To make the most use of a building with year-round programming and to support smaller companies.
To create a simple application process by which groups apply to present their work and take on fundraising for their own projects.
Artists kept their identity while benefiting from institutional support; theatres got to present work that might not be affordable on the mainstage.
Risk is still involved; branding the program to work within the context of the theatre is key.
Eight large multi-week events throughout the season, plus readings, symposiums, and lectures.
What’s a multi-venue theatre to do? Running a space takes time and energy, not to mention costs. So how do you keep patrons coming back while keeping your costs down?
ACT Theatre in Seattle has no fewer than four venues; they can even program up to five events in a single evening if they use a certain common space creatively. When executive director Carlo Scandiuzzi joined the company in 2007, he wanted to take full advantage of the multiple stages. A project called Central Heating Lab was born.
“The first idea was that the events and shows in the Central Heating Lab would be the companion to our mainstage show,” says Scandiuzzi. First Class, a mainstage play by David Wagoner about Northwest poet Theodore Roethke, prompted a Central Heating Lab cabaret show that included music, poetry, and dance inspired by Roethke. “The idea was that someone could come to the theatre, see the play, and then have a drink afterwards and watch a companion piece to the show they had just seen,” explains Scandiuzzi.
Over time, Central Heating Lab evolved—it’s now called ACTLab—and it became clear that partnering with local groups in Seattle would not only benefit ACT and give smaller organizations more exposure; it would also provide an opportunity for ACT to develop work that might not end up on its mainstage. “It became a community magnet,” Scandiuzzi says.
ACT implemented a simple application process in order to learn about what projects were available and to make sure that the groups applying had a solid understanding of budgeting. “We look at the budget with a group,” says Scandiuzzi. “We want to make sure they understand the risks. They take an active part in fundraising for their show, though ACT gives resources. We cover marketing and we help them figure out their fundraising strategy.”
Says ACTLab production manager Alyssa Byer, “ACT gives support in terms of crew, ticketing, and marketing, but the artist/producer ends up keeping most of the box office.”
“The idea is that we share the risk and we share in the profits, too,” Scandiuzzi says. “It’s modeled a bit after a concert promotion style. It’s a different financial model that allows us to not have to raise a lot of money, and because the cost is so much lower than a mainstage show, we are able to break even or sometimes even make money, even though the artists take the lion’s share of the profit.” The box office split is typically 70 percent to the artist/producers, 30 to ACT.
Ham for the Holidays, an annual winter sketch-comedy show by Lisa Koch and Peggy Platt, for example, costs about $60,000, but grossed about $110,000. ACTLab-supported projects have a range of budgets, from $20,000 to $180,000, but these are typically much lower numbers than the total cost of a mainstage play, making the risk worth it for ACT.
Scandiuzzi and Byer both point out that the ACTPass, a monthly subscription model that allows patrons to see multiple ACT shows a month (see AT, April ’11), is a big part of what makes ACTLab successful. “People with the ACTPass have access to multiple shows, so they are more willing to take a chance on something that they might not know about or might not even typically like,” says Byer.
That why-not-check-this-out attitude came in handy for Steve Lyons’s ACTLab-supported The Ghosts of Tonkin, about Oregon Senator Wayne Morse’s fight to prevent the Vietnam War, which bowed in May. Lyons’s company, Bellingham TheatreWorks, presented the show in Bellingham, Wash., before touring it to Portland, Eugene, and Seattle.
“In Bellingham we are a known entity, and we have no trouble getting media coverage or audience,” says Lyons. Touring, however, was another story. The show garnered a lot of media attention: “I was on four different Portland radio programs in a 24-hour period, and all the major newspapers covered us, as well as the alternative press,” says Lyons. Still, he recalls, houses were half empty.
The Seattle production proved radically different. Though Lyons was less thrilled about the media coverage (“we had trouble even getting listed in online calendars”), he reports that houses were consistently full. “Because we were being coproduced by ACTLab in Seattle, potential ticket buyers were assured that the show had been vetted,” he reasons.
Lyons and his production obviously benefited from ACT’s built-in audience, says Byer, but he didn’t rest on their laurels. “Steve also brought in a post-play panel at the end of every performance,” she says. “It was an hourlong dialogue that explored the themes of the play from the politics, to legal issues, to history. The audience got to take a deep dive after the play and that was very successful.”
In addition to the ACTPass, Byer chalks up a lot of ACTLab’s success to the way it’s tailored to different groups. “We are still nimble enough to respond to the needs of the individual producer, within the means that they have to make their production,” she says. Though some artists would balk at even the lower end of the ACTLab budget spectrum ($20,000 is pretty gulp-inducing for the truly emerging), Byer notes that ACT works with artists to figure out fundraising tactics and gives groups long lead times to accomplish funding goals.
“While there are other programs similar to ACTLab, few are as accessible,” Lyons posits. “As an individual, I could not approach them with some idea and expect to receive a positive response. But anyone can send in a proposal to ACTLab. If they like it and if you have the means to produce it, and if the stars align, they will coproduce.”
What’s more, he adds: “We didn’t eat it financially, which is always a pleasant surprise in the arts.”
Eliza Bent is a playwright and a former senior editor of this magazine.