I’ve read a couple of articles lately about theatres banding together in various ways. Despite what you may think of the title, I’m not inherently against it. Artsblog’s “E Pluribus Unum” post makes the point that theatres in New York City have banded together, or are looking to band together, to form groups which share rent on space, admin staffs, and even grant money. It’s brilliant, actually, and as the article points out, a great way to survive tough economic times, when money and affordable space are both scarce.
Just over a month ago, Crain’s New York Business (shout-out: their coverage of the business side of the arts—how does it work?—is the best in this crowded city; who’s got the best arts/business journalism in your community?) reported on the Lower Manhattan Arts League (LoMAL): a group of eleven companies across different arts disciplines. All downtown. Shared marketing. Lowered costs through joint purchases of goods and services. And LoMAL takes the prize, achieving the hardest feat in partnering: they applied for grants together, and figured out how they would divide the $$$. Not in theory, for real. They were awarded and shared money they would never have received separately.
A roughly similar arrangement has been occurring more and more in Seattle — A Contemporary Theatre, as well as several smaller theatres including Annex and the brand new West of Lenin space, rent out their space between their own mainstage shows. This means that the space is in constant use, and the primary lease-holding company has income from a variety of sources. In fact, Annex and ACT are both well-known for having something going on all the time.
This isn’t the same as a conglomeration of theatres. Seattle Theatres usually don’t share space on a permanent basis, although Seattle Shakespeare, Theatre Puget Sound (a theatre umbrella organization), Book-It, and the Wooden O all share a building and rent on one main stage.
The big theatre news in Seattle is a downtown corridor that will be called “the historic theatre district.” The theatres which will be in this alliance are A Contemporary Theatre, 5th Avenue Theatre, the Paramount, and Town Hall, and the point of them banding together is not simply to create flashy literature for tourists.
Eventually, the district could apply for grants, work together on energy upgrades, or get city zoning that would place value on the theaters’ historical significance. For example, the city could develop a program to allow theater owners to sell historical preservation “credits” to developers who want to build something in another part of town. Seattle has a similar program to encourage affordable housing, and the county uses a similar program to preserve farmland.
It is an interesting idea, and kind of similar to Artsblog’s article. My qualm is that this recognizes “the 1%” of theatres, which are already successful revenue-generating operations. It’s great that Seattle will have support for it’s arts on a government level, which will essentially leave the theatres in charge of themselves and unique, but will also create an overarching cultural support system. However, it neglects all of the other theatres in this city that add immensely to the city’s culture.
For example, this alliance represents a shift from the town’s original theatrical area to the downtown corridor. Several of Seattle’s oldest theatres are currently in the Seattle Center — Seattle Rep, Seattle Shakes/Wooden O, the Intiman (or at least it’s space), Seattle Children’s Theatre, Book-It, Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet in McCaw Hall, Center Stage Theatre and Theatre Puget Sound which manages it … it is an interesting shift from the biggest traditional gathering space in the city, to a downtown which is, frankly, underwhelming and falling apart (aside from the theatres in this alliance). It’s also a shift to the current biggest theatres in the town, away from an area that, with the Intiman’s potential demise, seems less appealing.
Most importantly to me, the accord neglects small theatres. Nothing is mentioned about including Freehold Studios, Macha Monkey, and Open Circle Theatre, which all share a space on 2nd Ave in Belltown. They’re close enough to downtown to be one of the stops on the roster. What about Comedy Underground in Pike Place Market? It’s one of the handful of hugely popular improv theatres in the city, and it’s in a classic downtown location. What about including studio spaces in Pioneer Square, despite the fact that several of the buildings which used to house theatre companies and artist lofts (like Satori Group) are being torn down to build the replacement Viaduct. Where’s the support for the incredible old buildings and cheap rent in that area? And finally, what about a Capital Hill Theatre alliance? There’s simply tons of theatres and artists that use those theatres on the Hill, although with Freehold now in Belltown, Balagan working closely with ACT, and ArtAttack missing in action, there’s not as much there now. But there’s Washington Ensemble Theatre, Annex, the Odd Duck Studio, Velocity Dance Center, and Theater Schmeater, to name a few off the top of my head. Theatre in the northern part of Seattle seems to be reviving as well, with West of Lenin coming back on the grid, and the Ballard Underground hosting Ghost Light Theatricals as well as itinerant companies that rent. What about an alliance there?
It’s something for these groups to consider, I think. There’s benefits to an alliance, as the large downtown theatres will show us, and there’s no reason that the 99% of theatres in the city shouldn’t get the attention and grant monies they deserve.