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107 years later the Johnson City Community Theatre is going strong, but needs more support

Jonathan Roberts • Updated Jun 17, 2019 at 9:21 AM

It isn’t easy to be the state of Tennessee’s longest-running community theater.

It’s even harder when you’re doing so without consistent financial support.

And with 107 consecutive years of providing theater to the Tri-Cities area, the Johnson City Community Theatre’s J.J. Jeffers understands just how important the JCCT is to the region.

“Theater is something we don’t ever want to see leave the city; we don’t ever want to close our doors, now or 20 years from now,” said Jeffers, who is also a lifetime member and serves as an adviser to the Board of Directors.

But with rising production costs and funding that’s constantly fluctuating, it’s becoming more and more difficult for theaters such as the JCCT to keep their doors open.

According to Jeffers, monthly operating costs for the theater are around $2,000, and that rights for shows can routinely broach four- and five-figure sums. Ticket prices are around $15 for every show, and with just over 170 seats, the theater needs to sell around 150 just to get their building operating costs covered. Add in everything else, and you’re looking at a need to bring in thousands of people to cover all expenses.

“You have to have two to three thousand people that come see a show and support the arts, because if you don’t have that, then doors close,” said Jeffers. “There’s not a lot of funding out there right now for non-profit organizations in the arts.”

It’s not all doom and gloom though, as both JCCT Vice President Angelica Ares and Jeffers pointed out that the theater is subject to the “hills and valleys” of the industry. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in the clear, but rather that they’re not on the brink of disaster.

Jeffers said if they were to have a bad show, it “could sink” them, but also noted that there's “always” going to be somebody to step up and support the arts. Ares, meanwhile, suggested the theater’s struggles are a bit overblown, saying that operating any non-profit is difficult, but that characterizing the theater as “failing” or “dying” was “harsh.”

“You go through hills and valleys, and for us to be open for 107 years, I’m sure that it’s been through many ups-and-downs,” she said. “Yes, there are times that have been hard, but I don’t think there’s a possibility of us closing, we just have to find a way to get the word out there.”

Still, with the JCCT being the only local theater that does not receive financial support from their city, according to Jeffers and Ares, the theater depends heavily on community support. And though there has been some communication with the city about it, there hasn’t been any serious discussions about funding yet.

“You sort of feel like PBS,” Jeffers said about the need to solicit donors and community support. “We’re around because of viewers like you.”

While the need for increased support and funding is clearly there, Ares provided reassurance about the theater’s current situation.

“The theater has been going strong for 107 years, and it’s going to continue to go strong,” she said.

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