Hit by a fiscal crisis similar to those faced by other Puget Sound-area troupes such as ACT Theatre and Empty Space Theatre, Tacoma Actors Guild (TAG) suddenly ceased operations...

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Hit by a fiscal crisis similar to those faced by other Puget Sound-area troupes such as ACT Theatre and Empty Space Theatre, Tacoma Actors Guild (TAG) suddenly ceased operations last week, cutting short the run of its holiday show, “Chaps! Christmas on the Radio Range.” Now the future of TAG, Pierce County’s only professional resident theater, is in doubt.

The executive committee of TAG’s board of directors voted last Monday to shut down the company because it had racked up debts of between $300,000 and $350,000 since 2001, said board President Mike Jones.

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He confirmed that TAG’s 24-member staff was laid off, and Artistic Director Pat Patton tendered his resignation to the board, effective last Thursday. Attempts to reach Patton for comment were unsuccessful.

On Wednesday, the theater’s debt and immediate cash-flow problems prompted Columbia Bank, to which TAG owes $165,000, to temporarily freeze its checking account of about $30,000, said Nan Peele, TAG’s board president-elect.

Because TAG then was unable to meet its current payroll, “Chaps!” played its final performance on Wednesday, leaving between 1,000 and 1,500 patrons with unusable advance tickets, according to Tacoma’s News Tribune. The show originally was slated to run through tonight.

Peele said she and other board members have been calling “Chaps!” ticket-holders to explain the situation. They’ve also been phoning TAG’s 2,700 subscribers with news of the shutdown, which leaves the fate of the three remaining shows in the 2004-2005 season — “The Glass Menagerie,” “Sleuth” and “The Comedy of Errors” — uncertain.

Local theaters offer
ticket swaps

Two area theaters,
Bellevue Civic Theatre and the Lakewood Playhouse in Pierce County, will give free tickets to their own productions to people holding tickets to the Tacoma Actors Guild production of “Chaps! Christmas on the Radio Range” for performances canceled when the show prematurely ended its run on Wednesday night.

For information on the ticket exchange, call Lakewood Playhouse at 253-588-0042 and Bellevue Civic Theatre at 425-235-5087.

“I’ve talked to hundreds of [patrons] in the past few days, and to a person they were sympathetic, sorrowful and emotionally supportive of the theater,” Peele said. “They want TAG to be here.”

Though TAG’s board sent a letter to potential donors this fall emphasizing a need for immediate financial assistance, last week’s closure surprised the local theater community. Seattle-area professional actors and technicians in particular stand to lose if the theater closes permanently because TAG is one of only about a half-dozen area companies paying union wages to stage workers.

Founded in 1976, TAG was for years a leading Tacoma arts institution. Its future looked good when the company moved in 1993 from a drafty former schoolhouse into Theatre on the Square — a new, 320-seat playhouse built by the city of Tacoma. The facility, along with two renovated older show palaces, the Rialto Theater and the Pantages Theater, is part of Tacoma’s designated Broadway Center for the Performing Arts.

TAG had more than 4,000 subscribers in its first season at Theatre on the Square. But those numbers soon dwindled, and by 1996 the company was about $200,000 in the red.

In 1996, Patton, a former staffer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, was hired as TAG’s new artistic head. Through cost-cutting and more conservative programming emphasizing Shakespeare plays and other classics, TAG’s finances improved and its deficit was retired.

But starting in the 2001-2002 season, unpaid bills piled up again while grants, contributions and ticket sales declined in a post-9/11 downturn that hurt many arts groups.

“We did downsize and apply more conservation, but each time our income projections were short of target,” noted Peele. “We did the best job we could maintaining costs.”

Jones said that at the board’s request, for the 2004-2005 season TAG’s staff “came up with a slate of shows that had been very popular here in the past. We were very, very hopeful that this slate would be popular again and raise our subscriptions.”

But the attempt to turn back the clock with a “greatest hits” roster did not improve the theater’s fortunes much. Ironically, notes Peele, “Chaps!” had been selling well.

Could TAG’s board and staff have done more to reach out to new and younger audiences, and to downsize its annual budget of about $1.35 million this year? “There’s culpability that goes all the way around,” Peele says. “The board does not shy away from its responsibility to apply a stronger fiscal hand than we perhaps did.”

As to whether TAG will declare bankruptcy, shut down permanently or embark on an emergency-funding campaign, Jones said, “We just don’t know at this point what the future holds yet.”

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com