When the board of trustees of the Group Theater declared bankruptcy back in September 1998, the Seattle theater community raged and grieved, but no one denied there was a bright side to the story. In a town where finding a small theater available for rental at reasonable rates is all but impossible, the Group's demise left vacant a fully equipped, 199-seat theater space in the heart of Seattle Center. It seemed almost too good to be true.
And it was. At a late June meeting of the City Council's Culture, Arts and Parks Committee, Seattle Center officials submitted for approval a 25-year lease on the space to the Seattle Children's Museum, the Group's former neighbor on the first floor of the Center House.
Committee chair Nick Licata was on the point of gaveling the lease through without discussion when City Council member Sue Donaldson threw a well-aimed monkey-wrench into the Center's well-oiled machine. "Twenty-five years?" she queried; haven't we had enough bad experiences with long lease holders in the past, on city sites like golf courses? Is it smart to sign such a long lease to run a theater with an organization which, however worthy in its own field, has no track record in performing arts, she wondered? And why, she continued, did the lease include an option for the museum to cancel the lease with six months notice but no such escape hatch for the city should it find itself dissatisfied with its tenant?
Center spokesperson Pat Moroczek and Children's Museum director Cynthia Captain clearly had not anticipated any such questions, and their answers were sufficiently vague and defensive to move the committee unanimously to send the lease back for renegotiation. Given the difficulty of voting against anything to do with kids, odds are the committee will ultimately approve the bid, but only with a number of limitations designed to assure local theaters interested in using the space that they'll have a chance to before the year 2024.
The Children's Museum might today already have the wide-open lease they asked for with the community's blessing had they not decided in May to sublease the space for a minimum of six months to an out-of-town production, Triple Espresso, which despite its echt-Seattle title has already enjoyed long commercial runs in Chicago, Minneapolis, and San Diego. If Seattle had a surplus of small, affordable theater spaces, no one would mind a for-profit producer taking up long-term residence in one; given the actual space dearth, the Children's Museum sublet sent exactly the wrong signal.
Museum director of education Susan Warner says that the Triple Espresso booking is strictly a one-off while the institution develops plans for the space. That doesn't satisfy local theater troupes: they want to know why the city should hand over prime theater space to a group with no defined plan for putting it to use. They also ask what the museum is likely to be able to do with a theater that Seattle Children's Theater, just a block away across the Seattle Center campus, couldn't do more professionally and efficiently.
Why does the Children's Museum have an inside track on the Group space in the first place? When the museum moved to the Center in 1985, its management was led to believe that as the institution grew it would gradually get the whole first floor of the Center House to itself. But when the multiculturally oriented Group was literally facing eviction by the University of Washington, the city threw out the Center life-preserver.
Under the circumstances, the museum had no difficulty securing a promise that it would get first crack at the space should the Group ever leave it.
Why did the Center propose to rent out the space at raw space rates? Due to the complex electrical and safety requirements required, theater space is notoriously expensive to build. The Group space is fully loaded and ready to run, and can produce revenue for the lessee as is: Why should it rent at empty space rates?
Answers may emerge as soon as this week. Licata's committee met again Wednesday, this time with its own proposal to the Center and the museum on the table. A five-year lease is proposed, with just one five-year option-to-renew, and that renewal dependent on a council review of how well the lease is serving the general public interest as well as the museum's.
About the only thing left unchanged from the original proposal is the clause allowing the museum to bail out of the deal, no questions asked, on six months notice. This time around the city is asking for the same right. At the June 23 hearing, museum director Captain said that such uncertainty would seriously compromise her ability to raise money. It would be ironic if a clause the museum threw in as insurance proves to be the deal-breaker.