Sleeping in Seattle

Midsize theaters take supersize hits

Word that the worst of an economic storm had blown over spread warmly around the table at a 2003 meeting of national theater managers — until it reached the reps from Seattle.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘OK, then, we’re sort of the epicenter,’ ” says Laura Penn, managing director at Seattle’s Intiman Theater.

Since then, Seattle’s midsize theaters have continued to have brushes with death. The decades-old infrastructure is crumbling beneath the biggest players — the flagship Seattle Rep and tuners producer 5th Avenue.

“We’re exhausted,” says Penn, who works with a modest $4.9 million budget. “Two years ago, we cut to the bone and we almost died. It can’t go on like this.”

Despite what Penn described as healthy ticket sales, Intiman has had to reduce staff and freeze expenses for four years. Still, it has an accumulated deficit of $800,000 and expects to be $150,000 down again this year.

And the 33-year-old Intiman, a producer classics from Ibsen to Kushner, is not the theater most people in Seattle worry about.

That’s ACT, a $5 million experimental theater founded in 1965 that nearly shut down permanently in 2003. A successful emergency campaign, downsizing and a turn toward more mainstream programming may still not be enough to survive, says managing director Susan Trapnell.

“We’re no longer a city that’s going to support four of these theaters,” Trapnell says. “We’ll support maybe one or two. It has been a sea change, and we’re trying to figure out what that’s going to mean for us. Some of us will figure that out, and some of us won’t.”

Nonprofit theater is “rugged all over,” plagued by declining subscription sales, flat or decreasing government funding and a careening private sector, says Ben Cameron, exec director of the trade association Theater Communications Group. In 2003, 58% of the nation’s 1,300 nonprofit theaters ran deficits, compared to 30% in 2000.

Seattle was once touted among the nation’s brightest scenes, but today it is contracting. Even the top layer is fighting to hold steady, as the Rep has made layoffs and the 5th Avenue had to begin asking for donations for the first time in its history in 2000.

“We’re not seeing this as a Mecca of theater anymore,” Trapnell says. “We’re losing our ability to keep master artists in the community. I see very few actors coming in, and the ones here are struggling more.”

(In 2004, Seattle had 402 Equity actors, the 10th largest concentration in the nation, down from 430 in 2003.)

Causes for the troubles have been various. The tech city’s economy was pummeled after 2001, the same year Boeing moved its headquarters to Chicago and began laying off some 20,000 Puget Sound workers in the aerospace slump.

At the same time, the city was left with expensive new arts facilities conceived during the boom years and arts budgets that expanded 70% between 1999 and 2004, according to Seattle’s advocacy and donor group ArtsFund.

Meanwhile, auds increasingly less willing to sign on for entire seasons have become more expensive to attract. The more theaters rely on single ticket sales, the more they spend on marketing and advertising, and the less programming risk they can afford.

In San Diego, a market similar to Seattle, the Globe and Rep have hit debt. But last month, the San Diego Union-Tribune’s theater critic declared the deficits waning and the area “the most active theater producer per capita outside of New York and Chicago.”

Seattle might once have made similar claims, but today there’s a chill over the city, says ACT artistic director Kurt Beattie, who has been in Seattle theater since the 1960s. ACT is down from 16 productions in 2002 to eight this year, and there is little room for “fierce, uncompromising, powerful new plays,” Beattie adds.

Few recent Seattle premieres have made national waves.

Intiman has led the pack, with 2002’s “Nickel and Dimed,” 2003’s Adam Guettel-Craig Lucas musical “The Light in the Piazza” (opening at Gotham’s Lincoln Center in April) and Lucas’ 2004 epic, “Singing Forest,” first developed at ACT.

“If we go out, we’re going to go out in a flame of glory,” says Penn of Intiman, which also recently did “Our Town” and opens “The Mystery of Irma Vep” in April.

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