A decade ago, ACT Theatre had a near-death experience.
Flat out of cash, in between artistic directors and struggling to make a go of it in a newly renovated, two-stage home in downtown Seattle’s rambling, historic Eagles Auditorium Building, one of the region’s oldest and most celebrated theatre companies nearly called it quits.
But walking into ACT’s bustling lobby on an average weekend these days, you’d never guess how close the playhouse came to extinction.
With friendly staffers serving as traffic cops, streams of patrons are directed to shows running in multiple venues on several different floors of the Eagle—the mainstage Falls Theatre downstairs, the in-the-round Allen Theatre upstairs, the cozy Bullitt Cabaret; the intimate “Lalie” black box space.
The fare here is often strikingly diverse, ranging, for instance, from the sassy vaudeville and burlesque shenanigans of Seattle’s annual Moisture Festival, to a powerful staging of a tense, urban Stephen Adly Guirgis drama by the hardy fringe company Azeotrope, to ACT’s resplendent recent adaptation of the Hindu sacred text The Ramayana, to a screening of films scripted by Harold Pinter and a reading of new works by teen playwrights.
It took some rough and lean years, some major gifts by loyal ACT benefactors. And the company currently still shoulders a heavy financial debt ($2.7 million) accumulated from the worst of times, at which it is slowly chipping away.
But recession and nonprofit blues be damned: ACT has, in spite of it all, blossomed into one of Seattle’s liveliest and most inviting cultural hubs, a nerve center where audience members and artists of all stripes and ages can plug in and turn on. Audience numbers are up. Tickets are affordable. The number of attractions keeps the place buzzing. And there’s a spirit, a creative zest and drive, that permeates the place.
Much of what ACT has become is sparked by the vision and determination of artistic director Kurt Beattie, a longtime Seattle director, actor and administrator with a commitment to a broad, open and socially engaged vision of theatre.
But while executive director Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi is not as public a figure, there’s no doubt he’s an equal partner in ACT’s transformation. And some of the more daring and successful strategies the theatre has adopted in this doing-more-with-less era are Scandiuzzi’s. He has brought to the theatre the marketing and managerial savvy from his days as a rock music promoter and film producer, and his generosity (with wife Eulalie Scandiuzzi) as a major Seattle arts philanthropist and activist.
“I came on staff in 2008 after becoming wholeheartedly inspired by Kurt Beattie’s mission for ACT,” explains Scandiuzzi, a dapper, charming Swiss native of Italian heritage. “Our mission is to raise consciousness through theatre.”
By the same token, he adds, “We strive to be innovative and apply the same level of imagination and creativity to our operating model as we do in making great performances.”
Scandiuzzi’s first contribution to a new operating model was to expand ACT’s sights beyond the annual mainstage, spring-through-winter subscription seasons of new and established scripts, which have been the company’s major focus since it was co-founded in 1965 by Gregory and Jean Falls.
It was after reading an inspiring “manifesto” Beattie wrote, about theatre as a force of renewal and change, that Scandiuzzi approached him with the idea of establishing an ongoing, multidisciplinary performing series at ACT, later titled the Central Heating Lab. The series would open up the theatre to selected, self-producing arts groups without their own venues, with ACT providing space, publicity, box office and other limited resources, as well as encouragement and advice. The goal was to have more happening, create more of a buzz, while providing a high-visibility platform for worthy artists.
Beattie was receptive. “Carlo and I go way back to the 1980s,” the director says, “and I’ve always respected him.” When Scandiuzzi first moved from Geneva, Switzerland, to Seattle, fresh from studying at L’Ecole Superieure d’Art Dramatique, he began performing in shows with Beattie at the cutting-edge Empty Space Theatre.
The Central Heating Lab, with Scandiuzzi at the helm, gradually began adding events to ACT’s schedule and bringing in more patrons to stages that had been dormant for long periods. The Moisture Festival shows were a big success. So were semi-annual outings of the 14/48 Festival, a popular fringe enterprise with a lot of youth appeal, during which actors, directors, musicians and writers have 48 hours to concoct, rehearse and ready for performance a slew of new 10-minute plays.
When the position of executive director opened up at ACT in 2008, Beattie urged Scandiuzzi to take it. According to the organization’s former board chairman Brian Turner, “The theatre needed some new blood, some fresh ideas and someone with a business orientation. Carlo brought a rare, wonderful combination of artistry and business acumen.”
Since taking the reins, Scandiuzzi has instituted a number of programs to increase attendance. First came the ACTPass. For $30, holders get free attendance to most mainstage and Central Heating Lab shows, plus half-price tickets for friends, special social events and other benefits. In busy months, the pass can bring a ticket price down to $5 or even less for frequent theatregoers.
Just 39 ACTPass memberships were sold in 2009; in 2012, more than 1,400 were purchased. In 2013, says Scandiuzzi, “We’re adding levels of investment and corresponding benefits.” For instance, a SuperPass 50, priced at $50, buys you a pass to each show and an automatic monthly tax-deductable donation to ACT of $20.
More popular, and controversial, is Scandiuzzi’s Pay What You Can policy. Starting at 1 p.m. on the day of performance, ACT offers available tickets to the mainstage shows in its subscription season—which, in 2013, will include the Seattle premieres of the comedy Sugar Daddies, written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn; Will Eno’s Middletown, staged by ACT’s accomplished new associate artistic director John Langs; Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz; Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; and the premiere of Seattle playwright Katie Forgette’s Assisted Living.
There was some behind-the-scenes grumbling by other Seattle theatre managers, about undercutting the prevailing full price of tickets by allowing customers to shell out whatever they wanted to for a ticket. But Scandiuzzi defends the practice, saying that “it removes any barriers to experiencing theatre. Since launching the program, we have cut our distribution of complimentary tickets in half. The average price for a Pay What You Can ticket is $13, but we’ve had people pay a range of less than one dollar to full price.”
Thanks to the ticket discount plans and steadily rising number of attractions ACT offers, the overall attendance has steadily risen in recent years—to about 154,000 in 2011, and an estimated 171,000 in 2012.
Despite ACT’s ongoing struggle to whittle away its accumulated debt (most of it owed to a bank), Scandiuzzi and Beattie have not advocated the lean-and-mean approach to programming. This year, two inventive, labor-intensive projects took center stage, winning the company new fans, more diversity and strong media coverage.
The first was last summer’s stand-alone Pinter Festival, an offshoot of Frank Corrado’s Pinter Fortnightly reading series at ACT. This full immersion into the works of the late master dramatist included four fully staged productions of Pinter plays, as well as screenings of films he penned, readings of his lesser-known one-acts, lectures and other events, all well attended.
The other epic event was the closing mainstage show of the season, The Ramayana. Two years in the making, this fluid, well-received adaptation of the ancient Hindu fable by Seattle playwrights Yussef El Guindi and Stephanie Timm was an enormous undertaking, with two directors (Beattie and Sheila Daniels), a large multi-ethnic cast and splendid design work. Scandiuzzi also saw it as an opportunity to connect with the Puget Sound area’s many residents from Hindu nations in South and Southeast Asia, via educational events, art exhibits and other programs shepherded by community “ambassadors” and advisors.
“For the youths who wrote their own adaptation of Ramayana, the vendors and performers who created the ambience and excitement in the lobbies, the audiences who tried something new—it was an adventure,” Scandiuzzi enthuses, “one that we hope to resurrect in the future.”
Though clearly he knows how to stretch a buck, Scandiuzzi (who continues with his wife to quietly make financial contributions to ACT, as well as other nonprofit arts groups) is well aware that a blueprint for sustaining an artistically bold nonprofit regional theatre has not yet been perfected. But he looks to the future with hope and vigor.
“Regional theatres in general are under-capitalized and live on a very narrow margin,” he acknowledges. “Our Transformation Campaign, which kicks off in full force in 2013, is going to be fundamental to our success in the next decade.” The theatre hopes to raise funds to retire much of its debt, but also to underwrite new artistic ventures and make repairs to its century-old facility.
“Being on this journey is one of the most fulfilling life experiences I could have imagined,” notes Scandiuzzi. “In the future our plan is to fully commit to ACT growing into its potential as a world-class arts center, utilizing the space throughout our historic building for multidisciplinary collaborations. You can expect to see more generative work and a renewed investigation into what it means to be contemporary.”
Seattle-based theatre critic Misha Berson, author of Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination, writes frequently for this magazine.