by Michael Bowen

In America, the theater is dying. Ensconced with our TVs and our videos in our cozy home theaters -- we even have screens in the backs of our minivans -- people just don't want to make the effort anymore to get off of the couch and pay good money to take a chance on a new play. In particular, here in Spokane, a conservative burg given more to outdoorsy, entertaining kinds of pursuits, the theater is on the margins of people's cultural radar screens, if it registers at all. Not all that many people really care about what goes on at the Civic or at Interplayers.

Or so we're told.

But try convincing the people who contributed selflessly to the recent $300,000 capital campaign at Interplayers, which was compelled by a fire department order to improve safety measures in and around the theater's playing space. The story of that campaign's imminent success testifies to the depth of local support for theater. As Robin Stanton, the producing artistic director at Spokane Interplayers Ensemble, has written, "While $300,000 may seem like a large amount in today's economy, the cost of letting a downtown landmark 'go dark' is a much higher price to pay."

Interplayers was presented with quite a hill to climb. But they've climbed it. "Here's your scoop," says Stanton, sitting in her dilapidated office and allowing herself a brief smile. "I only need $10,000 more, and Aztech [Electrical] will hook up the sprinkler system, and we'll be done."

Interplayers will soon conclude its campaign having raised $220,000, enough to cover the changes called for by the Spokane Fire Department. And they did much of it with one generous in-kind contribution after another. The Interplayers' campaign captured the hearts of the Spokane theater community's most effective patrons.

All of which suggests that there are some dedicated folks in Spokane who not only value theater but are willing to do something about it when difficulties arise.

How, then, do local theaters keep the box office phone lines busy and the turnstiles turning?

Phillips reports something of which many people are unaware: About 80 percent of the Civic's operating budget derives from earned income. "Most of that," he says, "probably 65-70 percent of the overall amount, comes from ticket sales. About 10 percent [overall] comes from the income from classes, camps, and costume and theater rental. Maybe 5 percent comes from benefits and corporate sponsorships."

The myth of an artistic enterprise floating on subsidies taken from hard-earned tax dollars is just that: "We only got about $4,000 this year from the Washington State Arts Commission," says Phillips, explaining that WSAC simply offers pass-through grants from federal sources.

Bob Welch, formerly co-artistic director of Interplayers with his wife Joan, advises that in such an atmosphere, theaters need to focus on marketing to those people who make a practice of going out on the town from time to time. (Everyone interviewed for this article recited in some form the old marketing adage of thirds: one-third of the market supportive, one-third not and one-third somewhere in the middle.) The Welches' effusive praise for Katherine Gellhorn, an active arts patron in Spokane whose passing is much lamented, implies that new Gellhorns need to step up to the plate of arts advocacy.

The intimate, face-to-face nature of live theater may be one of its characteristics that pays off in an unexpected area: fund-raising. Marilyn Langbehn, the Civic's marketing director, says that she actually enjoys fund-raising, because "at the end of the day, it's all about relationships. What people don't realize about fund-raising is that 'the ask' is about five seconds -- it's the end product of a long series of in-depth opportunities."

Langbehn, who recently completed a certificate of arts management at UW, points out that nonprofit theaters can no longer afford to ignore business practices -- hence the recent trend toward splitting the helm at regional theaters into producing and managing artistic directorships, as Interplayers has done with Stanton and Michael Weaver.

Phillips says that the Civic turned a corner with the establishment of a three-quarter-time development director position. In that capacity, Susan Hammond has been able to write grants successfully (in one recent competition for grant money, the Krumholtz foundation made its two awards to the New York City Ballet and ... the Spokane Civic Theatre.)

As for the sponsorship situation in general, Phillips points out that sources have dried up as more regionally focused organizations such as Washington Water Power and Seafirst Bank have given way to larger institutions with less time for local concerns -- Avista and the Bank of America (although both continue their tradition of support for the arts).

Still, the energy of Spokane's theatrical scene remains high. Why here, so far from major urban centers? Phillips notes that the remoteness may, ironically, create an advantage: "The large expanses around here make Spokane more of a magnet city," he says. Everyone in a far-flung area surrounding Spokane regards this as the place to come do their artistic work. The Symphony, too, says Phillips, long ago established a tradition of talented artists settling in the area (an observation that lends credence to Richard Florida's ideas about the flocking-together of the creative class). But most of all, Phillips recalls, it was one remarkable statistic that drew him here 12 years ago: The national rule of thumb for proportion of arts audiences is generally 2 percent of the population. Phillips came to Spokane, despite other offers, because that figure here is 14 percent.

Over at Interplayers, Stanton grows enthusiastic about just how much local artsy-types show up when the work gets tough. Not to sugar-coat it, though, Interplayers has taken some hits: week-long salary furloughs for the entire staff, three staff members compelled to accept 10 percent salary cuts, the loss of three other staff members. Even the recent success of Always ... Patsy Cline -- a $25,000 profit -- couldn't offset the $38,000 loss resulting from a 20 percent drop in season subscriptions when it appeared that the Interplayers show might not go on.

"This theater will deal with the disruptions caused by the capital campaign for several years," she says.

Phillips, for his part, says that he had two goals when he first arrived to lead the Civic in February 1991. The first was to maintain high artistic quality.

"The second was to be certain the theater was on a sound enough financial base to weather the occasional economic storm," he says. "Even though we finished the 2002-03 season -- called one of the two worst years for the arts in more than a decade -- with the largest profit we have ever shown, we are not there yet."

The Civic, he says, isn't there yet, and Interplayers still needs to stabilize. Still, reports of the theater's demise in Spokane are premature.

Six Theater Strategies

Go Commercial -- It's not selling out entirely to do a full season of nothing but hilarious, rib-tickling comedies and poignant, hummable musicals -- as long as there's a more ambitious goal in view. Maximize revenues, gain stability, return to eclectic programming (with a mix of the provocative and the traditional) the following season. Loyal playgoers will remain loyal if the strategy is clear, and even a few more seats might be filled by entirely new theater patrons.

Even More Outreach -- If people overwhelmingly want to see plays with which they are familiar, then familiarize them with more plays. Perform scenes in schools and shopping malls; speak to students in theater classes; make actors available at post-performance receptions; present staged readings or pre-performance talks; organize "play clubs" along the lines of the ubiquitous book discussion clubs, so that at least some audience members will know what they're getting into.

Experimental Marketing -- With the national trend away from season subscriptions and toward single-ticket purchases (perhaps impulsive ones), emphasize promotions that appeal to last-minute buyers. "Pay what you can" nights, already in practice, could be extended; $5 "first-timer rush" tickets, on the model of student rush, for example, might also work. And surely some local underwriter could get behind a "we'll pay the bus fare" promotion. Don't laugh: For college students, lack of transportation and lack of familiarity with downtown are two chief obstacles to attendance. (And it wouldn't hurt to tie in a production to local curricula; Civic Director Jack Phillips refers to the Civic's tradition of doing one Main Stage production each year that's somehow linked to the Spokane Public Schools' curriculum.) Students will attend plays if they "have" to go -- and end up returning. Which brings up another notion...

Make It Like Home -- Give backstage tours, show movies, hold auctions, host lectures, provide for social occasions -- anything to get people physically into the theater's lobby and hallways. Emphasize how casual -- and raucous -- the playgoing experience can be. Eventually, patrons will venture past the lobby right into a paid-for seat at a performance.

Hit the Road -- Half of Interplayers' customers travel more than 50 miles to attend what is, after all, the region's only resident professional theater that pays actors salaries for both performances and its (cramped, pitifully short three-and-a-half-week) rehearsal period. They have come to us; perhaps now it's time for us to go to them. Performances in outlying areas (whether truncated, condensed, semi-staged, or merely one-person) will get outlying theater patrons into their cars and on the road to Howard Street (both 174 South and 1020 North).

Toot Your Own Horn -- Artistic Director Robin Stanton notes that Interplayers' theater-going patrons deposit $800,000 a year into downtown coffers. The Civic, with a larger house, a second space and a greater number of events each year, contributes at least that much to the local economy. The sustained excellence of Spokane Children's Theater and the Spokane Theatrical Group, along with the emergence of CenterStage and the cooperative ventures with others of Express Theater Northwest, all suggest the persistence -- and raw economic value -- of Inland Northwest theater audiences. Good performances beget good (and greater) audiences; they can also lead to sponsorship. Stanton is seeking 10 contributors (at $5,000 a pop) "within the next four to six months" to ensure that operations remain at a high artistic standard. Given the economic benefits of having a resident professional theater downtown, contributors ought to listen up.

Publication date: 08/28/03

Our Legacy: Our Voice, Our Action, Our Power

Thu., Sept. 24, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
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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.