by Michael Bowen

If it's not falling off a cliff, it's certainly at a crossroads. And one of the paths ahead is missing its guardrail. With the resignation of Associate Artistic Director Michael Weaver, the recent installation of an entirely new Board of Trustees and the departure of several employees (from both the front office and the technical staff), Spokane Interplayers Ensemble is undergoing a transformation. Its financial reserves are depleted, ticket sales are lagging, and -- in what is, to be sure, a national trend in a struggling economy -- season subscriptions are down.

The new president of Interplayers' Board of Trustees, John Deen of Stonewall News Northwest, underscores the severity of the theater's financial crisis. "I've known other board presidents," he says, "but I don't know if they've ever faced anything as bad as this. The financial situation is critical -- it's an overriding burden for the theater."

Recently, Interplayers successfully completed a capital campaign to upgrade the fire alarms, fire sprinkler system and more. Yet even Producing Artistic Director Robin Stanton admits that "the theater is out of money." Even the "rainy-day fund" left over from cofounders Bob and Joan Welch was spent last year to pay bills.

Employees, like theater patrons, vote with their feet, and Interplayers employees, complaining about mistreatment and low salaries, have been walking out the exits. There have been four different production stage managers during Stanton's two-and-a-half-year tenure. The first of those was Jason Laws, who pointed to the irregular arrival of paychecks and personal tensions with Stanton as his reasons for leaving: "If you disagreed with Robin, she'd say, 'You can't talk to me like that.'"

Laws also claims that some employees, like Kimberly Crawley, were Stanton's favorites. That's why it came as a surprise when Crawley, who was directing the theater's most recent production, The Bench, abruptly quit the day before the show opened. Stanton, citing communication difficulties between director and cast, had taken over direction of the show three days before. For her part, Crawley states that "I resigned on Nov. 19. It was a personal choice. I was not asked to do so, and I resigned of my own free will." Crawley had no comment on Stanton's decision to take over direction of the show.

Earlier, in late August, Grant Smith resigned as Interplayers' marketing and development director. Asked if he left because he couldn't work with Stanton, he responded in writing this way: "Ms. Stanton and I have very different ways of dealing with people. We also have very different understandings of personal and professional relationships."

Weaver, who recently resigned as second-in-charge at the theater, strikes a similar note: "I'll say this: Robin [Stanton] has an extremely different way of dealing with people, very different from my own. I don't believe that, in order for us to work together, you have to be a close personal friend of mine."

Asked about the differences between Robin and him as directors, Weaver responds, "I like to be as positive as possible with actors, and with the people I work with. Jerry Zaks [the Broadway director] said something once, and I've never forgotten it: 'The worst thing a director can do is make the actors nervous.' That's how I try to conduct rehearsals. What's the point of making people uptight and nervous?"

Weaver and Stanton also disagree over how decisions were communicated within the Interplayers organization.

"One of the things about Robin's management style," says Weaver, "is to announce things publicly without beforehand talking to you privately --- which I found disconcerting and, frankly, insensitive."

Stanton's response to her associate artistic director? "I didn't feel the need to be floating my artistic decisions by him. I was not obligated to run my artistic decisions past him. To be really happy as an associate artistic director, you can't disagree with your boss."

All of which leads to what might be called "The Flap Over The Underpants." Weaver claims that he discovered he'd been cast in April's production of Steve Martin's The Underpants by reading about it in the newspaper.

Stanton responds: "He and I discussed that part on more than one occasion with other people present. And other people who have been cast in that show knew that the role of the husband in The Underpants was intended for Michael. We have no written contract for that role, but that's true for the rest of the roles this season, too. As Michael knows, he read for that role, and from that point on, not only did everyone assume that he had it, he and I discussed it on more than one occasion. Of course he knew. But what's going to happen now, we'll see."

While he may be shown the exit yet again, Weaver has this comment on the rash of employee departures at Interplayers: "Well, I think it's unhealthy for the theater, but healthy for those of us who have left."

On the bright side, though, such squabbling may simply be symptomatic of a theater that's experiencing growing pains. Karen Mobley, who leads the Spokane Arts Commission and also sits on Interplayers' Advisory Board, interprets the current turmoil at Interplayers as another case of "'founders' syndrome,' when you have a long-standing leader or leaders of an arts organization, and then there's conflict with the new director. It's very common when you have a new executive director to have staff turnover like this. So I'm concerned, yes, but I'm not all that surprised."

Deen, the board president, also soft-pedals the situation. On the issue of all the resignations, he reports that "No employee has ever expressed any grievance to the board in the year I've been on the board. Resignations are part of it -- organizations go on. And as for the personalities, well, let's just say, you know theater people -- they tend to be a little dramatic."

Stanton agrees that the current travails typify founders' syndrome: "When I walked in, the organization was in the process of going through founders' syndrome. They tried to come to an agreement about the Welches' retirement. There were board walkouts. It was tumultuous, and I got hired into the middle of it. So the suggestion that everything was fine until I showed up is simply unfair to those who have worked so hard here ever since.

"You know, a former board member took me aside one day and said, 'If you made a management mistake, it was that you didn't clean house right away. In an effort to heal some things, you ended up allowing those things to fester.' And I agree.

"It's been a great learning experience as artistic director. But it has also been the most painful three years of my professional life. So we're gonna go home and re-evaluate the last three years."

But even with the financial difficulties, there's a consensus that production values have improved under Stanton. Sets and costumes have looked impressive in the premier productions of the last two years: Three Days of Rain, Fully Committed, God's Man in Texas, Always ... Patsy Cline and many others. Stanton, who pays $600 to each of five designers for each show, says that's part of what she was charged with: transforming Interplayers into an important player among the nation's regional theaters.

Last season's innovation of producing a musical paid off, but as even Stanton notes, Patsy Cline made a profit of $36,000, which hardly offsets an even bigger decline in season subscriptions.

With the financial shortfall, then, what's the short-term outlook? Deen has a plan: "We've gotten a line of credit from a local bank to tide us over for three months," he says. "After the three months, we should start to see some funding from season ticket sales." Stanton adds that, in each of the past two years, more than $100,000 has come into the theater in the form of early season-ticket renewals, even though she doesn't announce the following season, typically, until May or June.

Weaver, one of the theater's big draws over the years who was nonetheless passed over for the job when the Welches hired Stanton, is also looking to the future: "I want to see the continuation of professional theater in Spokane," he says. "Don't get me wrong: I want to be a supporter of Robin."

"What I want people to know is, I'm not pissed off. Disappointed, yeah. I have been disappointed for three and a half years [since the search for the Welches' replacement began]. But I clung on -- I wanted what was best for the theater. So they wanted to bring in somebody new. And when that somebody new started, I was hopeful, and I thought, 'We'll go through the roof.' But I have just hung on for two and a half years, and you know, now I feel so empowered and ready for the future and excited about the potential of myself -- in acting, in directing, and in administrating, because I love theater administration. And what better time to do it than this moment in Spokane, where there is so much potential?

"I really love Spokane," Weaver says. "I'm committed to staying -- I've got a house and a dog. And where else in the arts but Spokane can you buy a house?"

Should playgoers abandon the Interplayers ship because it's undergoing several kinds of transition? No. Should they be concerned about the theater's future direction? Yes.

When and if Stanton hires a new associate artistic director is one issue; another is the fund-raising effectiveness of the new board; yet another is the marketability of next season's play selections. But Interplayers' fate doesn't rest entirely in Stanton's -- or in any other single individual's -- hands. It rests with the readers of this article, and with members of both the theatrical community and the general public. In the end, ticket buyers will decide how this play ends.

Publication date: 12/18/03

Print Town USA @ Spokane Print & Publishing Center

Sat., Sept. 26, 12-8 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.