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Guthrie’s season well-attended, but economy dings endowment

The Guthrie Theater’s annual report, released this week, demonstrates that a lousy economy can scuttle what would otherwise be a standout season.

First the good news: Guthrie productions were seen by more people than at any time in the theater’s history — by 463,412 patrons, up 9 percent from the previous year. That’s after the number of performances ballooned by 19 percent, from 684 last year to 814.

The box-office blockbusters included “Little House on the Prairie,” which played to 101 percent of audience capacity. More significantly, two-thirds of the people seeing the show had never been to the Guthrie before. The other big hit was the somewhat lascivious production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which played to 94 percent of capacity.

And now the bad news: The Guthrie posted an operating deficit for the first time since Joe Dowling became artistic director 14 years ago. But the loss was $67,898 on operating income of nearly $28 million. Board of Directors President Randall J. Hogan said that amounted to a “red zero.”

To get there, however, the Guthrie took actions that are now commonplace: salary cuts, unpaid vacations (“furloughs” is the popular term for it), wage freezes and some layoffs.

The theater’s endowment — invested, of course — took a smack from the stock-market tumble. It dropped from $43 million to about $30 million in the year ending March 31.

In his annual message, Dowling quoted Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

The impact? The Guthrie probably will have a leaner attitude, with tighter production costs and an eye on the box office when it comes to programming.

One example of cost-saving opens on Friday: “Ella,” a musical bio of Ella Fitzgerald, is essentially a booked show that has played in nearly two-dozen venues before coming to the Guthrie. It’s been highly touted, but booking shows cost less than producing them in-house.

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