Is the Bathhouse Sunk?

While Green Lake's theater struggles, other midsize venues watch and learn.

For Seattle theater, the last few years have been marked by extremes. In "bricks and mortar" terms, successful capital campaigns have resulted in a splendid new home for A Contemporary Theater, an elegant second stage for the Seattle Rep, and even a new lobby, seats, and carpeting for the Intiman. The fringe scene, while contracting somewhat, continues to be healthy and to create innovative work. But for midsize theaters, it's been lethal. New City Theater has lost its space, and AHA!, Alice B., the Group Theater, and Mercer Island's Center Stage have disappeared. The latest casualty is Green Lake's Bathhouse Theater, brainchild of artistic director Arne Zaslove, which closed its doors on February 1.

The timing was both inevitable and a complete surprise to many. The theater has had serious debt problems since 1988. While the past 10 years have lessened the deficit, more problems arose when a proposed collaboration with Teatro ZinZanni last summer was scuppered by complaints to the city Parks Department that moved the hit show across town. However, an appeal to the public last fall resulted in donations of around $30,000, and box office numbers for its winter production of As You Like It were encouraging, with houses averaging around 75 percent.

Then a grant deadline for the Washington State Arts Commission was missed. And then the PONCHO arts-funding organization refused the theater's application for $75,000.

And then the Bathhouse was gone.

SPEAKING FROM HOME, Zaslove understandably sounds exhausted. He's been the head of the theater since 1980, when his Floating Theater Company moved into the small venue (truly a converted bathhouse) on the shores of Green Lake. Prior to this, the venue had been a semi-successful community theater for several years, but Zaslove's popular productions, beginning with his homage to old-time radio, The Big Broadcast, and including his '50s rock 'n' roll adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, were such hits that they often closed only because the performers chose to do something else.

Zaslove, whose extensive work has also included little-known revivals and experimental work along with the crowd pleasers, knew that the theater's future stability depended on finding funding outside of box office receipts. He needed to find grants, donations, and other sources of income that would ensure that even if a show or two (or even an entire season) were to flop, his company would still remain solvent. What he needed was a board.

The basic purpose of the board of a non-profit theater is convincing businesses and organizations to provide cash and in-kind donations, even stepping in with its own finances when necessary to keep the theater going. In the world of nonprofits, people talk about a "working board" and a "money board," but ideally you want a combination of the two, not only people who are willing to do the work to find the necessary funds, but those who've got the connections, and personal cash, to provide help if the grants and partnerships fall through.

But despite his impressive artistic record, which included setting up the teaching program at the University of Washington and running the second stage at the Seattle Rep, Zaslove had little luck finding a board with either money or connections. Older theaters, including the Rep, ACT, Intiman, and the Empty Space, not to mention other nonprofits and charities, had already done an effective job of finding the big spenders.

THE DECISION TO SHUT the theater's doors wasn't Zaslove's, but the board of the Bathhouse, which filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy rather than incur more debt (which, under law, board members could be personally responsible for). While Zaslove is careful not to disparage his current board, he admits to being envious of the sort of influential and moneyed folks who serve on the boards of Seattle's larger theaters.

Zaslove is adamant that the problems he's faced, with funding organizations and wealthy philanthropists who'd rather see their names on buildings, not in program notes, are ones that all Seattle theaters will eventually face.

Other theaters would do well to listen. As Zaslove points out, the Empty Space was in a very similar situation just a few years ago after its disastrous move to Pioneer Square, and was bailed out at the last minute.

While its current artistic director, Eddie Levi Lee, believes that surviving this crisis has put the Empty Space in a healthier location, he's quick to admit there are too many similarities between the two theaters to be complacent. "We've got a great working board, and we're in a great location as well. But in all honesty, I'm sort of afraid to examine it too closely. You wonder year after year how live theater survives, and you know you could be next."

While the Space's box office has been exceptionally strong in the last year or so, Lee admits that he's looking to pump it up even more in case other funding sources should dry up. This necessity of finding more hit shows is not only an iffy proposition for a theater the size of the Space (how many musicals, for example, feature casts of eight performers or less?), but could push it away from the sort of daring experimental work that is in part the theater's raison d'괲e. Comparing city and state contributions to his hometown of Atlanta, Lee laments that in Seattle, theater is still treated like a neglected stepchild.

Scott Nolte, the artistic director of Greenwood's Taproot Theater, sees the problem as being artistically ambitious while being financially squeezed. "For us, it's a big deal to advertise at a $100 a week in the [Seattle] Times, unlike the Rep or other large theaters." Taproot's actors, directors, and technical artists double as its administrative staff, but even given the strong box office Taproot has enjoyed since moving to its new venue, Nolte is adamant about the role he has of being not only the theater's artistic head, but its impresario. "You must be the person responsible for shaking the hand of the donor, because your face is always what he or she will think of when it comes time to sign the check. You need to ask yourself: 'Why are you important to this cadre of people, who are willing to choose you over other charities? How can I get them to help keep the lights turned on?'"

Not only are midsize theaters valuable for their intimacy and ability to put on shows unlikely to be seen in larger houses, but they are also creatures in gestation. "It wasn't too many years ago that the Intiman was our size, and not too many years before that that ACT was as well," says Nolte. By choosing not to support midsize theaters, Seattle's audiences and fund-raising bodies are undermining the growth and support of groups that could one day be of the size and influence of the Rep or ACT.

Even now, Zaslove refuses to give up, despite his exhaustion and the $50,000 loan he'd taken out on his own home for the theater's survival. He's been meeting with the mayor's office to discuss possibilities for a new theater in the venue, one that would contain an entirely new board. "I keep showing up there like the ghost of Banquo, shaking my bloody locks at them." While the meetings have gone well, there's been no talk of financial support yet. And if the Bathhouse proves to have gone down for the third time, it's another sign of turbulent waters for all theaters in Seattle.

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