by Michael Bowen

With off-the-record comments and rumors, on-again-off-again negotiations, power grabs, firings and a couple of legal actions, the Spokane theater community is currently writing a script for itself that feels more like All My Children than All's Well That Ends Well.

Consider the four most prominent locally based theaters -- Spokane Civic Theatre, Spokane Interplayers Ensemble, CenterStage and the new Actors Repertory Theater of the Inland Northwest (ARt). CenterStage is suing its landlords and launching a fund-raising campaign; Interplayers, having been unable to finalize a proposed merger with ARt, now must select a new managing director and new artistic director so that it can also select a new season of plays; Michael Weaver's ARt, its merge-with-Interplayers idea having fallen through, now faces the challenge of launching its inaugural five-play season at Spokane Falls Community College; and the board of directors at the Civic has exploded the biggest bombshell of all by insisting on the resignation of artistic director Jack Phillips and two other full-time staffers.

In other words, these four theaters almost coalesced into three, but now they're back to four. Two are seeking entirely new artistic leadership, one is on an entirely new (and adversarial) relationship with its financial backers, and one is just entirely new, period.

Coup at the Civic

On Friday, May 20, the Spokane Civic Theatre board of directors abruptly terminated the 13-year tenure of John G. ("Jack") Phillips as artistic director of the 58-year-old community theater. The board also asked office administrator Shirley Deranleau to leave, intending to redefine her position, and then told Lisa Caryl that her positions as assistant costume designer and theater school director had been eliminated.

"This whole thing is financial," says Ellen Robey, president of the Civic's board of directors. In order to keep the Civic running, says Robey, Phillips dipped into the theater's endowment fund too much.

"He resigned -- he was not fired," Robey says. "Like many other nonprofit organizations, we have just had to downsize and reorganize our staff to stay within our operating budget."

The terms of Phillips' severance agreement with the Civic do not allow him to comment on the board's actions, but he does volunteer that "After 18 months of an extraordinarily tense and disturbing situation, I am sure that everybody involved is much relieved that it has finally been resolved."

One person who can comment on the situation is Marilyn Langbehn, who recently left the Civic as its marketing director. "Unlike Jack, I am not under a gag order," says Langbehn. "I did see it coming. It has been 18 months, if not two years, of 'slash and burn' as a theater, and the 'shock and awe' tactics that took place on Friday are nothing short of reprehensible.

"In light of what has taken place with the board's actions, which are directly attributable to the agenda of one person, Melody Deatherage, I think it bears asking her, now that she is the de facto artistic director of the theater, exactly what her vision for that is," Langbehn continues.

Deatherage offered no comment for this story.

Dee Finan, who recently retired after 28 years of building up the Civic's costume shop, describes herself as "beyond appalled" at the decision, calling it "cruel, mean-spirited and underhanded. She says she is completely severing her relationship with the theater: "I never thought that I would see the Civic act like a Fortune 500 company. This is community theater; it's supposed to be about people, not about profits. There is going to be an enormous backlash," she warns.

"I'm real disappointed," says Matt Harget, secretary on the executive committee of the Civic's board. "If they wanted to do a housecleaning, there are other ways to go about it.

"Another thing that I found very, very frustrating were all the vague allegations," says Harget. "Whenever we asked what the exact problem was, we would be told, 'Oh, we no longer have confidence in him.'

"I guess because I'm a defense attorney, I like to work with the known, with real evidence. I mean, what was the crime of Jack Phillips? This is a man who has given years of service. Look at all the national awards the theater has won since he has been here."

Harget adds that recently he "preached reconciliation" to the factions on the board, but that "it fell on deaf ears. The board has been divided between the bean-counters and the artistic types," he says. "The truth is, this is a community theater, and you need both kinds of people -- and you can't be at each others' throats."

Robey estimates that naming a new artistic director -- whether full-time or just part-time has yet to be decided -- will take about three months.

CenterStage Dispute

Meanwhile, there's trouble at other local theaters, too. CenterStage has appealed in a mailing for help in a $130,000 fund-raising campaign: After their landlords, Odd Girls, LLC, declared that their signed and notarized 20-year lease with CenterStage was invalid, Tim Behrens' theater now has no choice but to seek a declaratory judgment that the lease is still binding. Plans to turn the "Odd Girls block" on West First into an arts center have fallen through, and "Renovation expenses that originally were to have been shared are now being paid solely by CenterStage."

The year-old CenterStage complex has made a big splash on the local arts scene in a short amount of time. It has several revenue streams to work with: rentals for rehearsal space and wedding receptions, a lively upstairs jazz club, a dinner theater that's catching on and more. While it will apparently no longer be the centerpiece of an entire city block devoted to the arts, CenterStage still has exceptional potential and seems likely to succeed in asserting its legal claims. Then it can get back to musical revues and all that jazz.

A Near-Merger

As for the other two theaters in question -- Interplayers and ARt -- they almost became one. In late April, Michael Weaver and Grant Smith, ARt's artistic and managing directors, approached the established downtown professional theater with a merger proposal. The two theaters would merge, with Weaver and Smith at the helm. In exchange, Interplayers would receive a much-needed infusion of cash from ARt: $25,000, with an additional $40,000 in pledges of sponsorships and advertising, totaling $65,000 in all. Both theaters were to open up their financial records.

If talks progressed to such a level of detail, what derailed the proposed merger?

John Deen, president of Interplayers' board of directors, says that after weeks of discussions with Weaver and Smith, he began a series of phone conversations with Spencer Smith, the ARt board president. "We just ran out of time," Deen says. "Spencer Smith indicated to me, and we both agreed, that we simply ran out of time. They had to make a decision on theater selection. And that put us against the wall."

In interviews, Weaver and Grant Smith repeatedly mentioned the importance to them of seeing Interplayers' financial records and thereby gaining confidence in the established theater's stability. Spencer Smith (who is Grant Smith's father), however, says, "It wasn't critical that the financials be made available," he says. "The decision wasn't made on the financials -- it was made on the timing, nothing else."

Yet it's clear that opening up the books was on the agenda early on during the merger talks.

Michael Weaver, the Interplayers veteran who is now artistic director at the fledgling ARt organization, emphasizes that, "Of course we wanted to see their books. We just needed an updated financial situation: where they were, what they owe, how much had been brought in for '04-'05, and how much was still remaining in that retaining account -- which is what you do, you put it in a separate bank account and you don't touch it. Or if you do touch it, you have a way to repay it."

Asked if Interplayers was prepared to show its financial records to ARt, Deen pauses a long time and then says, "We never got that far."

While CenterStage and the Civic -- as a dinner theater and community theater, respectively -- have clearly different missions, it would appear that the established professional theater, Interplayers, and the new professional theater in town, ARt, may well compete for the same audience.

(Some distinctions: CenterStage pays its actors by the performance -- with bonuses for sold-out shows -- but not for rehearsal time. Interplayers pays its actors for three-and-a-half weeks of rehearsals and an equal stretch of performances -- seven weeks in all. ARt plans to pay actors for two-and-a-half weeks' rehearsal time and the same amount of performance time -- five weeks' salary, all told.)

Still, the possibility of an Interplayers/ARt merger still exists. For his part, Interplayers' Deen is optimistic: "We can't do it right now, but we might be able to a year from now. In fact, Spencer Smith and I have talked about meeting."

Weaver, too, would like to have seen his new theater combined with the older one: "It would have been nice," he says. "With the possible exception of Bob and Joan [Welch], nobody knows that space better than I do. I've directed 15 plays there, and I've been in almost 50 on that stage. It was my home for almost 18 years."

Proximity to downtown -- or lack of it -- can be a concern if you're starting up a theater on the north side of Spokane. ARt will present five plays from August through April 2005 at the Spartan Theater on the campus of Spokane Falls Community College -- which, as Grant Smith is quick to note, "is only seven minutes from downtown -- I timed it -- and we have plenty of free parking."

Phillips thinks that ARt's location at SFCC might "potentially" be a problem. "But I think the plays themselves are what's going to sell it," he says. "Bill [Marlowe, SFCC director of drama] seems not to have any problem in drawing people, and they have a built-in audience over there with the students, which helps. And there's plenty of parking."

If the refrain about parking sounds comical, don't laugh. Phillips reports that, in the Civic's audience surveys, ease and availability of parking -- preferably free, preferably quite close to the theater itself -- is repeatedly cited as one of the chief reasons for preferring the Civic over more crowded downtown parking situations like those around Interplayers and the Opera House. "I find that true about Spokane audiences in general," Phillips laughs. "'I want to park close.' It is the strangest stuff -- I have never seen it as obviously stated as here."

But can ARt succeed, even if it does have "acres of free parking"?

Phillips comments that "I like the idea of Michael running a theater very much -- his sensibilities are terrific. He knows the Spokane audience and the Spokane audience knows him."

And Weaver adds, as if on cue, "We're leading with plays that we know Spokane loves -- that's why we're opening with [Alan] Ayckbourn. [ARt opens its premiere season with Ayckbourn's British comedy, How the Other Half Loves, at SFCC on Aug. 28.] When I was first starting ARt and talking to patrons, the three names that kept coming up [that they wanted to see] were Ayckbourn, [A.R.] Gurney and [George Bernard] Shaw."

Finding New Leads

Interplayers needs not only to find some playwrights and plays to produce, it's also faced with two major hires. Deen talks about "a restructuring that is all-encompassing" at the theater on Howard Street. "It involves the management philosophy as well as plans for the physical plant," he says.

But there's a fly in the Interplayers soup just now. Even as this restructuring takes place, Deen and the Interplayers board have to deal with the legal hassle of the theater's co-founders, Bob and Joan Welch, taking the theater to small-claims court for back payment of pension payments. Deen maintains that it's unclear how many $1,000-a-month payments are in arrears, or even if they are required as monthly payments: "It could be $12,000 a year. So maybe we're in our rights to pay it annually."

Deen says that "It was being paid until just a few months ago, and through oversight with Robin [Stanton]'s departure, it got overlooked.

"We're not at the stage of going to court. It's all in small claims court. Before that, there is a mediation proposed," Deen continues, "and we are talking through the designated mediator about what day we might get together. The date has not yet been firmed up."

The Welches did not comment on the situation.

Deen points to new developments at Interplayers: "As scheduled, we have planned an annual meeting for the middle of June, and we hope to have all of our plans brought together at that time." Deen says that will include the announcement of Interplayers' new artistic director and managing director, along with the announcement of the theater's 2004-05 season -- even though, as Deen says, "We want our new artistic director to select the new season."

Deen admits that having a new artistic director select a new season by mid-June would require a hiring date substantially before then. "Yes, we are in the process of doing interviews," he says, "but oh God, it's a laborious process."

At least two of the interviewees for the artistic director position at Interplayers are Nike Imoru -- who directed Music From a Sparkling Planet in January and is in town now directing the musical revue Side by Side by Sondheim, which opens this week -- and Braden Abraham, who directed last month's hit show, The Underpants. Deen says there are other candidates as well.

Another consideration: Given the artistic successes and financial failures of Interplayers' former managing artistic director Robin Stanton, the choice of managing director may be more crucial for Interplayers' future than even the A.D. position is.

What does the Nigerian-born and British-educated Imoru expect from the Interplayers board?

"I don't know that I would like to see them steer in any particular direction -- I would like them to take care of the theater," she says.

"You know, this has been my life, and we all say that --[veddy British accent] 'Theatah is my life!' -- but actually I've taught it, worked it, consulted for it, been on boards for it -- in Africa, in Europe and here. I think it's work that needs to be done. And I really appreciate it when the groundwork is done first. The rest is cosmetic: who comes in, what they do, da da da, -- you know, if there's a mess in here, it needs to be sorted out. The board needs to get to work -- you know what I mean?"

Can It All Work?

Phillips has heard the "Spokane can't support another theater" kind of muttering before: "When the Valley Rep was running, there were a lot of people who were very concerned that it would take away from us -- ultimately, it didn't," he says.

Do other cities of comparable size support a second professional theater doing classical and contemporary plays? Des Moines, Iowa, with a population just over a half million, has theaters that correspond almost exactly to the theatrical offerings at the Opera House and at the Civic, along with a smattering of children's and college theaters comparable to Spokane's. It has a dinner theater much more extensive and better established than CenterStage. But its professional theater offerings are more limited. Madison, Wisc., in addition to the Madison Rep, has professional theaters presenting programs with gay, disabled and experimental themes. Reno, Nev., on the other hand, has only one theater with a permanent home; the rest are housed temporarily in schools, and it's more than an hour's drive to the two nearest professional theaters.

Phillips is nonetheless optimistic about the injection of a new professional theater like ARt into the Spokane theater scene. "I've found that the more theaters, the more theatergoers there become." he says.

Publication date: 05/27/04

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.