It didn’t happen very often, Robyn Allen thought, that a stranger handed you $3 million to keep your business from closing.
She was a few months into a fundraising campaign designed to keep Prescott Center for the Arts open when the anonymous gift was offered. Allen, the executive director of the venue, wasn’t sure the donation was a real thing at first.
“Then we got a call from a man who said to open a bank account, and the money would show up there,” she said. “I thought, Yeah, right. But I called the bank, and they confirmed that this was legit — that this was how anonymous donations usually worked.”
She has no idea of the identity of PCA’s benefactor; the donation was handled by attorneys representing the mysterious donor. She does know that the dough arrived in the nick of time; when it did, she figured, the arts center was $350,000 in the hole.
“We had shut down both our stages and I’d converted the place into a service organization. We got on the phone with all 6,000 of our patrons and asked if they were okay. We had volunteers taking medicine to people, going out to entertain people in their homes.”
In July, Allen decided, they had to get back to raising money to save the center. After decades in theater, many of them spent running small performance venues, Allen knew how to do that.
She thought of herself as a late starter in the acting game. “I was in my 20s, way behind the eight ball, when I got going as an actor. I evolved into directing. I could see shapes and I liked interacting with actors.”
She studied at ASU under Tony-winning director Marshall Mason, then worked with kids as a teaching theater artist. That led to a job as director of education at Phoenix Theatre, and a tenure as artistic director at Theater Works in Peoria. She and her husband moved to Prescott a couple of years ago.
Six weeks after they arrived up north, Allen got word that the Center for the Arts was looking for an executive director.
“I thought I was semi-retired,” she explained. “I had stopped working and learned to cook. But when the one job you know how to do opens up in your backyard, it feels like fate.”
She wasn’t sure she wanted to return to community theater, but when the venue’s administration asked her to help figure out where the profits were going, she was in.
These days Allen thinks less about fixing profit margins and more about what theater will look like, post-pandemic. She didn’t like the idea of forced social distancing by selling every other row in a theater. She knew that some playhouses were doing livestreaming performances. “But theater can’t just be Zoom,” she swore. “That’s not theater.”
Sometimes she came up with wild ideas, she admitted. “My husband and I were out kayaking, and I started to look at the beautiful landscape. We were planning to do Mamma Mia! last June, and I got to thinking maybe we could film the dance numbers out here, and just project them onto the stage and —”
Allen stops talking, then laughs. “My mind goes to weird places when I’m thinking about how to save a theater.”
Having been rescued is thrilling, but also bittersweet. “We’re using the money to upgrade all our equipment and building a new studio theater here. But I’m having a hard time celebrating. I’m simultaneously happy for our theater and sad for all the theaters that are suffering.”
She’s been talking to other theater managers about how they might yank themselves out of a financial hole.
“We were in the process of making our venue cabaret-style, before the gift,” she explained. “So I’m talking about how to do that. And there’s a lot of discussion about how to stay positive, to keep moving forward even though we have no idea what theater will look like after COVID.”
She didn’t want to believe that live theater would just go away. “We’re going to celebrate onstage with an audience watching, one day,” she insisted. “We’re going to have another party on stage again. If someone can give you $3 million to save your theater, anything is possible.”