How Theatre Puget Sound’s Proposal Failed


The failure of Theatre Puget Sound to secure the lease on the recently-vacated Playhouse has caused minimal ruckus in the Seattle theater community. Partly I chalk it up to Seattle stoicism. The winning bid by Cornish College of the Arts is probably acceptable to most people at large, even if it disappoints others. Nevertheless, it has brought up some lamentations, in the mode of “Why do you hate America?” and some more reasonable questions about the nature of the Seattle Center itself. A look at why the TPS proposal did not succeed might be helpful for anyone who proposes such a venture with another space in the future.

So that everyone understands the building in question, I offer the Seattle Center’s own description:

The 446-seat Playhouse auditorium offers a sweeping intimacy that provides excellent sightlines and clear acoustics. The building was originally built for the 1962 World’s Fair and renovated in 1986. In 1998, a 3,500 sq. ft. studio/rehearsal hall was added to the facility. The building also has lobbies, a large meeting/rehearsal room, a workshop, a variety of support spaces, and a limited inventory of sound, lighting and stage equipment. It is anticipated the Playhouse will be available for occupancy on January 1, 2013.

The summary is this: A 446-seat mainstage theater, a smaller studio space and a workshop with various other support spaces.

Comparisons. The University of Washington’s Ethnic Cultural Theater holds 171 people. Theater Off Jackson holds 140 people. The Erickson Theatre holds 133. The Schmee holds 70. All four at capacity would not equal the seats in the Playhouse. TPS’s own space at the Armory holds 192 with two obstructed seats. By comparison, the two largest theater companies in the city are the Seattle Repertory Theatre and A Contemporary Theatre. Seattle Repertory Theatre has two stages: its Bagley Wright Theatre holds 842; the Leo Kreielsheimer Theatre holds 286. ACT has three primary stages: the Falls Theatre holds 381; the round Allen Theatre holds 387; the Bullitt Cabaret holds 170. ACT’s “special events room,” Buster’s, holds 140.

A bit of history helps also:

The Bagley Wright Theatre was the first new facility constructed on the Seattle Center campus after the World’s Fair, and the first public/private partnership undertaken by Seattle Center. Seattle Repertory Theatre was the first arts group to make such a substantial contribution to a Seattle Center facility. Under the original financial model, SRT was a tenant in the building and the City of Seattle was financially responsible for building maintenance and for the replacement costs of all building and theatrical systems.

By the mid-1990’s, the standards for financial terms with the City had changed. The new model was for arts organizations to have exclusive use and also be financially responsible for the internal building systems and regular maintenance and operating expenses of the facilities. When the Rep was ready to construct a smaller, second stage addition in 1996, the financial terms for this new space reflected this new model. In May 1996, the City Council authorized an agreement with the Rep which incorporated the second stage addition (now known as the Leo Kreielsheimer Theatre, or the “Leo K”) and the Bagley Wright Theatre lease into one agreement, ending in 2026, resulting in the lease term for the mainstage being extended from 2009 to 2026.

The Seattle Center panel evaluated the proposals on two essential criteria: 1) to secure a financially stable tenant that will effectively manage, operate and maintain the Playhouse; and 2) to use the facility to support and foster the presentation of artistic and cultural activities in Seattle. The upshot here is that any future tenant in a Seattle Center space would likely have to negotiate a similar contract to the Rep’s for exclusive use and financial responsibility for the property, with the City of Seattle serving only as an absentee landlord who collects rent.

Myself I was unimpressed with Cornish’s proposal. It was formal, predictable and a bit bland. But I was truly unimpressed with the Theatre Puget Sound proposal, which I found ambitious but also extremely speculative, vague and inexact. I am certain that people whose primary concern is the financial health of the Seattle Center itself and not just the Playhouse believed the same. Being put in their position of having to choose between the two would have compelled me to go with Cornish. This is probably heresy and undoubtedly there are theater practitioners out there who will say to me, “Why do you hate theater?” Nevertheless, the TPS proposal simply did not measure up.

Cornish College’s proposal seemed to understand the Seattle Center’s essential premise: that this was not a contest of vision but of responsibility. The Cornish proposal focuses on the financial responsibility of their organization over a long period of time, while making a certain obeisance toward the Seattle Center and its long-standing relationship with the school.

Cornish College of the Arts is uniquely positioned to make the Seattle Center Playhouse a home for artists and a community gathering place to experience all forms of art and culture. We have the opportunity to transform this facility into an integrated teaching facility that connects the next generation of artists with the finest working artists and arts audiences from around the region. The education at Cornish is designed to create artists, citizens and innovators, and this facility provides a professional level working environment for them that is also at the heart of Seattle’s cultural life.

Cornish will realize these ambitions by:
• continuing and expanding our relationship with Intiman Theatre and their summer festival;
• transforming the Playhouse into a learning environment for experiential and classroom instruction, public performances of theater, music and dance and visual art programming;
• development of public programming that supports Cornish’s educational goals and provides regional audiences access to participation and discussion of the arts; and
• creating partnerships with artists and organizations that will benefit the artists and audiences of Cornish College of the Arts and Seattle Center.

The message is clear: this is a place where students learn, performers teach and the public appreciates. No one will doubt Cornish’s growth or renown as a school, and no one reading such a proposal will doubt that Cornish is a century old institution that is here to stay. Such a permanence in the community is highly attractive.

The TPS proposal was not so attractive. The essence of the TPS proposal was to create an “arts incubator,” a visionary building in the heart of Seattle’s theater district that would expand the reach of many artists and bring to them audiences heretofore unknown to them. Their focus is clearly upon “the performing arts community.” Rather than concentrate upon their financial plans for the space, the TPS proposal focused instead upon their vision for the future of performing arts at the Seattle Center. A sample from their proposal will give the reader a sense of the TPS evangelism:

Theatre Puget Sound proposes to create an Arts Incubator at the Seattle Center Playhouse. As an Arts Incubator, the Playhouse would become a central figure in TPS’s programs to build capacity and accelerate success within the performing arts community.

What we envision goes beyond a simple, standalone facility management program or co-working space for artists. We seek to create a well-rounded, capacity-building program that serves a cross-disciplinary group of performing and literary artists, civic speakers, etc., and has several prongs of support for maximizing revenue in service of this vision.

I have nothing against the idea of an “arts incubator.” I have supported such ideas in the past and continue to do so. But this proposal had to build a case that an arts incubator was not a way to maximize revenue but rather that it was the product of a financially stable tenant with a clear and incontrovertible plan for stabilizing the space. This sounds good, and everyone loves a visionary, but the Seattle Center were not looking for visionaries. They were looking for a tenant who pays his rent on time and has a clear, long-term plan of financial management. Furthermore, the TPS proposal made no real issue out of their educational focus which was, I think, a great mistake.

If it were purely about making arts more accessible to the public, I would rejoin that Seattle’s performing arts community has often been anything but accessible. It is often barely accessible to me as a critic supposedly initiated into the cult of mysteries. Even trying to get press releases and information from performing artists has often been an exercise in pure futility. The level of accessibility in the small to mid-sized Seattle theaters absolutely pales in comparison to the openness of Cornish, who constantly inform the public of public events at their school, with workshops, tutoring, lectures, performances–many of them free.

Furthermore, while I have certainly had my problems with them, Cornish has always made it plain that they are here for the community and that they contribute to the intellectual life and identity of the region. Performing artists are rarely clear that their work is for anyone but themselves and a certain elite level of initiates. While many of these artists also teach–some of them at Cornish, even–if one asks the pointed question “Who has done more for performing arts in Seattle, Cornish or Theatre Puget Sound?” even the artists themselves would be disingenuous to suggest the latter.

Additionally, the financial question still loomed large. Yes, the TPS arts incubator seemed like a brilliant plan to synthesize and grow arts in the city. But that is not enough. What the Seattle Center wanted to know was simple: Can TPS actually afford to manage the exclusive use and do they have the finances for maintenance? TPS had to know that they were going to be up against the wall from the beginning on this issue. So why is their proposal so vague and feeble when it comes to numbers? All it would have meant was to answer the question of how will the renting companies of the “arts incubator” would contribute to this visionary project, if at all, and if not, where this money was going to come from. Yet TPS were reluctant to discuss any of this. When numbers would have been helpful, instead what the Seattle Center received were bromides.

Although we cannot provide solid numbers just yet, we are aware that the financial commitment is daunting. Risk is still present, but it is a calculated risk that we believe will reward us many times over because we have made a similar model work before. The TPS management model works because it is based on diversity, collaboration, and service.

or:

As a result, diversifying the organizations occupying our performance spaces functions secondarily to maximize revenue.

or:

Although we can’t offer more solid projection numbers at this time, we believe our history and accomplishment with the exact same model of partnership with Seattle Center facility management speaks for itself. Our model works because it is based on service to the broader community: individual artists and arts organizations from all disciplines, as well as their audiences.

Such a pitch is not likely to appeal to people whose belief that “the performing arts community” is small and narrow in range and appeal. At any rate, only an optimist would believe such vagaries would have impressed a board that wanted hard numbers and factual data. TPS were always going to have to construct a brilliant argument that they were a “financially stable tenant that will effectively manage, operate and maintain the Playhouse.” Vague visions of the future with no numbers behind them are not enough of an argument. Some might say they are no argument at all.

On the second topic, “To use the facility to support and foster the presentation of artistic and cultural activities in Seattle,” TPS’s proposal certainly had its merits. They are a respected organization and long-time partner. But even these qualities came into question when they offered weak statements about art and its reach. An example:

The audience size generally has nothing to do with the nature or quality of the work being presented but, rather, to the size of the platform or the organization’s marketing reach.

Allow me an aside: The average book of poetry in the United States sells and has sold the same number of copies since the introduction of paperbacks: 1,600 copies. No “size of platform” or “marketing reach” has affected that in seventy-five years because it is nothing to do with marketing and everything to do with appeal. Some strands of creative endeavor within the performing arts are simply not designed for a large audience. True, it is not anything to do with the quality of the work, but it is very much due to the nature of the work.

Some performing art is naturally esoteric. Some of it demands a small audience. The latent idea in TPS’s proposal ignores some realities of the audience for modern art.

Furthermore, the TPS proposal implies that every group coming through will be handled in just the same way and that it is only marketing that prevents success. But this too ignores a reality of contemporary performance. Not every play should be performed in a 446-seat theater. Not every play can be. Jerzy Grotowski performed for an audience of thirty people, maximum. Augusto Boal’s groups have performed for fewer, by choice not necessity. To force all the potential groups of the “arts incubator” into the same mould is a sure recipe for disaster. Marketing an intimate play for a designated audience of fifty as though it simply lacks the ambition to draw four-hundred people is a good recipe for disaster.

Cornish, on the other hand, handled this deftly in their proposal. Their proposal elegantly states their objectives:

• continuing and expanding our relationship with Intiman Theatre and their summer festival;
• transforming the Playhouse into a learning environment for experiential and classroom instruction, public performances of theater, music and dance and visual art programming;
• development of public programming that supports Cornish’s educational goals and provides regional audiences access to participation and discussion of the arts; and
• creating partnerships with artists and organizations that will benefit the artists and audiences of Cornish College of the Arts and Seattle Center.

In short, they are primarily a school, and few people will question a school’s contribution in fostering and presenting the arts, particularly when it is elegantly argued with words and pictures and presented by a highly-respected institution known to be financially astute.

The official decision came down the pike on September 7th. In the words of Seattle Center Director Robert Nellams:

Theatre Puget Sound provides an invaluable service to the arts community, and while I honor their proposal and their long standing partnership with Seattle Center, I view the panel’s decision as a practical one, especially in light of the Center’s need to minimize financial risks.

There are lessons here to form a prolegomenon to any future visionary proposals.

1) When people ask for numbers, give them numbers.

2) The more visionary the proposal, the stronger must be its basis in finance. Seattle is a real estate town. Space must be used with incredible acumen, both social and pecuniary.

3) Seattle values education more than it values artistic vision. Elide or omit your educational mission at your own peril.

4) A theater incubator is not an arts incubator. Conflating the terms will only cause confusion. A true arts incubator requires things essential to other artists that have nothing at all to do with theater. It also requires that people in charge of the space step outside their bailiwick to take care of all arts equally.

5) Any space seeking to synthesize the arts needs to be broadly flexible to accommodate the artists it hosts. Not every group will need or desire a 450-seat theater. Not every event will be a spectacle. Not every group can or should concentrate upon growth.

These lessons should be obvious. Apparently they are not. And so the community has the privilege of learning them over and over again until the lessons stick. In Seattle, this seems to be fashionable and who am I to argue with fashion?

Filed under Culture, News, Performing Arts

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net