Balancing ACT

A plan to save the faltering Seattle theater has some saying: Why?

As we go to press this week, some old friends of Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) are gathered at the institution's bedside in intensive care, determined not to let the old girl expire without a struggle. Just to keep the heart beating this long, ACT board members have had to pony up in excess of $40,000 a month out of their own pockets since January to cover absolutely unavoidable expenses of even a skeleton operation: payroll taxes, employee health insurance, the basic cost of keeping a building functioning and secure. But it will take a lot more than that if ACT is to mount a 39th summer-to-December season. For more than a month, a kind of financial SWAT teamincluding, among others, ex-general manager Susan Trapnell, ACT treasurer Tom Murphy, artistic director Kurt Beattie, and board co-chair Sheena Aebighas been working to develop a budget document designed to play a double role: to lay out a plausible set of numbers for a stripped-to-the-bone production plan for 2003, and to persuade potential backers that if they help ACT out of its current hole, they won't just be throwing good money after bad. The plan unveiled on Monday calls for immediate radical retrenchment: a 35 percent reduction in budgeted operating expense, from 2002's $5.9 million to $3.9 million in 2003. The incessant round of productions of recent years would be reduced to just five, not including the company's annual holiday staging of A Christmas Carol. The plan predicates income through December at a shade under $5 million, expenditures at $3.35 million. This scenario would leave ACT in the black to the tune of more than $1.6 million, allowing the company to clear its present $670,000 accounts-payable deficit and get a jump on costs for a 2004 season. But of the mooted 2003 income, only $2 million and change is slated to come from earnings; the rest depends on tracking down $1.5 million in "special contributions" and raising almost as much again in a traditional nonprofit "annual fund drive." And if the plan is to work at all, the company needs the $1.5 million now to be able to begin contracting with the talent neededactors, designers, but also publicists, marketers, and managersto have a functioning theatrical machine humming by July 1. To help persuade the performing-arts community to cut ACT some slack as it struggles to put together a plausible package for funders, ACT SWAT team members Aebig, Trapnell, and Beattie met Monday evening with 30-odd respected local theater artists at the home of Jean Falls, widow of and ACT co-founder with Gregory A. Falls. The majority in attendance wished ACT well. After all, as actor R. Hamilton Wright opined, when you work at the mill, you don't want to see the mill shut down. But in the end, it's not the artists but the donors who will have to decide whether ACT's emergency rescue plan is plausible. A six-page action plan and six more pages of spreadsheet data were laid before the larger ACT community late Tuesday afternoon at an extraordinary meeting in the Falls Theater at Kreielsheimer Place. But however cogent the arguments and numbers are, saving ACT is not going to be an easy sell. Even before the dot-com collapse and sagging stock market hit the local arts economy, through artistically successful seasons and less successful ones, ACT was inexorably losing money. When ACT took occupancy of its new quarters at Kreielsheimer Place, the capital campaign to finance remodeling the old Eagles Auditorium at Seventh Avenue and Union Street was about half a million short of goal. While not much compared to the total $30 million cost of the project, this was enough to be a constant millstone round the company's neck as it struggled to find its artistic feet in a very different facility from its former, comfortably shabby old quarters on lower Queen Anne, and to adjust to the steeply higher cost of operations in a much bigger facility. Over the next five years, the accumulated deficit grew. By 2002, with artistic director Gordon Edelstein departed for a new post at Long Wharf Theater (see Letters, p. 5) in New Haven, Conn., with the departure of Dean Barney as company fiscal officer, with fund-raising and the box office both impacted by a declining local economy, ACT general manager Jim Loder was able to keep the operation rolling only by spending the money subscribers sent to secure seats for 2003 on current expenses. And well before 2003, all that moneyaround a million dollarswas gone. Despite that long decline, some observers in the funding community think that ACT is too central to the Seattle cultural scene to be let go without a struggle. Others feel that, in a time of catastrophic economic downturn, trying to prop ACT up can only drag other institutions down. The company's current parlous state has one positive side: There's no place left to hide, no way to borrow discreetly against the future. It's place your bets now and hold your breath, or fold and walk away.

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