By Leslie Yevak
As dogwood and redbud trees blossom in Lexington, the Lime Kiln Theater is reawakening, too. A season of eight live music performances starts May 21 with singer-songwriter and instrumentalist Darrell Scott. Other headliners include The Seldom Scene bluegrass band and guitarists Julian Lage and Chris “Critter” Eldridge.
This will be the third season since the picturesque outdoor performance venue reopened.
After its 2012 shutdown, Lime Kiln restructured its business model and has had two successful seasons in 2014 and 2015, said board president Jamie Goodin. This year, the theater’s leadership is confident in both the quality of its shows and its finances.
“We want to make sure that we stay financially sound. That was why the old Lime Kiln shut down,” Goodin said. “Right now, as far as financial health, we are doing great. We are super profitable, plenty of money in the bank.”
The problem in the past, Executive Director Spencer McElroy said, was the demand of Lime Kiln’s previous leadership to be paid regardless of the theater’s profitability.
“Lime Kiln had already started growing this reputation of constantly asking for money,” McElroy said, and suggested the fundraisers might have even turned audiences away. “It’s pretty hard to tax a community this size through abrasive fundraising tactics, and then expect them to buy tickets to your show.”
In 2012, Lime Kiln Theater ceased operations with only $5,000 in the bank and asking for nearly $300,000 for renovations, McElroy said.
So when McElroy was handed the challenge in the fall of 2013, he only agreed to take over knowing things would run his way.
“I’ll do this but I get to make every single decision, and I get to pick who’s on the board,” McElroy told the owner. “And I structured my compensation to be a percentage of the net from the events that we put on.”
Now, 50 percent of each concert’s profits go to McElroy, and the other 50 percent to the theater’s overall budget, McElroy said.
That structure gives McElroy an incentive to put on a profitable show, and executives’ salaries will pose zero risk to Lime Kiln’s operating budget. However, that payment structure is unusual to nonprofits, McElroy said, because he picks up all the risk.
“Of course it would be much easier for me if they just gave me a salary and I didn’t have to worry about how well the shows did,” McElroy said. “But that doesn’t work. ’Cause it hasn’t worked in the past.”
Lime Kiln’s 2014 Form 990 to the Internal Revenue Service reports Program Service Revenue of $60,701. According to the document, McElroy received $27,960 in compensation and committed roughly 20 hours per week to the Theater.
While McElroy makes the decisions and receives a percentage of the theater’s profits, he relies on volunteers to do the rest.
The upcoming 2016 season marks Lime Kiln’s first 12-member board since before the theater’s closure in 2012. Goodin said the Theater’s volunteer base makes all the difference.
“We’re all volunteers. We pride ourselves on being a working board, versus a governing board,” Goodin said. “Some boards in other organizations, they just make decisions, but we have to make moves.”
Both McElroy and Goodin said they want a diverse audience for Lime Kiln, and they tout the recent turnouts. The board has started working with downtown businesses to attract more tourists to Rockbridge County, Goodin said.
In the 2015 season, Lime Kiln sold about 51 percent of its tickets to local residents, Goodin said, and the rest to visitors from all over Virginia, including Roanoke, Charlottesville, and Harrisonburg.
McElroy has played instruments since childhood and gained experience with scheduling music festivals when he was a Washington and Lee University student. He graduated in 2009.
“We know Spencer is the magic sauce when it comes to booking the bands,” Goodin said.
McElroy said he invites bluegrass bands to perform at Lime Kiln because the genre is rooted in the Shenandoah Valley. The region has an existing respect for bluegrass, so it works well for Lexington, he said.
While those bands play typical bluegrass instruments, including the mandolin, fiddle and guitar, McElroy said their music has developed into a new style of bluegrass, known as “newgrass.”
“I like to think that it’s kind of on the cutting edge of new acoustic music, new bluegrass,” he said. “But it appropriately respects the heritage of bluegrass in the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
Most of those bands travel to Lexington from all over the country, which McElroy said makes the resurrected Lime Kiln more successful than in the past.
“They used to have a lot more local bands playing,” McElroy said. “But part of my strategy has been to do higher quality shows, maybe fewer in quantity.”
Individual tickets for this year’s eight shows range from $15 to $30 and a season pass costs $130. In the event of rain, the performances take place in Washington and Lee’s Lenfest Center for the Performing Arts.
For a complete list of this season’s shows, visit the Lime Kiln Theater’s website.