Back when Alice B. Theatre was one of the hottest alternative troupes in town, a mixed audience of young gay men and lesbians mingled with older "straight" couples to cheer performances of the company's company-nostalgic '30s musical, "The Gay Deceivers."
That delighted Alice B. artistic directors Eric Des O'del (formerly known as Rick Rankin) and Susan Finque, who co-founded the ensemble in 1985 as "A gay and lesbian theater for all people."
Now, with $30,000 in debts and little hope for future solvency, Alice B. is calling it quits. According to current artistic director Drew Emery, "We've ceased operating as a business, and our efforts to raise money have stopped. We're unable to produce any more shows, or to repay our remaining debt."
The demise of Alice B., Seattle's first and only theater ensemble dedicated solely to work by gay and lesbian playwrights, was gradual. For several years the company struggled to keep afloat financially and attract enough patrons.
Andrew Mellen, artistic director of the theater from 1995 to 1996, was laid off last year because of a lack of funds. Emery, a local playwright, then took over Alice B. on a volunteer basis, intent on retiring a $60,000 deficit and reorganizing the nonprofit group as a multi-disciplinary gay cultural organization, renamed Alice B. Arts.
"We did two wonderful benefits and managed to pay off about half the debt," says Emery, "but it just seemed unfeasible to go on. I am terribly disappointed . . . any time we lose an arts institution whose mission is to create new work, it's disturbing. That's the essence of what Alice B. was, and could be."
O'del, also a playwright, agrees. He first sensed the demand for gay theater in Seattle after presenting an original show at New City Theatre in 1984, and then (with Sandra Nelson) organizing the city's first Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival.
The company he formed with Finque, a director, never had its own theater facility, yet produced full seasons of shows at Broadway Performance Hall and Theatre Off Jackson. They also hosted gay drama festivals, bringing in such nationally known artists as Quentin Crisp, Split Britches and Marga Gomez.
Though Alice B. presented the local premieres of several plays ("Breaking the Code," "The Baltimore Waltz"), O'del says the group's signature works were its annual productions of the spoofy "Holiday Survival Game Show," and the ambitious new pieces he conceived with Finque, including "The Louisiana Purchase" and "Governing Bodies."
"We always pushed the limits of what a gay and lesbian theater could reasonably produce," says O'del.
In recent years, as the leadership changed (O'del left in 1992, Finque in 1994), funding shrank and other Seattle theater groups began to successfully produce gay-themed works, Alice B. foundered.
"There's no denying the public's acceptance of gay and lesbian characters and themes, and the gay sensibility, is much greater now than it was when we started," reflects O'del. "Does that mean there's no need for a gay theater here? I'm not so sure."
Says Emery, "I'm very glad there are lots more opportunities for gay artists of every stripe than when I came to town eight years ago, in Alice B.'s heyday. But people should remember Alice B. is largely responsible for creating those opportunities, and building an audience for gay theater. Even though we're not continuing as an organization, the spirit of Alice B. is a little flame that keeps on burning."