"The Horton Connection"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide



Fri, 29 Jul 2005 11:30:56 -0400

Theater is alive and well in Seattle!

by JOE ADCOCK Seattle Post-Intelligencer Theater Critic

Friday, July 29, 2005

The Seattle theater scene is no longer verging on tragedy.

Since the dot-com collapse and 9/11, theaters had seen falling attendance, dwindling income and even the death or near-death of a few struggling institutions. But the worst seems to be over, with nearly all the major local companies operating in the black this year.

"You never know for sure, but I think it's because the economy in general has improved," says Cynthia Fuhrman, spokeswoman for the Seattle Repertory Theatre. "Or at least people see it as improved. So they are willing to spend money on tickets. And individuals and foundations feel easier about making contributions -- their portfolios are looking healthier."

The Rep last week released some truly cheery numbers: establishment of a $15 million endowment, an increased budget, attendance up 37 percent, ticket income up 33 percent, contributions up 4 percent.

The endowment is unique for Seattle theaters. Only the income can be spent. According to Fuhrman, the endowment, conservatively invested, should produce maybe $600,000 a year to help bolster the Rep's $9.2 million budget (up from $8.8 million this past season).

Some companies have successfully retrenched.

In 2003, things looked bleak for Seattle's ACT Theatre. Strenuous fund-raising turned things around. This year's budget is $5 million, up from last year's $4.7 million, according to company manager Susan Trapnell -- "and no red ink, knock on wood."

"And ticket sales have stabilized. Last season they varied wildly, from $20,000 for 'Alki' to $120,000 for 'Enchanted April.' That kind of variation makes it hard to budget. Now we've settled down at something between $70,000 and $80,000 per show." ACT added five performances -- for a total of 33 -- for each of its five plays this season.

Last year's life-or-death theatrical cliffhanger involved the Empty Space Theatre. Production was canceled and the Space seemed to be on the verge of shutting down.

The company was saved, however, by a frenzied fund-raising blitz. "We've got a tight budget for the coming season, $650,000," says managing director Melanie Matthews. "The permanent staff is down to six." Those figures compare with a $1.2 million budget six years ago and a permanent staff of 18. "To economize," Matthews says, "we're hiring technical staff on a show-by-show basis rather than having them on the permanent payroll."

At Intiman Theatre, general manager Rebecca Sherr reports a balanced budget that has remained steady at about $4.8 million for the past couple of years. There is the problem of an $800,000 accumulated debt that Sherr keeps trying to chip away at. A bit of encouragement comes from an increase of 10 percent in single-ticket sales, while subscriptions remain steady at about 8,500.

With an annual budget of $13 million and with 24,000 subscribers, the 5th Avenue Musical Theatre is the biggest of the big in Seattle's non-profit theater world. When 9/11 and a faltering economy wrecked budgetary projections, the 5th Avenue accumulated a $166,000 debt -- which was wiped out during this past season.

A unique source of cash is "Hairspray," a celebrated Broadway musical of the 2002-03 season that had its premiere at the 5th Avenue. As a result, the company receives royalties from the show's earnings in New York, on the road and, now, in Las Vegas. This past year "Hairspray" contributed $250,000 to the 5th Avenue, according to managing director Marilynn Sheldon.

Though the 5th Avenue budget has remained fairly constant, the sources of income are shifting a bit.

"We're seeing a significant increase in single-ticket sales year by year," Sheldon says. "Right now, sales stand at 43 percent subscriptions. The rest are single tickets."

One of Seattle theater's ongoing success stories is the cabaret restaurant Teatro ZinZanni, now in its fourth year of presenting shows in an opulently fitted-out white tent. It's been operating Thursdays through Sundays.

"We've just added a fifth night -- Wednesday," says Sheila Hughes, chief operating officer of its operator, One Reel. "Summers are good to us: lots of tourists. ... And lots of locals get visitors from out of town."

One of Seattle's most popular showplaces isn't in Seattle. The Village Theatre is based in Issaquah. It regularly transfers its shows -- popular musicals mostly -- to the Everett Performing Arts Center. With a budget of $6.3 million and a penchant for premiering a new musical now and then, the Village is definitely a notable contender for audience attention.

"Subscriptions are up about 3 percent this year," says spokeswoman Jessica Fresolone. "Basically, we're staying about even, though. We're glad for the balanced budget."

Though ignored by most Seattle theatergoers who have no connection with people between the ages of 3 and 13, Seattle Children's Theatre, with a budget of $6.4 million, is a major force in the region's theater community.

"After the stock market troubles and 9/11, it was worry, worry, worry," says ACT artistic director Linda Hartzell. "Income was down. We laid people off. Some of us worked without a salary for two weeks. And we took salary cuts.

"Our ticket prices are about half what other companies charge. And some of our income goes to free tickets to get poor children to the theater. That's $900,000 we give away every year. Somehow the board manages to balance the budget. I'm proud to say that we got a management award from ArtsFund this year."

Clear Channel, an international for-profit entertainment conglomerate that presents big-budget musicals at the Paramount Theatre, is different in many ways from most of Seattle's presenters of stage performances. The Paramount, with 2,800 seats, is three or four times larger than the Rep, ACT and Intiman facilities. But Clear Channel's man in Seattle, Jim Sheely, shares his non-profit colleagues' anxiety.

"You're so dependent on Broadway," he says. "Can they send us real blockbusters? Or are we going to be looking at lots of empty seats?"

Sheely just got back from New York, however, and he's encouraged. "They've got tons of tourists," he says. "The theaters are packed. 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,' 'Spam-a-Lot,' 'All Shook Up,' 'Wicked,' 'Spelling Bee,' 'Light in the Piazza,' 'Avenue Q' -- they're not 'The Lion King,' but they are very enjoyable. The immediate future looks good for the road." ("The road" means traveling productions of Broadway productions.)

At a meeting in Seattle earlier this month, the professionals from the 450 members of the Theatre Communications Group also reported a change of fortune, although not as dramatic as in Seattle. They reported 54 percent finished the past fiscal year in the black, a turnaround from 54 percent in the red the previous year.

"We are pretty similar to other big theater cities except for one thing," says ACT's Trapnell. "The companies here seem to be less competitive with one another, less 'their loss is our gain' and more likely to cooperate.

"For example, software. A lot of us have been using Ovation, but you can't get service for it anymore. So we've formed a joint venture to replace it -- ACT, the Rep, Intiman, Seattle Children's Theatre, the 5th Avenue."

Often quoted in describing theater ecology is ACT founder Gregory Falls' dictum, "Theaters are like grapes. They grow best in bunches." The Seattle bunch is finally looking forward to an improved harvest.

Geralyn Horton, playwright
Newton, MA


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide