After a difficult year that has taken a significant financial toll on Issaquah-based Village Theatre, this week an anonymous donor gave a $3 million gift to the theater. 

While the Village Theatre board has designated the money as reserved funds that will be held for reopening purposes, executive producer Robb Hunt says the donation will allow the theater to look beyond daily financial worries and begin planning for when live performances begin again. 

After live performances were shut down statewide last spring, Village Theatre took a hard financial hit. Between the loss of their productions and canceled or greatly reduced programming (resulting in an 80% loss in earned revenue), the theater ended up laying off or furloughing more than 170 employees including full-time staff as well as performers, musicians and crew, with the rest taking pay cuts and reduced hours. 

Theater leaders evaluated different options to ensure the future of the 42-year-old theater, even considering selling off or mortgaging their properties. 

At $3 million, the gift is still only a fraction of Village Theatre’s usual $14.5 million operating budget.

“It doesn’t solve all of our problems, but it allows us to see a path forward,” said Hunt. 

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Village continues to fundraise and look to the community for support that could get the stage lights on again. (Theaters in most counties in Washington state are currently allowed to reopen at 25% capacity, up to 200 people, but most have not done so.)

The identity of the anonymous donor is known only to a few, but a news release from the theater said the donor “has shown philanthropic leadership in the performing arts at large for more than 30 years,” and includes a statement from the donor:  

“Investments in the performing arts are a powerful means of fostering inclusion, healing, and inspiration. Village Theatre provides a place for people from different cultures, ideas, and walks of life to unite through beautiful imagery, music, movement, and compelling stories.”

Hunt says the donor hopes that the gift will inspire others to support local theater as vaccinations present the prospect of theaters reopening soon. 

Although there is still a great deal of uncertainty as to when and how theaters will reopen in the state, Village Theatre is beginning to plan for the possibility by bringing back some of its production staff and planning for a four-show 2022 season. 

With the gift, Village Theatre artistic director Jerry Dixon says he feels freer to focus on creative endeavors.

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“It was a bit paralyzing at the start of the pandemic,” Dixon said. “Creativity comes to a screeching halt because the body can’t do two things at once — it can’t be in crisis, fending off crisis, and create.”

Now he’s back in a creative mode and “it feels really good,” he said. “I’ve even managed to eke out some joy lately.” 

Despite the challenges of the past year, Village Theatre hasn’t been idle. It has launched two new programs aimed at cultivating and supporting artists. The Next Stage program provides classes, resources and support for midcareer artists, and the Northwest Creator Residency program is intended to give local Black, Indigenous and people of color artists “that spark” to begin work on some aspect of a new musical, but notably does not have the expectation of a finished project. Each artist receives a $1,000 residency.

Both programs, Hunt said, are not intended to be stopgaps during the pandemic, and will continue after live theater returns. 

“There was no work to be done [after the shutdown],” Hunt said. “This is a way we could still support artists.”