They shoot mid-sized theaters around these parts

With the demise of Tacoma Actors Guild, the Seattle area has lost eight small theater companies in the past few years. A veteran of the theater scene explores the causes and cures for this unfortunate local custom.
Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Seattle Repertory Theatre. None

"The business of America is business" runs the famous quote of Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s. "The business of theater" in America sank many mid-size theaters in the 1990s and after. Seattle has been particularly hard hit, with Aha Theater, Alice B., Pioneer Square, The Bathhouse Theater, Center Stage (on Mercer Island), the Group Theater, the Empty Space, and, most recently, Tacoma Actors Guild (TAG) all going under. TAG closed operations once before in late 2004, when it had an annual budget of $1.35 million. It managed to reopen but was finally done in this February by a small deficit of around $100,000. Small arts groups suffer from boards with shallow pockets and limited ability to go to donors or a bank, so a small deficit can often be quickly fatal. But without small and mid-size groups, the whole artistic spectrum suffers as fewer artists can break in and the experimental side of the art form suffers. The birth of regional, non-profit theaters began to shift the business of theater from Broadway to the country as a whole about 40 years ago. All over, community leaders in major cities formed boards, built theaters, hired professional artistic directors and general managers, and started to produce seasons of classical theater and contemporary playwrights. Seattle acquired its flagship regional theater, the Seattle Repertory Theatre, in 1963, right after the Seattle World's Fair and as the regional theater movement was entering its heyday. There were few constraints on the artistic directors in the heady early years, with grants rolling in from the Ford Foundation and others determined to spread culture beyond the major New York companies. Seattle had such an appetite for theater that A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) was started, to challenge the Rep by offering more contemporary fare and letting Seattle discover plays by Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Samuel Beckett, and Bertolt Brecht. The Rep and ACT each had a clear niche, and there was room for both theaters, and then some. Enter the Empty Space, offering even edgier fare by Peter Handke, Sam Shepard, and the like, formed by graduates of the University of Washington. The University of Washington's Drama School successfully fed all the theaters with their students and professors, and they lived together, although not happily ever after. Intiman Theatre was founded in the early 1970s, doing classical fare but soon blurring the clear niches occupied by the large theaters in town. The Alice B. spoke for the gay community, the Group Theatre tackled issues of ethnic diversity. During the 1970s and 1980s, Seattle enjoyed the benefits of a tremendously rich and healthy theatrical ecosystem. Below the canopy of the big theaters, there was a diverse network of mid-sized and small theaters driven by imagination, youthful optimism, and excitement about new forms. And the undergrowth was alive with fringe companies, startups, and experimental groups. A student could get well-rounded classical training at the UW, come out and start a company with classmates, move up and gain professional experience on the stages of the mid-sized theaters, and sometimes graduate to the stages of the big theaters and beyond. Seattle earned the reputation of being the best theater town west of Chicago. Then, with greater budgets and more competition, "the business of theater" started upstaging the creative side. The role of the artistic director started to morph from creative visionary to man in a suit: raising money, talking the talk, working with the board and the marketing and development directors. The first round of Ford Foundation money, which had created the regional boom, faded away, and corporations shifted money from arts to social services. Costs kept escalating as the scramble for funders and subscribers got more intense. A city such as Seattle, which had practiced little birth control about artistic groups during the boom years after the World's Fair, had a lot of mouths to feed. Next came a building boom, raising costs still higher and creating several "second spaces" that tapped audiences from smaller theaters. ACT grew from one space with a small black box to a four-theater, well-equipped complex. The Rep added the Leo K. Theater, which proved uneconomical to operate. As far back as 1974, when the Rep renovated an old night club, now demolished in favor of the Convention Center, and called it The 2nd Stage, it drew audiences away from The Empty Space. Around that same time The Pioneer Square Theater disappeared after it broke all records with Angry Housewives. In Seattle, where there were so many theaters, the lines between niches began to blur. ACT no longer had a corner on modern works, as every theater with a literary manager on the payroll sought out the next important playwright. Gay and ethnic themes could be found on the mainstages, robbing the Alice B. and the Group Theater of their exclusive mandates. Budgets ballooned, deficits were incurred, and seasons of plays had to be packaged like consumer goods. The two-person play or one-person show saved money and became the anchor of a smorgasbord season, designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. From 1980 to 1999, the Bathhouse Theatre where I worked sustained an ensemble of well-trained and talented actors. However, the number of actor contracts gradually shrank from 55 a year to 35, even as we continued to include one Shakespeare production every season. Into this scramble stepped the Kreielsheimer Foundation, offering generous amounts of money for arts organizations in the community. That money would expire in 2000, so visions of beautiful new buildings started to dance in boards' heads. Egged on by the dot-com boom, one board after another announced a capital campaign to move to a new building, add a second stage, or upgrade their facility. When the local technology boom went bust in 2001, many theaters were stuck with expensive new buildings to operate, more competition, and fewer grant dollars. Seattle, meanwhile, continued to be a place where public funding of the arts is very low. A classic squeeze set in, and small theaters began toppling. I was caught in the same down-draft at the Bathhouse Theatre. We went to the community for help and were told, "Your board isn't connected. And you don't have a good business plan." This was the truth - despite good productions, solid subscriber support, and decent box office. With a 165-seat house, we were making more than 80 percent of our expenses from the box office. Advised to raise our contributed income to 40 percent, we found the competition for the grants and donors was simply too intense. Urged by a board member to "wield a bloody axe" to cut costs, we felt that cutting an already small staff would kill the theater. So what did theater professionals like me learn from going through this painful wringer? I have a few suggestions. Local corporations should be encouraged to place employees on mid-sized boards as well as large ones, so that each midsized arts organization could receive two or three such placements from different companies at any given time. A small board needs more than one heavy hitter. Another good idea comes from Canada, where large and midsized theaters have a history of co-productions, where resources are shared, costs are streamlined, and artistic cross-fertilization replaces competition between companies. Finally, I'd recommend that at least some of the local grant organizations should allocate money specifically for midsized companies. A few local benefactors have created funds dedicated to helping smaller and midsized arts groups achieve stability, but we need a lot more. Seattle has a very entrepreneurial business culture, so perhaps it will spawn donors who like the research-and-development side of the arts – mostly the mid-sized organizations that have adventurous audiences, an ability to react quickly to new ideas, and a penchant for disrupting the establishment.

Arne Zaslove is a veteran director, actor, and teacher in theater, and was most recently artistic director of The Bathhouse Theatre in Seattle.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, May 3, 7:18 a.m. Inappropriate

idea for funding: In this day and age, why not use the internet to collect small donations (less than $100) from thousands of potential Patrons of the Arts to generate $100,000s. With a board of directors paying attention to the community (not necessarily repeating the same old same old) a small to midsize arts group should be able to build a million dollar endowment and enough to continue putting on good works. I would have contributed $10 to keep the Bathhouse going. Get 10,000 others and you have $100k, get us to give $25 and you have $250K. I am sure some would give $100-$250. Also, we get to be involved through regular communication and feedback.

I believe that this model could work for a "Bathhouse" theater group that had a 'brand' with its Shakespeare plays.
raviyah

Posted Thu, May 3, 9:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Life and breath...: I've been a season ticket holder to Taproot Theater for over 15-years. It's an outstanding local company that produces a bevy of works new and old that offer a perspective on the Judeo-Christian world view. It's not - never has been - preachy, but it is artistically excellent and entertaining.

It survives, but not without struggles. A while back it was selected as the poster child for some new and creative interpretations of wage and hour laws that forced it to alter it's offerings in order to trim payroll expenses. Not exactly an example of public support for the arts!

I appreciate your thoughtful analysis and discussion of, to borrow and encourage a review of the Stephen Sondheim lyric, the art of making art. And I appreciate that you didn't go to where so many go as a bail out of first resort: the public purse.

Markets can be very unfriendly places at times, but the truth is they're more dependable than anything else. The arts have to compete for the entertainment dollar just like Les Schwab has to compete for the tire dollar. In so many respects, it is a crap shoot, and you simply never know.

But we are still fortunate around here to have options. Sure, some may go, but others come. And creative opportunities abound, both for performers and patrons. I count myself fortunate to be able to watch live theater as often as I do without having to take a mortgage on the house or pay some bling bedecked superstar $45mm over three years to theatrically put a ball in a hoop. Let's count our blessings!

If people really care, theater will survive and prosper. If they don't, it won't. And theater, to do it's part, has to offer a product that causes people to care. If it won't, they won't. That's the marketplace, too.

There is an art to making art...putting it together, bit by bit, piece by piece.

The Piper

Posted Mon, May 7, 11:07 p.m. Inappropriate

My friend Arne a true man of the theater,: commentary in entirety can be accessed at:
http://www.artscritic.blogspot.com by May 9th.

My friend Arne a true man of the theater, alerted me to his piece in Crosscut, but I was going to respond anyhoo. Arne does a bit of the usual name dropping, mentions Handke, the great divide playwright, work or its significance Arne didn't know when last we discussed it. Arne's call is one along the line of plaints for the mere existence of theaters, while failing to provide a rationale for their being. What if they are super-annuated, merely near private indulgence?

I am puzzled whether theater in Seattle contributes anything to the milling-grinding social consciousness, whether its greatest benefits accrue the eateries which are so much more adventurous.Since Seattle already has a museal Opera and Ballet it might get itself a theater that does the world's great theater from ancient time to the by and large puerile present.

I am not talking about theater as a diversion, as in "oh lets catch a show" ; but about a theater that serves as an enlightening and possibly consensus or not, a fractious forum-function within a social complex such as a city-region; if theater served such a function, then theaters might well deserve funding.

At one time theater made news, now the news is put on in the theater for the reality-deprived reality t.v. watchers.
An industrialized culture creates the culture industry - regional theaters and their dozen or so predictable chestnuts are a variation of that. That means that theater must provide experiences unique to it, not duplicate anything outside its space and confines, take itself seriously; what can still be done in theater is an experience as intense as reading: an anti-Aristotelian theater that dissociates the audience into a state of keen awareness, that cleans the audience's clocks, a subliminal catharses, that makes it leave the theater with freshened senses, for more powerful stuff than Brecht dared dream of. The dramatist who can do this, a nearly Shakespearean talent for our times is the Albatross that nourishes me, Peter Handke.

At least a half dozen mid-size theaters have gone down since I came here in summer of 1994. The "Aha", the "Ethnic-Cultural" I think it was called, Arne's "Bathhouse, " John Kazanian's "The Theater of a New City," became what's called a "mom and pop theate" when he sold the space that is now the Hugo House; the "Empty Space" finally bit the dust with yet another huge debt, the Tacoma Rep, which I visited only once, with M. Burke Walker, the founder of the original "Empty Space", and we saw an absolutely "good enough" Miss Julie; the "Fringe" which invariably had half a dozen things that I cottoned to; ACT nearly went under, shouldering a huge debt load, not long ago; no doubt others that I forget or whose demise I am unaware of.

These theaters also went down because there are no critics to speak of, or rather because of miserable critics [right now there is but a one I pay heed to: Annie Wagner of "The Stranger"]; because editors lack either courage or ability to hire critics [Joe Adcock got the job at the P.I., these eons ago, because there was no one else around; that's how little importance was paid to that position], editors who understand what a theater critic can do. I doubt that it will Carl Rove's. Misha Bernson at the Seattle Times, for the job she has can't really kill off the shows or the theaters: she is meant to keep them on life support.

The lack, the aversion, to sharp, conceptually well conceived, self-reflected criticism in Seattle, of course is not confined to Theater.


http://www.artscritic.blogspot.com has a list of specifics to buttress these generalizations. generalizations are are the derivatives of mounds of rat-tails. By May 9.
mikerol

Posted Wed, May 9, 4:03 a.m. Inappropriate

let me add to the above comment: A CONSTRUCTIVE SUGGESTION: all these people who shed crocodile tears for the demise of that once great promise of theater in seattle, THE EMPTY SPACE... Kurt Beattie, Misha Bernson, Brendan Kiley...

What if the three majors here in Seattle had sponsored just three of those now demised?

A bit of historical comparative perspective: The most sought after job during the 1020s, one of the great ages of German theater, was that of drama critic! So if you wish to mine good criticism, that is where you go, and some people in the North West do.

As I was saying: "What is needed now is/ are critics who understand what theater in, historically, a multi-media age can still do. [No mention of the expiry of the really important American theater critic Richard Gilman hereabouts that I noticed.] Theater can provide uniquely theatrical mind-and-sense opening experiences in that real and only theatrically real space - quite aside the vaunted supposed wonders of being close to the flesh of actors: If I want to be close to human flesh, I take the bus, or go shopping, etc.

Among editors, who might have done a better job, I include Knute Berger who found no better replacement for the first rate, though then self-serving but in every other respect highly problematic, theater critic Roger Downey with the likes of Longenbaugh and Richard Morin at the Weekly - Steve Wiecking was a better call. I actually proposed a forum on just this subject to Mr. Berger, I never heard back. As far as I am concerned, at least in his dealings with me, courtesy is not his strong suit. You can always say no, a one word syllable takes a second.

I also include David Brewster among those responsible, as I recall his forbidding Downey to review plays at ACT, 'cause Mr. Brewster's wife was a principal there I think that was the reason... i.e. nepotism, provincial narcissism [a category all its own!] Lacking a critic, theater audiences will not have a sense of the importance, if any, of these subsidized enterprises. Get used to vigorous criticism, it happens in the courts all the time. As a matter of fact if you don't defend vigorously, the appeals court may order a retrial or throw out a conviction. Why do people, by and large, pussyfoot so much around here in the open... in closed quarters...

http://www.artscritic.blogspot.com
will have an enumeration.
mikerol

Posted Thu, May 17, 9:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Mid-Sized Elitism: The case in favor of the named mid-sized theaters might be stronger if these companies had been in touch with the community. Not with education programs alone, but with genuine enthusiasm for fellow artists and their work. I never found any of the named theaters to be even slightly interested in commissioning local writers or casting well-known and loved local actors.

Seattle kills itself not with provincialism, as some claim, by with the effort to appear sophisticated. Theater companies that reach over the heads of the local talent to attract writers and directors and actors from other cities should EXPECT to go under when they lose money and become irrelevant in their own neighborhood.

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