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5th Avenue-ACT partnership: A national model for theater collaboration

Eric Ankrim and Kelly Karbacz in the 2012 world premiere production of "First Date," a collaboration between The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT – A Contemporary Theatre. Credit: Photo: Chris Bennion

In a city known for its collaborative artistic spirit, the relationship between The Fifth Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre has borne special fruit. "First Date," the pair's knockout, irreverent musical about a blind date ran for 10 almost entirely sold-out weeks in 2012 and is headed to Broadway this coming July. The theaters’ previous collaboration, "Vanities," did well critically and at the box office and their current co-production of "Grey Gardens," although plagued by a weak book and forgettable music, is drawing strong audiences.

The artistic and managing directors of both theaters are quick to extoll the success of their collaboration, stressing that it was artistry, not finances, that spurred the partnership. The Fifth was looking to undertake intimate musicals — smaller casts and orchestras, no big production numbers, scaled down sets — that would get lost in its 2135-seat house. (ACT hosted all three shows, the first two in the 404-seat Falls Theatre and "Grey Gardens" in the slightly larger Allen Theatre.)

“Our mission is to celebrate the American musical — past, present and future — in all its facets,” explains Fifth Avenue’s Artistic Director David Armstrong, “and one of the things we couldn’t do was the off-Broadway musical.”

For ACT, the idea was to expand its offerings in keeping with its goal of being a cultural center for Seattle. According to Kurt Beattie, ACT’s Artistic Director, “We both want to enlarge our audience and expand our work artistically, do new work on a level of intimacy.” Beattie points out that a small show like "Grey Gardens" needs a small setting in order to work. “On Broadway, the production overwhelmed 'Grey Gardens,' which is an intimate show and fit uneasily in a big arena.”

The idea for the collaboration, unique among American theaters, developed organically in discussions between the artistic and managing directors of the two theaters, then came to fruition as teams from the production, casting, marketing and box office departments of both organizations got involved. Representatives of both theaters agree that the partnership is working well. From the fluidity with which all decisions are made to the mutual artistic respect at the core of the collaboration to the box office success of the three productions the theaters have undertaken so far.

“There are no downsides to the collaboration,” says 5th Avenue's Armstrong. “It’s a terrific win-win. On artistic and economic fronts, it allows us to fulfill our two missions.”

Beattie is equally enthusiastic. “ACT audiences like musicals and more progressive pieces,” he says, “The Fifth brings a knowledgeable and interested audience who wants to see smaller musicals. It’s a real mitzvah.”

Both organizations are delighted with the artistic results — although there’s no doubt "First Date" is a cut above the other two productions.

From a financial standpoint, the partnership has been also been a success. With the lower cost of these small productions – about $1 million per production versus $1.5-3 million for the average large-scale Fifth Avenue show – and the cost splitting that comes with collaboration, both theaters are pleased with the numbers.

The resources shared by the two organizations are split based on their respective sizes — as are the ticket sales. In the long run, 5th Avenue and ACT — both non-profits — don't expect to make a profit from every show. Some productions meet goals, some don't ("Vanities" sold out only seven of 95 performances) and some sell like gangbusters ("First Date" sold out 62 of 82 performances), exceeding their goals. In the long run though, the organizations have either broken even or made a profit from their parnership; an outcome that has left both happy.

Eighty to eighty-five percent of both ACT and Fifth Avenue subscribers have attended the musicals, all of which have appeared in one of ACT’s two main performing spaces. Since subscribers are the bread and butter of any performing arts organization, these figures are impressive. What’s less clear, however, is whether the collaboration will inspire attendees at both theaters to cross over on a consistent basis. Will ACT subscribers go to the larger musicals at the Fifth Avenue Theatre? Will Fifth subscribers attend ACT’s straight plays?

So far, that hasn’t happened to a significant degree. That's not necessarily a failure though, in a city known for the segmentation of its  audiences: Ballet-goers here tend not to see contemporary dance, experimental-theater patrons generally stay away from mainstream productions and there’s a major split between classical and popular music fans. No one seems to have a satisfactory explanation for this market segmentation and it’s a challenge that Fifth Avenue and ACT are grappling with.

What’s not in question, though, is whether their collaboration will continue. Following their commitment to an annual co-production, the two theaters have concrete plans for next year’s "Little Shop of Horrors" and are looking beyond that as well. According to Armstrong, other cities are watching to see how the collaboration between the two theaters is working here. With "First Date" on its way to New York, the special partnership is bound to win even wider recognition.

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