Robb Hunt and Steve Tomkins had a plan.
Hunt, the executive producer of Village Theatre, and Tomkins, the former artistic director who retired in 2018, transformed the Issaquah-based institution from a small community theater into a nationally recognized hotbed of new musicals.
In plotting the theater’s next transition, the path seemed clear.
“Steve Tomkins and I worked together for 25 years, and it turns out, he and I are the same age,” Hunt, 74, said. “We were talking about retirement, and we agreed that it would be really good if he retired, and then I retired two years later.”
Two years after Tomkins’ retirement, it was the spring of 2020, and Village, like all theater organizations, found itself in an existential fight amid pandemic-related restrictions. With additional uncertainty around the future of the theater’s artistic leadership, Hunt decided to put his retirement on hold.
But now, with Village returning to live performance — “Songs For a New World” opened on Jan. 14 — and some level of normalcy, Hunt will step down at the end of a condensed four-show season.
There’s never been a Village Theatre without Robb Hunt. He was part of a group that founded the institution in 1979. In 1980, he was named producing director, and when founding artistic director Carl Darchuk moved to Los Angeles to pursue a film career in 1985, Hunt became executive producer.
A four-decade tenure with an arts organization comes with its share of challenges, but perhaps none so significant as those in this final chapter.
“[The challenge] has been monumental,” Hunt said. “It’s a matter of keeping the organization afloat, with our people continuing to do work and plan for the future, but at the same time not being able to do our regular programming and having our money come from donations and government relief support.
“In a lot of ways, this is a completely different skill set, just to try to get all the contributed and grant-support money when we can’t actually do shows,” he said. “It’s just been a new approach to everything.”
Pre-pandemic, Village Theatre had an annual operating budget of nearly $14.5 million, but in the wake of mandated closures, the organization said it lost 80% of earned revenues. Village laid off or furloughed more than 170 employees, including year-round staff and the cast and crews of two 2020 shows: “She Loves Me” and “Hansel & Gretl & Heidi & Günter.”
Given its 2022 season features fewer and smaller shows than usual, Village had planned on a lower budget, but with needs around COVID-19 contingencies, including testing requirements and additional understudies, the budget landed close to $13 million, Hunt said.
That’s largely supported by donations and government funding, including a $3 million gift from a private donor and a $5.4 million award from the Small Business Administration’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. Additional funding sources include King County’s Revive and Thrive Arts and Culture Grant and a grant from ArtsFund.
Barring unforeseen circumstances — something Hunt is quick to acknowledge is possible, given the state of the world — Village has built enough cash balance to get through the next two seasons, he said. But it will have to be spent carefully.
“We’re finding that our audience is slow to come back,” he said. “Building up our audience to the level that we had before the pandemic hit — it’s going to take a few years. We’re happy that this support has come through, but we really have to manage the way we spend it so that it can support us through this multiple-year comeback.”
Staffing has returned close to pre-pandemic levels, though many are still working on reduced hours, Hunt said.
Change in artistic leadership
One staff member who’s no longer there: Jerry Dixon, who took over the artistic director job from Tomkins in 2018. The theater announced he was transitioning to an artistic consultant role last fall.
Even before the pandemic, Dixon had only planned on remaining for three to five years, he said.
“I have the philosophy that artistic directors stay too long,” Dixon said. “Theaters thrive on change — not necessarily executive changes. That’s a little bit harder. But artistic change, I think, is necessary for theaters to grow.”
A New York-based director and actor, Dixon aimed to further Village’s commitment to new work, but one of his major efforts that he shepherded and directed, “Hansel & Gretl & Heidi & Günter,” was an early pandemic casualty, canceled the day before it was set to open.
“It was quite surreal,” Dixon said. “Half of your brain is like, ‘Man, I’m disappointed that this is not up,’ and half your brain is like, ‘I’ve got to get back to my husband in New York City before they close the airports down.’”
Dixon continued to work in the role remotely but was considering stepping down as early as midway through 2020, he said. With the theater in crisis, he and Hunt both agreed to stay on longer.
“We didn’t need to add insult to injury and add more stress onto the organization,” Dixon said.
Despite a tenure fractured by the pandemic, Dixon said he felt like he met some of his artistic goals and helped steer Village in new directions. The racial reckoning and social unrest of summer 2020 were significant factors in opening new possibilities around Village’s programming, he said.
“Nobody ever accomplishes everything they want to do, but I can certainly see sort of my DNA [in] the changes that Village Theatre has undergone over the last three, four years,” Dixon said.
For now, Village has tasked its artistic leadership to a trio of associate artistic directors: Brandon Ivie, who’s held that role since 2016, Jes Spencer and Tim Symons.
“[This] is a model that a fair number of theaters are starting to look into,” Ivie said. “What’s a more equitable way of sharing power on an administrative level?
“It’s been a really interesting sort of experiment. At the same time, we’re really here to just hold down the fort until the next leadership comes in,” Ivie said. “We’re not really doing long-term planning; we are focusing on the immediate and trying to make sure that we weather this pandemic.”
Village Theatre’s Board of Directors has employed Stamford, Connecticut-based Management Consultants for the Arts to lead a national search for Hunt and Dixon’s replacements. The roles will be restructured as a managing director and an artistic director on equal footing, with both reporting directly to the board. For the past 35 years, Hunt has been the only one reporting to the board in his role as executive producer.
The board’s priority is hiring an artistic director first, then the managing director, with both established in their roles by the beginning of the 2022-23 season, said Jill Klinge, president of the board.
“[Hunt] created Village Theatre,” Klinge said. “It is his brainchild, and he’s leaving an incredible legacy. He is irreplaceable, yet we are tasked with the job of replacing him.”
There are numerous pillars that make up the legacy of Hunt at Village — the construction of new mainstage Francis J. Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah in 1994, the expansion into producing shows in Everett in 1998, the evolution of KIDSTAGE from summer stock high-school productions to an expansive educational program to develop the skills of budding theater makers. But nothing is synonymous with Village, and by extension Hunt, like the development of new musicals.
Hunt fondly recalls “Eleanor,” a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt that was one of Village’s early forays into new work in 1987, and attending the 2009 Tony Awards where Brian Yorkey, a former KIDSTAGE student and Village associate artistic director, won best original score with Tom Kitt for “Next to Normal.” Other musicals that have moved from development at Village to Broadway include “Million Dollar Quartet” and “It Shoulda Been You.”
During the pandemic, Village doubled down on its commitment to new work, establishing a residency program for Black, Indigenous and people of color creators to work on any aspect of a new musical, and a collaboration with the 5th Avenue Theatre to develop musicals about the Pacific Northwest. Ivie said Village is planning on a return in 2022 of the Festival of New Musicals, which presents staged readings of nascent shows.
“I am still impressed with Robb’s unwavering support of new work,” Ivie said. “Most companies, probably the first thing they would cut is their new-work budget. You know, every budget was cut, but it wasn’t like the new-work budget was the first one to go or was cut the most.”
Hunt hopes to see that commitment continue from Village’s new leadership.
“I’d say it’s absolutely essential that [they] have an interest and excitement [in new work] and be able to prioritize that, even when it is kind of tough economically.”
Klinge said it’s crucial that the theater’s new managing director and artistic director understand Village’s identity and value its three pillars: the mainstage season, youth education and the new-works program.
“New works isn’t going anywhere,” she said. “We love it. We’re proud of it. And we’re really excited to even expand it and bring more voices to the table.”
In retirement, Hunt plans to do more traveling and more skiing, along with being available as a consultant for nonprofits — his field pre-Village.
Asked if he ever expected to do this job for decades, Hunt recalled the construction of the new mainstage in 1994.
“As we were building this building, I kind of saw it as, ‘This is the place I would stay,’” he said. “That was it. I was going to keep going and try to build this organization into what it could be.
“I’m really grateful that people like Steve and all our staff have put their lives into this and really believed in it and worked toward making it what it is today.”