opera House needs to do a better job of touting its impact. People in Stoughton love the place, but, he says, don’t necessarily know how much money it brings into the local economy. About 75 percent of Opera House ticket buyers come from outside Stoughton, and they’re buying drinks and meals in town while they’re there.

In addition to installing efficient LED lighting, fixing up some plaster, improving the dressing rooms, and other renovations, the Friends want to do something that all patrons can cheer: Add some padding to the the most tailbone-unfriendly seating in the Madison area. "There are historic remodelers who will do modifications of the seats to put padding ounder the butt in such a way that it’s not a violation of the era of the seats," Lewis says.

For now, though, patrons will have to grab a complimentary seat cushion from the box office and enjoy how much the Opera House has done with relatively little. Find information on memberships and donations here.