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Youngstown Playhouse sets its sights on 2021

Youngstown Playhouse board President John Cox doesn’t envision the 97-year-old theater being open for full-scale productions until 2021.

But despite the COVID-19 pandemic that has disrupted the economy and all live entertainment, he said the Playhouse is in better shape financially than at any time since it was in danger of closing a decade ago.

The theater received a federal Payroll Protection Program grant and is bringing back its staff starting today.

“We’re obviously going to have to restructure everyone’s job description,” Cox said. “There are projects all of them can do to take advantage of the opportunity of the shutdown.”

Sarah Jane Demetruk, who is box office manager and Youth Theatre director, will shift part of her focus to grant writing to help secure additional funding for the theater.

In addition to the PPP grant, the Playhouse received a second $5,000 grant that can be used for any purpose. The full board still has to vote on it, but Cox would like to use that money to hire a development director, who could help the theater prepare for a federal audit, an important step for any organization with 501-C3 nonprofit status.

“Any huge organization, like the National Endowment for the Arts, won’t consider you (for funding) unless you have that audit,” he said. “We never went down that path before. The last couple of years, when we’ve applied for grants, we were told this is the next step if we want to start pitching for bigger grants … Now that we have this down time, I want to go down the avenues that will give us the most bang for our buck.”

The Youngstown Playhouse saw firsthand its value in the community when it established a GoFundMe page to raise money for immediate bills. Starting with a goal of $2,000, the online campaign has brought in $16,000 so far.

“That right there sets me up ’til November for utilities,” he said. “I’ve got my utilities covered until then … I was really, truly overwhelmed to see how quickly it was raised. It told me, ‘At least we’re going in the right direction.'”

The one issue that remains is how quickly social-distancing guidelines and other restrictions will be lifted to allow live performances again. Broadway is closed until September, London’s West End is shut down until 2021 and prominent regional theaters like the Guthrie in Minnesota don’t plan on returning until spring 2021.

Cox said the Playhouse will look at all possible options — online performances, one-night fundraisers, even allowing smaller community theaters to use the main theater for productions. But he wants to prepare as if the theater will be dark until next year.

The only show currently announced is the musical “The Color Purple” next spring with the same production team responsible for last September’s sold-out run of “Dreamgirls.”

“I’m shooting for relief to get us through the whole year,” he said. “If something can happen before then — awesome, then we’ll have something in the stockpile.”

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