Stepping Up

ACT's artistic director discusses his theater's hard-won progress.

ARTISTIC DIRECTOR Kurt Beattie knocks on wood when he talks about ACT Theatre in 2004, but luck may be on his side. After its well-publicized slide into near ruin, the company seems to be heading in the right direction. According to ACT, it has paid off its debt to vendors (approximately $650,000) and met its plan to end the year with a surplus in its operating budget (in excess of $100,000); it's working off the remaining $1 million line of credit with help from a $500,000 pledge from board member (and ex-Boeing CEO) Phil Condit. The theater also played to 87.1 percent capacity for the seasonnot a shabby figure considering its brave lineup: Instead of slogging through surefire cash cows, the company took the high road with well-executed productions of an O'Neill play (A Moon for the Misbegotten), an uncertain newbie (Omnium-Gatherum), and Edward Albee's love-it-or-hate-it shocker The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (a box- office smash despite initial skittishness that had ACT warning its subscribers). Ironically, the company's only real artistic clinker was the limp, ersatz crowd-pleaser Absurd Person Singular, a choice that Beattie defends by citing the company's long history with playwright Alan Ayckbourn.

The theater's five-show 2004 summer season, announced last month, has ACT continuing to take laudable chances, with three new plays on the roster (including a world premiere of Eric Overmyer's Ibsen-in-the-Northwest adaptation, Alki). I talked to Beattie about his success and the challenges ahead.

Seattle Weekly: So how is ACT now?

Kurt Beattie: We're in 200 percent better shape. I mean, it's a miracle. We made our single-ticket goals for the year, which is phenomenalwe may have come under by a thousand dollars or something, but basically we made it. And that was with a week less of word of mouth. [In a money-saving move, ACT's plays had runs abbreviated by a week.]

But you're giving next season's shows short runs as well.

We are. We want to prove to ourselves that subscriptions are going to bump themselves up before we start extending the runs.

Did you get any complaints about The Goat?

A thimblefula few phone calls, a few outraged letters. I knew the play was really good, but virtue is not always its own reward in the arena of the theater. And audiences can be fickle, or they can be enormously understanding. But, you know, it was wonderful, because when we got into [the season]when it started to look like we might have a chance to turn it around[Managing Director] Susan [Trapnell] and I, and a lot of other people that were involved, said, Why be fearful about anything? We lost everythinglet's have fun, and let's do some of the most challenging and interesting work we can find. I think our feeling is, well, our hair is grown out, so let it keep growing, and not be frightened. I think all received knowledge about audienceswhat they like and don't likechanges from year to year and from decade to decade. And certainly as a responsible producer you have to worry about that. And you can make some horrendous, stupid decisions. Everybody does, and I'm sure I will in the future. But we found [this season] enormously liberating.

How did you approach this season differently?

We didn't want to do another season of intense, small plays. This season we've got actually three pretty large plays [Matthew Barber's Enchanted April, Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, and Jane Martin's Good Boys] and one kind of pocket epicAlki, which is an adaptation of Peer Gynt. [Steven Dietz's new Fiction rounds out the season.] We wanted to see if we could work on a little larger canvas. So we're going to do that. The first three shows are going to have some overlapping cast members. [At press time, these included R. Hamilton Wright, David Pichette, and Julie Briskman.] It's a whole different kind of aesthetic. This coming season is going to be about the acting, and the ability for an audience to watch actors really change.

What other goals does ACT have?

Well, we want to get back to being a 12-month producing theater. We also want to find ways to deepen our commitments to new writing: We're going to do FringeACT [again], and we're looking right now for more commissioning money. Our current budget, even as brilliantly used as it has been by the production staff, is really too thin. I mean, people are working really hard, so there has to be more expansion on that. One of our goals next year is to really expand the breadth of artistic voice. I think we can produce all over the building. I don't think we just have to produce in our theaters. There's a lot of interesting theater we can do which is more closely related to spoken word, art, poetry, hip-hop. I think the Bullitt Cabaret [space] is going to be community directed, in a way, and we're hoping to do everything in there from torch singers to cabaret shows to vaudevillemaybe even this neoburlesque that's happening in town. What is my hope for the theater? It is that audience members, or people who just like to go out at night and see unusual things, will come to think of ACT as a place [they can go] without knowing what's going on because something interesting is always going on.

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