I wish I had something pithy to say about Balagan’s shut-down, but I really don’t.
“Balagan’s board president, Jim Griffin, said in a statement released Friday that unspecified “financial setbacks were encountered as the theater pushed to grow, while not having a permanent home for operations.” Balagan, which began producing in 2006, recently moved out of its three-year-old home, the Erickson Theater, after its landlord, Seattle Central Community College, reclaimed the space for its own use.
‘This is not a decision that the board took lightly,’ Mr. Griffin said in the statement. ‘When viewing the big picture of our overall financial health, this was a difficult conclusion, but ultimately a responsible fiscal action to take.'”
The Slog also posted about the closure, and I haven’t read the comments, but theatre people I know have and reportedly, the amount of suddenly unleashed ire at the company was shocking. Although this is presented as a loss for the theatre community in Seattle, unlike when the Intiman closed, there’s actually a large amount of resentment against Balagan’s former leadership, especially former artistic director Jake Groshong.
I have not had that much experience with Balagan myself. I saw a show there years and years ago, when they were still in a blackbox theatre off of Pine (or Pike?) in Capitol Hill – I don’t remember the title, but it was a generative piece based on the Odyssey. It was okay. I haven’t seen any of their shows since they made the decision to focus on popular Broadway works and staged versions of popular media like “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” That type of theatre is not something I financially support; when I started this blog, I made the decision I was going to see as much theatre as possible, and later narrowed that down to focusing on new work within the Seattle theatre community, because it is what I enjoy working on, and I tend to enjoy locally-written and -produced shows more than the latest show about a dysfunctional white family that trickles down to us from Broadway’s for-profit theatre grind. That said, there wasn’t really a company in Seattle that did popular Broadway works with entirely local talent, so I can see what they were going for and ultimately, I don’t hold it against them.
I had one minor experience with Jake Groshong himself. A production I’d worked on borrowed platforms from Balagan, since they were nearby, and I was trying to figure out when and how to return them. I got a vague answer. Jake struck me as stuck-up, like he was looking down on me, and I’ve heard other people say that. But I seriously only talked to him for 5 minutes, and I know I come off as snotty or pretentious to people sometimes, so I don’t hold that against him or Balagan either.
I heard one horror story from an actor who was in Equity, again from many years ago. She was asked to donate her Equity stipend back to the theatre, so they didn’t have to pay her. The Stranger’s blog post flings similar, continuing accusations about unpaid artists, so if any of these are true, then personally, I don’t support a theatre isn’t upfront about artist payments continuing in our community.
On the other hand, I’ve had encounters with boards of directors and their failure to understand artists’ intent. Debt is one thing – unmanageable debt is serious – but as far as I can tell, all nonprofit theatres run on a deficit consistently. I think board unilateral decision-making that does not support artistic vision is a huge reason why the nonprofit model is broken, and does not work for theatres anymore. I feel deeply for Balagan’s artistic staff and what a blow this must be to the trust they were trying to build.
So that’s where I stand. I wasn’t involved with Balagan, so I won’t miss them, but the circumstances are so shitty that I feel bad for the people involved. It’s a tough world out there for artists, and always has been. There are amazing theatres in Seattle, and theatre events like the newly-revived Fringe Festival which I finally got to be part of and which runs on a very small number of wonderful, dedicated volunteers, and I think it’s hugely important we don’t look at this as a failure of the whole community, but an opportunity for us to further define what Seattle theatre should be.