Local theater spaces at risk

Monday, May 6, 2019

 In 2014, the Aurora Theatre Company adapted “Into the Woods.”
(Photo courtesy of Scott Francis)

By Nicole Pasia

After four years of bringing musicals to life in Shoreline, the Aurora Theatre Company disbanded last July. Now, Seattle Musical Theatre is at risk of losing its performance space at Magnuson Park as well.

Despite breaking even and garnering support from its audiences in each of their performances, one of Seattle theaters’ most difficult hurdles is maintaining a venue for their productions.

From its first production in 2014, The Aurora Theatre Company was able to provide entertainment through free, outdoor summer musicals at Shoreline City Hall. However, coordinating casting, costumes and lighting, and having to build a set from scratch each year, proved to be a heavy load for the company.

“After four years, it really began to take a toll on our lives,” Artistic Director Scott Francis said in an email. “So we decided that Charlie Brown would be the final production.”

Over its four summers, ATC produced “Into the Woods” (2014), “Fiddler on the Roof” (2015), “Oliver!” (2016), and “You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown” (2017). It also produced one winter musical, “It’s a Wonderful Life” in 2015. According to Francis, its audience grew from 1,400 to 3,500 people in those four years.

Thousands of spectators gathered to watch Aurora Theatre’s 
free, outdoor musicals.
Photo by Steven H. Robinson

While each production was free to the public, ATC was able to break even on its $25,000 budget from audience donations. With more support from local Shoreline businesses, ATC might have been able to continue operating. However, the gap between what was needed and what was available was too much.

The company also lost a major supporter when former Shoreline Economic Development Director Dan Eernissee relocated to Everett. Eernissee ensured the city was supportive of the company and its productions.

“The city plays a supporting role to its citizens,” Eernissee said. “Our job as a city is to facility the support of our residents doing great things.”

Francis and other company members worked to locate a permanent space for the Aurora Theatre Company, but were unsuccessful. Many of the local school and church spaces could not accommodate the company for multiple, consecutive weeks needed for performances, or were too expensive to rent.

“My goal had been to make Aurora Theatre Company Shoreline's year-round professional theatre company,” Francis said. “But without the support of major Shoreline businesses and lack of a space to perform, it appears that Shoreline is just not ready for that to happen.”

After 10 years at its historic Magnuson Park venue, Seattle Musical Theatre may also soon need to close its doors. 

SMT crew, cast, and volunteers strike the set of “Mamma Mia” after closing on April 14. The company’s next show, “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” begins showing in May. 
(Photo by Nicole Pasia)

Building 47, which houses SMT and the Magnuson Community Center, is scheduled for renovation in 2020. SMT secretary Tom Ansart said that Seattle Parks and Recreation has decided not to renew the theatre’s lease for another year. Instead, Parks and Recreation has issued a request for proposals, where other theatre companies can propose their plans to make use of the space for rent.

Tenants of Building 47 need to meet three requirements: 1) provide $39,000 of public benefits each year (e.g. show tickets for school auctions, 2) actively use the space 48 weeks a year (auditions, rehearsals, performances), and 3) make an effort to raise up to $5 million to renovate the space within the first 10 years.

SMT was able to meet the first two requirements of its lease, but it struggled to meet the third, and Parks and Recreation subsequently terminated their agreement, according to Ansart.

“[Parks and Recreation] has invited us to apply at the same time,” Ansart said. “But you’d have to think, if they wanted us to stay, they wouldn’t have terminated our lease.”

Meanwhile, on April 14, a full house sang along to ABBA’s iconic “Dancing Queen” as SMT closed its production of “Mamma Mia.”

SMT, formerly known as Seattle Civic Light Opera, was founded in 1977 and is now performing its 41st season. Patrons have supported the company for years, and some even for decades. For the performers and directing staff, this company gives them a chance to bond with each other, and to gain valuable experience for their careers.

“At a certain point you just have to decide,” Lisa Mandelkorn said, who played Donna in “Mamma Mia.” “As a community, as a society, is [theater] something that’s important you? And it is. It has to be.”

 The cast of SMT’s 2019 production of “Mamma Mia” spent several weeks rehearsing together, and formed a close bond.(Photo by Nicole Pasia)

SMT’s current lease lasts until September, and they have until then to either find a new space or locate funding to support their proposal of transforming Building 47 into a performing arts center.

“That’s our proposal,” Ansart said. “To establish a performing arts center here at Magnuson Park. That’s a big vision, but it’s certainly a happier one than packing up and leaving.”


Matt Terry June 26, 2019 at 11:18 AM  

Thank you for this great article. Just wanted to let you know that another theater company IS doing a show at the Shoreline City Hall this summer. The 2nd, 3rd & 4th weekends in August we'll be doing "William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (abridged)."

King'sPlayers has been around since the late 1970's and we're working with the City of Shoreline to put on this hilarious play. We, too, have had our stumbles, certainly and we, too, have run into issues of finding locations to perform. After we heard that Aurora Theatre Company wasn't going to be putting on a show with the City, we tossed our hat in the ring. David Francis of the City has been invaluable in helping us coordinate things.

For more information go to our website: www.KingsPlayersTheater.org


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