by JACOB H. FRIES & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he short answer to what killed the critically claimed Actors Repertory Theatre is money. It's exactly the same thing that shuttered CenterStage last month.

But is there a larger message in the demise of these institutions, one right after the other? Does their failure say anything about the area's fickle tastes or the strength of Spokane's performing arts scene?

"I hope [the closure of ARt] starts a conversation about what's going on in Spokane and how the arts can survive -- and thrive," says Michael Weaver, the theater's founder and artistic director, adding nostalgically, "It was a good run."

In the case of ARt, the new board was surprised to find a series of unpaid bills left over from previous boards, board member Beth Gillespie says. "They were arriving left and right," she says. Printers hadn't been paid, royalties hadn't been paid. "All of the money went to paying these unpaid bills. ... We had no place to go. We had no way to pretend that we could pull off the rest of the season."

The announcement that the season would be cancelled came Aug. 29 during the run of The Importance of Being Earnest.

For his part, Weaver has been involved in the city's theater scene for 20 years and isn't sure what to make of ARt's closure. They had devoted fans who bought tickets and donated to the theater. "We couldn't have asked more of them," he says. "There just wasn't enough of them."

He also wonders whether the company's bent toward edgier, lesser-known productions was in itself a factor. "What a play does, as opposed to a symphony, is actually challenge your assumptions, your moral assumptions, your ethical assumptions. It challenges your beliefs and your belief systems, and I think some people can become afraid of that," he says.

In the end, he says, better-known and safer plays do well in the Inland Northwest. "Popular things sell. The [Spokane] Civic Theatre is doing well. They're about to open Oklahoma!," Weaver says. "I don't know if that's an indication of what the future of Spokane theater is or not."

The Civic, the city's long-standing community theater, is in fact offering a ticket exchange to all ARt subscribers. Yvonne A.K. Johnson, the Civic's executive director, takes umbrage at the suggestion Spokane's theater might be dying. "Absolutely not," she says. "It's alive and well at the Civic." Of course, her theater has the advantage of not employing professional actors, as ARt did. Nevertheless, she says, they've considered people's tastes in charting out their season.

"We're doing five musicals. We have a few comedies and two heavier dramas," she says. "People only have so much disposable income. There's enough sadness right now.... We're in a recession so people, when they go out, they want to feel their spirits lifted. They want to be entertained."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & K & lt;/span & aren Mobley, the city's arts director, says she's not entirely surprised by the theaters' failure or the recent closure of Magic Lantern, the art-house cinema. "What we're seeing is consistent with an economic downturn," she says. "[The arts] are kind of a canary in the coal mine. You often see charitable giving and corporate sponsorship go down before there's a full awareness of an economic downturn.

"Performing arts tickets and arts classes are not a pair of shoes or a nice sweater," she continues. "They tend to fall into that retail decline."

Karen Kalensky, Interplayers' consulting artistic director, agrees. "The arts is always what suffers first," she says. "It hasn't been greatly supported, particularly through this [Bush] administration."

But at the same time, neither Mobley nor Kalensky -- or Weaver, for that matter -- believe the theater scene got too big for the Lilac City, outgrowing the area's support for performing arts. "All the theaters had something different to offer," Kalensky says, a sentiment echoed by many in the business. "And the more theater there is, the more likely people are going to get out and see it."

Still, Weaver and others suggest the different production companies -- and the local actors and directors -- could do more to help each other through these lean times. One place to start, says Weaver: Stop tearing each other down, as people have done anonymously on the Internet.

"That's a dysfunctional theater community," Weaver says. "And I think as long as there is sniping ... a sort of underlying rumble of discontent ... I think that until that is healed, theater can never thrive here."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & niping divas notwithstanding, people remain optimistic about the prospects of arts and theater here. Mobley says she's seeing new arts organization popping up all the time. "People are trying different stuff," she says. "Despite the Magic Lantern closing, we have a lot more film festivals than we've ever had before. ... So it's not like film is dead. It's different."

She also points to the large crowd that turned out for the Spokane Symphony in Comstock Park. "I don't think people's interest is waning," she says. "To be honest with you, a lot of communities our size would be really proud to have what we have -- even with the losses."

Now Kalensky's Interplayers is the remaining professional theater in Spokane; she'll launch their 28th season Wednesday with a run of A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room. "As long as there are arts and people with this passion, I think theater will survive," she says. "I think we've been singing the same song from the beginning of time."

Looking forward, Mobley says she hopes the theater community will become more cooperative. "It means sharing stuff, info, tools, actors, equipment, ideas."

As for the ARt, the road forward is unclear. The board is meeting next week to plot out the next few steps and to consider whether it can or should be revived, says Gillespie.

"Our plan is to now step back, figure out how to finish paying off any unpaid bills and then sit back and say, 'How can we revise ourselves as an organization?'" she says. "It has to involve creating some sort of business plan, and it will take time."

Weaver, meanwhile, isn't sure what he'll do next, whether it will be in Spokane or somewhere else entirely. He hopes people will start thinking more about the city's theaters and that those occasional patrons will buy another ticket.

"It's vital to the community," he says. "It's vital to the life of the community that we have arts. The arts civilize. They make us better than we are."

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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About The Author

Jacob H. Fries

Jacob H. Fries is the editor of the Inlander. In that position, he oversees editorial coverage of the paper and occasionally contributes his own writing. Before joining the paper, he wrote for numerous publications, including the Tampa Bay Times, the Boston Globe and the New York Times. He grew up in Spokane Valley...