Hoping to whittle its debt, the theater company is on what seems like a surprising anti-austerity diet: Seattle Rep plans to produce quality, large-scale shows — ones that will keep the box office flush and the grants flowing.
Seattle Repertory Theatre opens its 53rd season next week with “A View From the Bridge.”
That doesn’t seem like a risky choice. The 1950s drama is an enduring American classic by Arthur Miller, and it will also be revived on Broadway this fall.
But the Rep’s production is part of a bold, multiyear plan for Seattle’s nationally respected flagship playhouse. The goal is to gradually vanquish a mounting debt that’s now $837,000, and stem the red ink beyond that.
You might expect the Rep to tighten its budget, to produce fewer or smaller shows. But board members and top staff are not going that route. Rather, they’re gambling that financial risk will yield eventual reward — and that mounting large-scale, crowd-pleasing shows can keep the box office flush, and the cash contributions flowing.
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“Theater is a risky business,” says managing director Jeffrey Herrmann, with brisk confidence. Hermann ran Washington, D.C.’s smaller, lauded Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company before joining the Rep last year, well aware of the fiscal challenges. “If you’re not comfortable with risk, working in the theater isn’t for you.”
Though not publicized, the Rep’s financial problems have been in the making for several years. The theater was posting annual deficits, and in 2014-15 the budget forecast was grim. A larger gap between expenses (including high production costs) and revenue (from tickets and donations) was foreseen for last season, and an accumulated debt of $1.8 million.
The number would have been larger if the Rep hadn’t been siphoning unusually large amounts of cash from its $12 million endowment to help meet expenses. The standard that nonprofit organizations draw from such interest-earning backup funds is 4 percent a year. Since 2008, the Rep has withdrawn twice that sum.
But the Rep beat budget predictions. Herrmann says with the box-office success of two acclaimed, expensively mounted Robert Schenkkan bio-plays about President Lyndon Johnson (“All the Way” and “The Great Society”), savings from the controversial elimination of some education programs as well as stepped-up fundraising, the year-end shortfall dwindled to about $227,800, a fraction of the projected sum.
Last season’s ticket sales, along with donations from 2,800 new contributors, and big spikes in subscription sales and first-time ticket buyers, have emboldened the Rep. Instead of trimming, the current budget is about $9.8 million for 2015-16, on par with last season.
But big plans don’t come cheap. If projected budget goals are met, the theater will post an additional $897,000 loss — effectively doubling its current debt.
Is such a gamble at one of our major arts institutions wise? Herrmann staunchly defends it. He notes that the 2015-16 income is forecast conservatively low. And he insists that with more emphasis on marketing and fundraising, and continuing investment in the art, losses will in a few years turn into gains.
That’s where the risk comes in, and a “go big or go home” philosophy, popularized by John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts former president Michael Kaiser in his book “The Cycle.” But theater is fickle: There’s no insuring that if you built it, people en masse will come.
Still, the Rep’s 48-member board of directors, and acting artistic director Braden Abraham, are on board with the plan.
“We’ve proven at the Rep that when bad things happen, we’ve been able to move quickly, as we did during the last recession,” says board president Tamra Chandler. “But retracting the art doesn’t help. Producing great art for our audiences is our mission, and what will help us in the long run.”
Board chair Terri Olson Miller agrees. “We’ve had long, serious planning sessions about this. And we feel there are three productions this season that have the potential for doing very well, and attracting new funding and audience.”
The first up is “A View From the Bridge.” With a costly cast of 14, it relates the powerful story of an Italian American family harboring an undocumented immigrant. Abraham, who is directing the play, says it resonates with the current international immigration crisis.
The Rep also has high hopes for “Come From Away,” a new musical co-produced with La Jolla Playhouse that opens in November. It portrays the community response by citizens of tiny Gander, Newfoundland, when 38 international flights were suddenly diverted there following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The musical was warmly lauded in its California debut, with the L.A. Times praising it as a “touching story [that] rides on a ceaseless flow of rock, folk and Gaelic-sounding strains.”
“Sherlock Holmes and the American Problem,” a new play by R. Hamilton Wright, is also a potential winner. It’s a follow-up to the Rep’s 2013 Sherlock Holmes mystery, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” a great hit for the company.
The 2015-16 roster lists five more shows (including the Pulitzer Prize-winner “Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar), as well as public readings and new outreach efforts. “We’re trying to open up our doors wider to be a center for cultural exchange in the city,” says Abraham.
But the main move to shore up the Rep’s finances, without sacrificing artistic quality, is to keep presenting “the kind of big, bold productions we do best at the Bagley Wright,” confirms Herrmann.
“I’ve seen that when we put big, exciting stuff onstage, this community goes for it. Theaters have cut their budgets to the bone, and it hasn’t worked. Austerity isn’t working in Europe, either. And it’s not going to work at the Rep.”
“It’s a big philosophical dilemma for arts groups, between building on the art, and going on an austerity program,” observes Mari Horita, head of Seattle’s ArtsFund, which makes grants to and monitors local arts organizations (including the Rep). “One way isn’t necessarily right. I do appreciate Jeff for tackling the Rep’s situation head on, and being very open about it.”
And if the gamble doesn’t pay off?
“In the arts, being nimble and able to adapt as you go,” says Horita, “ is critical.”