The Playgoer: Death of a Theatre Company

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Death of a Theatre Company

Seattle playwright and director John Longenbaugh has a long meaty post-mortem in Seattle Weekly on the recently defunct Empty Space company there. Here's some of the sad inside story:

"When they sent out the press release about the closing, I honestly think the board believed that no one would really care all that much," says Allison Narver, the artistic director of the Empty Space, which was shuttered in October after 36 years.

The company had weathered severe financial problems just two years ago, and had since cut its staff and number of shows in a season, and, most crucially, moved from its longtime Fremont home to a rent-free space on the campus of Seattle University. The company's first two plays of 2006—solo powerhouse Lauren Weedman's Bust and Paul Mullin's Louis Slotin Sonata—seemed to be a sign that the company was back in business, serving up popular provocative stuff as good as anything they'd produced in the past 10 years. Weedman sold out several performances, and while Mullin's show didn't do quite as well, critics were enthusiastic.

But at the Monday, Oct. 23, board meeting, there was an ominous addition to the regular attendees: a bankruptcy lawyer. Two nights later, at a second meeting, the board asked for Narver and her managing director to leave the room, took a vote, and decided to close the theatre. By week's end the press release went out and the Space was officially history....

At the Space, the immediate cause of death appears to be board-assisted suicide. At the time it closed, the theater had a deficit of $75,000—not chump change, but small compared to 2004's crisis, when an emergency fund-raising effort raised $400,000 in a matter of weeks. Most of that money came from almost 3,000 individual donations that averaged just $176.

The trouble this time wasn't just the immediate debt, according to board president Erik Blachford. In projecting the next season's expenses, the Space board saw no sources for the required cash. "We could continue on and accrue debt, and if we were to go down, we would leave a lot of businesses and artists in our community with that debt," Blachford says. "We weren't confident that we were going to pay it off, so we did what we thought was the responsible thing."

The Space's board had only eight people, small for any nonprofit, and had added no new members (with new deep pockets or contacts) since the last crisis. Given this, and the fact that they were facing a substantial debt only two years after a massive fund-raising effort, the decision to let the theater fold instead of fighting is understandable....

Midsized theaters are critical to the health of a theater town, but they're tough to run even during the best of times. A theater like the Space with a mere 150 seats and a budget of, say, $1 million, can lose money even when its shows sell out. And when they try to make up the difference by chasing down another $400,000 or so from corporations or foundations, midsized operations are in competition with the more experienced and better-staffed larger houses.

"If we don't have the expertise of fund-raisers who can raise the big funds, what do
we do?" asks Scott Nolte, artistic director of midsized Taproot Theatre. "Those personnel are increasingly expensive, and so we have to fall back on our board and expect them to do more legwork. If I have to compete with the Rep for a corporate sponsorship, they've got the history, the audience numbers that give them an edge."

Yes, and that's how these Boards end up with the power to shutter the whole enterprise with a closed vote.

According to Longenbaugh, the problem is bigger than this one little theatre. "Our theaters keep closing," he says. Find out who's next.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While I do not know the circumstances in Seattle, non-profit boards are often a group well meaning business people who have not come out of the organization’s audience and thus do not really have a passion for the art that is taking place. Some times they do not even attend on a regular basis and this causes an emotional disconnect and they turn to the numbers. And the numbers alone in non-profit rarely make one inclined to keep on “keeping on.”