In the interview for the article addressed in the letter below (ECTC in Limbo, June 15 Advertiser), both the reporter and editor clarified with the interviewees the intent of the article. The intent was to address the necessary change of venue for the theatre and how they were managing that. The reporter brought up interviewing ECHS, with whom ECTC had negotiated, but it was decided it was not necessary, because of our intent, at this time. The ECHS has issued this statement from their President as a Letter to the Editor and we present here for the reader. Editor’s note
June 18, 2016
We were interested to see the article in last week’s paper, “Edgefield County Theatre Company – In Limbo,” but we were also disappointed that your reporter did not contact the Edgefield County Historical Society to get its prospective on this issue. Our Society is keenly aware of the importance of having theatrical performances in Edgefield and we have been very supportive of the Edgefield County Theatre Company from the very beginning.
In 2010, after the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor lost much of its funding and had to cease operating its three Discovery Centers throughout the Corridor, the Edgefield Discovery Center reverted, under its lease agreement, to the Edgefield County Historical Society. At that time, the Historical Society began working with a group of interested persons who had organized themselves as the “Edgefield County Theatre Company” to convert the eastern gallery of the Discovery Center into a “black box” theatre for the production of plays and other uses. This was accomplished by a lot of hard work from volunteers, by a generous contribution from Ms. Paynie Bouknight Tyler of Virginia to create the “William Miller Bouknight Theatre” and by contributions from a number of other supporters.
A “Space Use Agreement” was drafted under which the Theatre Company was to utilize the theatre, with 30% of the revenues from ticket sales going to the Historical Society to assist with the cost of maintaining the Discovery Center. That agreement has been renewed from year-to-year under essentially the same terms.
While the Historical Society does maintain its museum in the western galleries of the Discovery Center, the museum does not have a large flow of visitors and we have determined that it is not feasible to charge for admission to the museum. We do ask for contributions from visitors and do get some revenue from this source.
In the first full year of the Theatre’s operations the Society realized $9,677 from its agreement with the Theatre Company. Unfortunately, after several successful years, the attendance and revenue of the Theatre Company have declined in each year to the point that during 2015 the Society only realized $5,134 from the theatre and experienced an operating loss of over $10,000 – a level of loss which is not sustainable.
Although we have continued to support the Theatre Company in every way that we can, in the last several years our relationship with the Theatre Company has become very unpleasant, due to the increasingly hostile and adversarial approach of its current president, Ms. Mary Benedetto. When our board met with the Theatre Company board in March of this year to negotiate an extension of the Space Use Agreement, we were prepared to go forward on the same terms which had been in place since 2010, but with the proviso that both parties would cease any “adversarial” approaches or attitudes, and would work together for the common goal of providing good and enjoyable theatrical performances. All persons present on both boards agreed in that meeting that they would abide by this provision.
At no time has the Space Use Agreement provided the Historical Society with any control over the selection of plays or the power to interfere in any other way with the operations of the Theatre Company. The Theatre Company has had carte blanche to operate in any way that its board chose. As a practical matter, the utilization by the Theatre Company – counting its practices and performances – has constituted at least 75% of the utilization of the entire Discovery Center, including the vast majority of the heating and air conditioning cost. Despite the substantial financial burden, the Society has been willing to continue working with the Theatre Company.
We did, however, have hopes that the attendance and revenue of the theatre would reverse its downward trend and thereby reduce the financial burden of the Discovery Center. Toward that end, in the March meeting of our boards, several of the Historical Society board members did offer their personal opinions that the attendance and revenue of the theatre could be improved by a better selection of plays, staying away from controversial and dark subject matter and concentrating on more wholesome plays which would be more appealing to our regional audiences.
However, when we sent the Theatre Company a draft of an extension agreement following this March meeting, there was no provision that would in any way interfere with the Theatre Company’s operations or selection of plays. Our agreement was essentially the very same agreement which had been in place since 2010, with the single provision that the parties were required to cease any adversarial attitudes.
Our board was shocked when the Theatre Company rejected our draft agreement and countered with a proposal that it would have the exclusive use of the theatre space and that it would pay a monthly rental which approximated the lowest revenue which we have received since the theatre opened in 2010, and which was only about half of the cost of the utilities of the Discovery Center. This would have meant that the Society would have continued to be saddled with an unsustainable loss for operating the Discovery Center.
When Ms. Benedetto stated to your reporter that “[The partnership with the Historical Society] is not working anymore. I think we have a totally different goal than the Historical Society,” we really don’t know to what she was referring. We have been very supportive of the Theatre Company for six years and have not interfered with its operations in any way. As far as we know our goals of providing quality theatrical performances for Edgefieldians and visitors from afar have always been the same.
Ms. Benedetto may find another home for the Theatre Company, but we doubt that any other location will offer the visibility, the quaintness and the convenience of the Discovery Center, or that any other landlord will be prepared to provide the space and utilities on such generous terms as we have. Time will tell for the Theatre Company, but we believe that the right-thinking members of the Theatre Company board will soon realize that Ms. Benedetto has set them on an unrealistic and unfortunate path.
In the meantime, the Historical Society has begun to try to find alternative ways to maintain theatrical performances in the Discovery Center. We are committed to seeing that this facet of our cultural life in Edgefield will continue and expand, and that the William Miller Bouknight Theatre will continue to be the location of wonderful theatrical performances.
It is very unfortunate that petty resentments and silly turf battles between individuals and organizations have so often disrupted and impeded the progress of Edgefield. If our citizens and supporters would set aside these petty resentments and turf battles, work cooperatively together for the common good and not be concerned about who gets the credit, they would be truly amazed at how much progress we could make for Edgefield.
William Morgan “Billy” Benton
Edgefield County Historical Society