For the GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights, the 2009–2010 season has been a perfect storm of financial setbacks. One of them, in fact, was an actual storm.

Attendance dropped with the flagging economy, the Snowpocalypse shuttered the theater’s doors during a critical weekend in February, and, most crippling of all, last summer GALA lost a $100,000 grant from the D.C. Council.

So it had to switch strategies, focusing on private gifts rather than public funds. The new plan was to raise $1 million, which would allow GALA to remain eligible for a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The quest sent GALA into existential-crisis mode: Earlier this month, its PR firm sent out an e-mail blast warning that the theater is “in jeopardy.” If GALA couldn’t raise an additional $15,000 by the end of June, it would lose its chance of receiving the federal grant—a grim prospect on the eve of the theater’s 35th season.

Not that the previous 34 were much easier. GALA faces the same difficulties as many small, urban theaters—difficulties compounded by the bilingual company’s niche mission. Rebecca Medrano, GALA’s executive director, who, with her husband, founded the theater in the 1970s, schedules shows for the 250-capacity space only on weekends. “I don’t have enough audience to fill the whole week,” she says.

Recently, those persistent woes have begun to affect the organization and its end product: Sets have become more austere, costumes less elaborate. The staff has shrunk. The theater’s once-august dome, a holdover from the Tivoli movie house that used to occupy the space, remains unrestored.

The trouble began in 2009, soon after the council awarded a one-time grant of $100,000 to GALA for its general operations, which had been earmarked by Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, whose district includes the theater at 14th Street NW and Park Road. That summer, Council Chair Vincent Gray eliminated earmarks from the city budget following findings that Councilmember Marion Barry had abused the prerogative. The $100,000 disappeared. “I have been very supportive of GALA in the past,” writes Graham in an e-mail. “They have been a very deserving organization that wisely used the earmark money I have given them in the past. And we will do all that we can to help them.”

For now, “we need money to run the place and pay the rent and pay the Pepco bill and pay all of that,” Medrano says. In addition to cutting costs on productions, GALA had to shrink its administrative budget. “We did not rehire two people on the staff and another person left,” Medrano says.

Many of GALA’s grants come with conditions—they must go to programming or restoration or other uses. “There’s no wiggle room in them for operating costs,” Medrano explains. So finding money for costs like paychecks, rent, and utilities can be difficult.

When February’s snowstorms hit D.C., GALA had to refund more than $30,000 in ticket sales. At the time, Medrano called the storms a “total disaster.”

Luckily, this June’s press-release tactic pulled GALA back from the brink: It raised enough money to reapply for the Department of the Interior grant. “That’s our only really big operating grant. We’ve been relying on it for two years now,” she says. “To have lost that would have been death.”

Medrano says GALA had little trouble meeting federal eligibility requirements in the past because city grants can count toward fundraising goals. But she remains hopeful for next year’s marquee anniversary. She says the theater has doubled its donor base in the past year. “We had to seek out more private funds. In a way, it was a very good exercise because it’s what we should have been doing,” she said. In May, GALA hosted a private fundraiser in Georgetown at which donors pledged $45,000.

And Medrano found her new fundraising model, breaking with the theater’s tradition of relying on a single big-ticket gala. “From now on, we’ll be doing smaller fundraisers. It will expand our base support in the end,” she says.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery