Fall Arts Theatre - Saving Interplayers

by Michael Bowen

There almost wasn't an Interplayers season to preview -- and the theater's situation remains financially precarious. Still, one way to preview what's coming in local theater -- and what needs to continue happening -- is to look back on the way the Spokane community rallied to rescue a local institution that matters. A reminder about past efforts just might underscore the need for continuing help.

Not long after Producing Artistic Director Robin Stanton had first arrived at Interplayers, in October 2001, Integrus Architecture estimated the necessary costs of renovation to the Interplayers facility at a minimum of $380,000. (This figure went well beyond basic safety concerns, including not only roofing, HVAC, fire alarms and fire sprinklers, but also necessary improvements in the lighting, ceilings, walls and stairwells, along with various cosmetic changes.)

Six months later, in April 2002, the Spokane Fire Department made most of those changes mandatory, and the capital campaign began. Within just six months more, combustible materials had been removed, the theater's entire electrical system had been upgraded and the most dangerous lapses remedied. Only two more (admittedly major) items remained: the installation of two automatic fire sprinkler systems -- one in the theater basement (used as a shop and rehearsal space) and another in the upstairs lounge.

As far back as June 1981, the Interplayers organization had been made aware of the need for an extensive fire sprinkler system, along with other safety concerns. When Bob and Joan Welch were in the process of taking over the building on Howard Street, the City of Spokane, which had balked at initial plans for the renovation of the building's interior, citing safety concerns, called for sprinklers on every level of the theater. (The need for such an automatic fire sprinkler system, however, was disputed by the building's owners at the time.)

In December of that year, Interplayers agreed to keep the basement unoccupied. Yet 21 years later, concerns over the pileup of costumes and other materials in the downstairs area -- which was still being used as a rehearsal space -- were among the safety concerns first addressed by the theater in response to the fire department's demands.

A June 2002 letter from Stanton to Betsy Cowles, asking for help in initiating the capital campaign, specified required line-item improvements totaling $170,000, then estimated additional maximum costs of $60,000 (for sprinklers) and $70,000 (for HVAC). This seems to be the origin of the advertised $300,000 mountain that Interplayers had to climb.

They've climbed it. The Spokane Fire Department confirms that all the necessary sprinkler systems have been hooked up. Sprinklers in the basement and in the upstairs gallery (where food and beverages are served) weren't absolutely required to be in place until August 2005.

The theater completed its capital campaign with the help of a remarkable upwelling of support from people who decided that they didn't want to lose the city's leading theater. Stanton recounts numerous acts of generosity. Union workers at Aztech Electrical actually held meetings to determine how much labor they could donate to the cause. WhiteRunkle organized an ad campaign worth $100,000, all told. At one point, board president Sandy Hayden came up with an alternate plan for the roof-mounted air conditioning system and then got contractors to donate the necessary labor. Jerry Kofmehl arranged for the installation of a fire-protection "burn wall" worth thousands of dollars. Bill Zack, who had envisioned an expanded Interplayers complex as far back as 1986, now donated consulting time. Cowles, having initiated the campaign with $25,000 in matching funds, responded to an appeal from Stanton and donated the funds outright. Jeff Lambert arranged for workers to dispose of years' worth of accumulated asbestos in the theater's basement -- another job worth several thousand dollars -- and did it for a set of season tickets.

There were sacrifices: week-long "salary furloughs" for the entire staff and 10 percent pay cuts for three staff members. At least three employees have recently left, citing low pay as the chief problem.

Still, Interplayers will soon conclude its campaign having raised $220,000. What, then, happened to the $300,000 goal? A remarkable alignment of the stars -- one generous in-kind contribution after another -- greatly increased the accumulated cash contributions. The Interplayers campaign, evidently, was successful in far more than monetary ways: It captured the hearts of the Spokane theater's most effective patrons.

Publication date: 09/11/03

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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.