An Uncertain Future for Surflight Theatre Buildings

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

It’s not the first messy situation Surflight Theatre’s been in, but this time it could be the last. The non-profit filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on Monday — that’s the liquefying of property to pay off creditors.

Long-time now-former Board Member Donn O’Brien says the company was left with no choice. “We went to the community, we went to the state, we went to state officials. They were very helpful, [but] they’re not in a position to just give money to bail out a theater,” he says. “We were $80,000 less than last year in contributions because people were saying, ‘If they’re in trouble, I’m not going to give money.’”

O’Brien says the non-profit bought the theater building it operates out of in 2007 for $2.5 million. It’s a debt he says that they’ve been trying to pay off ever since.

“To maintain this facility with a small staff costs about $400,000 a year,” O’Brien says.

Then there’s the theater’s string of bad luck. They filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2011. There was a fire in April 2012, and then later that year, Superstorm Sandy.

“People had less money to spend, we suffered with that, but we kept going,” says O’Brien. “We lost our Christmas show. We had pre-sold the Christmas show, so we had to return the money for the Christmas show. Going into the next season we were again behind the eight ball. We were paying bills on future earnings.”

Previously, there were allegations of money mismanagement against former Artistic Director Steve Steiner. He was let go in 2010 after a 12-year tenure.

Steiner denies these claims and blames the current situation on leadership after him spending more than they were taking in. He plans to submit his own proposal to revamp the theater. “This community resource needs to remain a community resource,” says Steiner.

But now the question on everyone’s lips is, what happens next?

“Other professionals would be brought in and hired by the bankruptcy estate to evaluate it in different manners financially: accountants, appraisers, real estate professionals,” explains Jack McDonnell, Chapter 7 panel trustee.

They’ll assess everything — the buildings, including the adjacent ice cream parlor, costumes and equipment.

“And we will then sit down and determine what will be the best viable sale option for this building and the going business,” he explains.

McDonnell says the option of the building staying a theater is definitely on the table. “The community would get what they want and the creditors would get what the want,” he says.

And that’s what leaders in the arts community want, too.

“They had an incredible impact on the economy of Beach Haven and the whole region,” says New Jersey Theatre Alliance Executive Director John McEwen. “They were a training ground for countless artists… They will be extremely missed.”

Adding an interesting wrinkle to this story is the fact that the theater sits in a historic district, meaning that any visible changes need to be approved by Beach Haven’s Historic Preservation Advisory Committee.