Trinity Rep educates, stimulates on road to fiscal security

A RICH, AND NOW PROSPEROUS HISTORY: From left, Tom Parrish, executive director; Meg Donnelly, cutter/draper; Curt Columbus, artistic director; and Amanda Downing Carney, costume shop director, review costumes for the upcoming production of “A Christmas Carol.”   
 / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELeY
A RICH, AND NOW PROSPEROUS HISTORY: From left, Tom Parrish, executive director; Meg Donnelly, cutter/draper; Curt Columbus, artistic director; and Amanda Downing Carney, costume shop director, review costumes for the upcoming production of “A Christmas Carol.” 
 / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELeY

Business Excellence Awards 2018
Excellence at a midsize company: Trinity Repertory Company


Founded in 1963 and housed in a former vaudeville space, Trinity Repertory Company is transforming the ancient craft of theater as it begins to see the fruits of a long climb toward financial security.

In addition to producing seven mainstage productions annually, Trinity offers a robust arts-education program for K-12 students, trains graduate theatrical-arts students in partnership with Brown University, and hosts community conversations on issues of race, gender and class, among others.

But if not for Trinity’s commitment to developing patron revenue, focusing on its strategic plan, developing great works and building audiences, Trinity’s long-term financial woes, which began before his arrival 13 years ago, might have led to the theater’s demise, says Curt Columbus, the enterprise’s artistic director.

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“We’ve been working tirelessly for [more than] a decade to make strides toward financial stability. Our new leadership team … has raised their game in the last two years, and we’re seeing some great benefits from that,” he said.

The numbers reveal that is indeed the case: Since 2015, ticket revenue has grown 26 percent and annual-fund income 23 percent. Trinity reversed its decline in full-season subscriptions, broke box office records and restructured long-term debt.

By eliminating its persistent $1 million structural operating deficit in 2017, Trinity, with a $10 million annual operating budget, generated positive operating cash flow for the first time in more than a decade. Those efforts earned Trinity a 2017 Initiative for Nonprofit Excellence Best Practice Award for Board/Staff Leadership from the Rhode Island Foundation and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island.

“The team … is focused on growing patron revenue and … on the lifetime value of the patron,” said Tom Parrish, executive director, and a key new leadership team member. “We’re investing more than we ever have on the stage. … We deliver exciting and compelling work that reignites people’s imaginations.”

Building on these successes, including support from a Rhode Island Cultural Facilities bond to implement several physical plant upgrades, Trinity recently created its first consolidated database for ticketing and fundraising that, says Parrish, will help sustain its level of growth.

Columbus considers Trinity’s building, to which the organization is 100 percent committed, one of its greatest liabilities, yet simultaneously a significant development opportunity.

“We’re doing a lot of educational and community work. As we open our arms to more members of the community, we don’t have enough gathering spaces,” he said. “In the 21st century, we need some ‘hangout’ spaces and a more flexible theater.” To that end, Trinity completed a master facilities plan, says Parrish, though Trinity must first assess the feasibility of a capital campaign to implement that plan.

At its core, each year Trinity engages with more than 100,000 audience members, thousands of students who participate in Project Discovery’s student matinee program, the Brown/Trinity MFA students and its own staff of nearly 300 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees.

In recent years, Trinity’s expanded social justice initiatives have engaged Providence police officers in creative workshops, hosted a staged reading and a community discussion about immigration issues and built deeper connections to Rhode Island’s growing Hispanic community. TRAIN, Trinity Repertory Active Imagination Network, says Columbus, offers sensory-friendly shows for individuals on the autism spectrum and with spectrum processing disorders.

Trinity has been recognized for these sustained investments in community engagement and in advancing equity, diversity and inclusion. “We’ve been [committed] to create inclusive spaces and working toward EDI on our staff and in our programming,” said Parrish, who aims to make Trinity a place where everyone feels welcome and respected.

Challenges notwithstanding, the ebullient Columbus finds joy in his work. “The kids from ‘A Christmas Carol’ cast come in and are so enthusiastic about being on stage. … It’s watching kids in the audience for [Trinity’s gender-bending] ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and knowing that, for some of them, it will be a life-changing experience,” he said. “Working with Brown/Trinity MFA students, it’s so exciting for me. … I’m surrounded by a great community of theater-makers.”