Seattle dodges a bullet

Funders back ACT, but recession still in session

Last week, ACT Theater announced it will live to see its 39th year in Seattle, having raised the $1.5 million necessary to undertake at least one more season.

The news was greeted by members of the theater community with a flood of relief, but in this hard-hit theater town, no one was ready to declare the financial drought over. And the dicey fiscal situation in Seattle is emblematic of problems regional theaters across the country are facing as the long-dragging economy takes its toll on the arts.

“My first thought was, ‘Thank God, no actors are going to leave town,’ ” says Bartlett Sher, artistic director of nearby Intiman Theater, who fears the loss of one of Seattle’s three largest resident houses would damage the city’s increasingly fragile arts ecology. ACT, Intiman and the Seattle Repertory Theater together support an infrastructure of artists, Sher explains. “They keep artists — actors, designers, costumers, technicians — employed, thriving and connected.”

But all three theaters have been forced to implement drastic cost-cutting measures.

“Intiman has maintained its earned income support through subscriptions (8,500) and single-ticket sales (39,000). But our challenge is around contributed income,” Sher notes. “We cut 10% this year and 5% last year; our budget is now back to 1999 levels $4.2 million).”

Intiman jettisoned two potentially costly productions from its 2003 season, replacing them with two more compact shows: “Nora” (Ingmar Bergman’s adaptation of “A Doll’s House”) and “21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com” (a solo show by former Seattleite Mike Daisey).

Down the street at the Seattle Rep, the picture is different — but not any prettier. Contributed income has remained fairly strong, but ticket revenue is declining. The Rep is anticipating a $500,000 deficit at the close of the season, which will be covered by reserves. The theater is trimming its staff of 102 by approximately 10%. And it will offer just six plays next season, a full third fewer than its customary nine.

Staff at both Intiman and the Rep believe they are taking the necessary, conservative steps to ride out the recession. (And both, it should be noted, are still planning exciting new projects for the coming year — including the premiere of the Craig Lucas-Adam Guettel musical, “The Light in the Piazza” at Intiman, and a new works festival called Hot Type at the Rep.)

ACT’s measures, of course, have been much more dramatic.

The theater stunned the city with a February announcement that it was $1.7 million in debt and on the verge of closure. Since 1996, when it moved into a sprawling new downtown facility, it had consistently overspent its budget — and borrowed to make up the difference. By the beginning of this year, a $1 million line of credit was tapped out, it was unable to pay its bills, and it had to abandon plans to hire Robert Egan to fill its top artistic spot.

Susan Trapnell — who had carefully shepherded the theater as managing director through the ’80s and ’90s — was called in to assess the damage. “Where I think ACT got into trouble was optimism about how much money was out there, and also producing an awful lot of work that didn’t have a base of support,” she says.

Most of the staff was laid off, and the board of directors kicked in $635,000 of its own money to keep the lights on. Trapnell volunteered to help lead a do-or-die fundraising effort.

Last week, ACT announced it had reached its $1.5 million goal, with the help of the Nesholm Foundation, the John Graham Foundation and several prominent Seattle-area philanthropists.

But that’s just the end of the beginning for ACT. “The $1.5 million gives us the money and confidence to start a season, because we know we have the cash flowing. Next we have to start our annual fund — we need to raise an additional $1.3 million — and we have to start selling our season,” Trapnell says.

ACT presented six mainstage shows plus “A Christmas Carol” in 2002 to the tune of $5.9 million. It now plans to produce five plays plus the holiday show with a budget of $3.9 million in 2003.

Trapnell will assume her old post of managing director; former artistic associate Kurt Beattie will take over as artistic director.

The appointment of this leadership — a proven manager and an artistic chief with strong ties to the local theater community — signals a desire on the part of the board to get back to ACT’s roots. “It’s been very much a theater of, by and for Seattle,” Trapnell says.

But getting back to the future won’t be easy.

“The worst part of the situation at ACT is that it had a deep impact on the level of trust in the community,” Sher says. “That’s going to take a long time to rebuild.” All three theaters are now in the position of having to fund raise aggressively, without signaling panic.

Trapnell says there’s a cautionary tale here for theaters around the country: “ACT was an extreme case, but everybody got caught in a gay ’90s mentality and a belief that there was always more money. We’re all going to have to cut back. Our choices are going to be harder and we’re going to have to be more scrupulous,” she says.

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