The Playgoer: Empty Space, RIP

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Empty Space, RIP

Seattle Times' Misha Berson offers a colorful post-mortem on the beloved alternative company.

But here's her scary bigger picture:

Midsize arts groups like the Empty Space are in an increasingly perilous position. And if the cultural climate doesn't change in the next few years, few will survive into the next decade.

Here's where the "midsize theater" problem kicks in.

Do the math. Any art-driven troupe in this town with fewer than 300 or so seats to sell per night, and a professional payroll to meet, cannot rely on ticket sales

Civic funding (the kind European countries dole out routinely to their best troupes) and other grants are essential for survival. Moreover, theaters should be viewed as cultural amenities worth supporting, if they enrich this community and serve as its cultural ambassadors.

It's a cliché and true: Our society places less and less value on providing literate, thoughtful alternatives to the 24/7 barrage of canned, empty-calorie commercial

We expect nonprofit arts groups to be "business-like." That doesn't just mean being sensible about money. But also, implicitly, picking material that guarantees an audience (anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber, for instance), and taking few of the aesthetic risks Empty Space was founded to take.

The roll call of midsize theaters Seattle has lost since the mid-1990s is a grim one, headed by the Group Theatre, the Alice B. Theatre, the Bathhouse Theatre company. And it's no accident that these organizations folded as Seattle boomed and shed some of its own unique civic character.

Some midsize companies (Book-It Repertory Theatre, Taproot Theatre, et al) are hanging in there, along with the bigger theaters and an evolving array of fringe troupes funded largely by free labor.

Underlining mine, of course. Those points, I'm sure, resonate with many, many companies in cities of all sizes across this nation. If Berson is right about the ticking clock on such companies ("few will survive into the next decade") so much for our national theatre.


June said...

During the years in which those midsize companies closed (boom years for Seattle, as Berson points out), a couple of things took off. 1) The 5th Avenue Theater essentially became a subscription house for touring musical-theater productions; 2) The Paramount Theater--a huge house renovated after a Microsoft millionaire LOVED Miss Saigon in New York and was devastated to learn that there wasn't a theater big enough to house the helicopter and thus stage this fine piece of work in Seattle.

I can't help but think that these touring shows are sucking up the theater dollars that might have gone to places like Empty Space and the Bathhouse in what is a very artsy and relatively prosperous city. Market forces and all that.

(And while I mourn the loss, there are still lots of other companies putting on plays in the city.)

Karl Miller said...

Hmm ... not sure the 90s boom is directly responsible for the decline in Seattle theatre audiences. It's a handy correlation, sure, but where does the cause-effect connection come into it? I ask because I'm willing to believe there is one, but then I look back at the same period of time in DC and see the opposite phenomenon.

DC's economy is somewhat insulated from national trends, esp. w/r/t employment rates, if nothing else. But the DC metro region also has massive I.T. and biotech corridors in Virginia and Maryland, respectively. Oddly enough, during the 90s tech boom, the DC metro region also underwent a corresponding boom in its theatre community. This expansion continued well through the 2k recession, 9/11, and the ascension of Bushco. It continues to this day -- at every echelon (small, mid-size, large houses).

But that's my DC evangelism stump speech. What really caught my eye in your post was the (correct) observation that we wrongly expect nonprofit arts groups to be "business-like." But isn't the very concept of a "national theatre" just another inhibiting corporate model? It seems contradictory to expect this most fragile, intimate, and ephemeral art form to behave and manifest itself with any kind of identifiable national character.

I don’t know. The perennial debate about the sad state of “national theatre” never changes; it’s just become a quarterly debate in the blog world. Alison Croggon recently pointed out that decentralization is one of the positive side effects of increased subsidy. I agree. But for me decentralization also implies a liberation from national-regional models as well as corporate-franchise models.

June said...

Perhaps more evidence that the more you offer big musicals, the less well plays do (from the Stage Newsblog).

I do think that was a factor in Seattle, though I'm not suggesting a direct comparison between the Emerald City and London's West End.

DL said...

Playgoer, I believe the Bathhouse has been resurrected. They have been putting on shows in the last year.
And yes, that is the way it goes.

I'd like to say though... we just opened a show and filled 150 seats three nights in a row ! We don't have a space and our set consists of chairs.

It's really sad that The Empty Space closed but I don't think it's a reflection of how Seattle Theatre is doing. It's a reflection of how the "business" of theatre is doing.
Theatre itself is well and alive here right now !

June said...

I still lived there then, but I'm embarrassed to say that I'd forgotten about the process by which a new company was sought to take over the Bathhouse.

Erik said...

I'm in Tacoma, WA, and am witnessing the peril that theaters are in here. Empty Space closed its doors, and two years ago the equity theater Tacoma Actors Guild (TAG) closed with $350,000 in debt, only to be saved at the last minute by a community theater who is trying to help them out. Their production of Proof in February will mark the first actual Tacoma Actors Guild show since they closed.

The biggest reason the Empty Space closed was not real estate, but that the mid-sized regional theater model is fundamentally flawed. Here's my best example: in 1981 TAG had an $11 top ticket price. Today it's $28. Adjusted for inflation in the last 25 years, they are essentially charging the exact same thing. And TAG would have a hard time raising that price any higher in our community.

But expenses for putting on a show are much higher: labor went up higher than inflation in the last 25 years, materials is up, the cost to market and reach an audience is way up, and mid sized theaters need a little bit more "spectacle" to compete with productions like The Lion King and Phantom.

So giving is expected to make up the difference. The problem with that, though, is that just to keep pace with inflation, a theater would need to increase about 3.5% a year in giving just to keep steady in "real dollars." To increase giving at the rate the theater costs are going up, giving would have to go up 5 - 7% a year. Over 25 years or any kind of "long term" picture, almost no non-profit can do it.

This tells me that that model is fundamentally in peril. Except for theaters that can pull it together and launch an endowment. In the last 25 years the S&P 500 went up 1100%. Investing money through endowments is the only thing that can keep track with the high rates of theater costs, but most theaters don't have them or dismiss them as unattainable dreams. But it is the only thing that can save mid-sized theaters for the next 25 years.

I recently led a non-profit arthouse movie theater in Tacoma (a much more sound business practice than a non-profit stage theater) and learned a lot about the challenges that face non-profits. And if theaters can't get an endowment going--and fast--they are going to be closing all over the place and the National Theater really will be dead.