Is it curtains for ACT Theatre?

ACT Theatre must raise $1.5 million by the end of next week, or the downtown playhouse will end operations indefinitely.

The 38-year-old, nonprofit company, a mainstay of Seattle's nationally respected professional-theater landscape, has just $3,000 left in its checking account and is an estimated $1.7 million in debt, according to Katherine Janeway and Sheena Aebig, co-chairs of ACT's board of directors.

Without raising substantial money immediately, say Janeway and Aebig, the theater will be unable to mount its 2003-2004 season of plays, pay off its creditors or hire back the many staff members ACT has laid off during the past three months.

If the drive fails, ACT would also be unable to honor an estimated 5,000 subscriptions already purchased by patrons for the 2003-2004 season. Subscription packages for 2003 range from $62 to $218.

Board members announced that due to its "extreme" fiscal crisis, ACT has terminated a plan to hire noted Los Angeles theater artist Robert Egan as the company's new artistic director. And a week ago the board accepted the resignation of Jim Loder, ACT's managing director for the past three years.

With the theater's future in serious jeopardy, former ACT managing director Susan Trapnell has come forward to work as a volunteer management consultant, and ACT's furloughed associate artistic director Kurt Beattie is donating his time as artistic consultant.

Though it was widely reported that ACT laid off some key staff members during the past three months and posted a $500,000 loss in 2002, the extent of the company's financial woes comes as a surprise to many Seattle arts professionals and patrons.

"I am stunned," says Laura Penn, general manager of Seattle's Intiman Theatre. "The complexity of these organizations is underestimated and the tide can turn very quickly."

Aebig, a Seattle bankruptcy attorney who became an ACT trustee in July, said she did not know how broke the theater was until Jan. 4, when ACT staffers told the board the organization had run out of cash.

In response, Aebig, Janeway and others on the 25-member board privately raised more than $150,000 to meet the payroll for a skeleton staff of nine employees (down from the theater's usual 65-member staff) and to "keep the lights turned on."

The board also found donors willing to pledge $290,000 in contributions to ACT. But Aebig said this money will not be spent unless the additional $1.5 million from a major donor or donor group can be secured by next Friday.

"If (big donors) don't step forward today, there won't be a tomorrow," emphasized Alan Rappoport, another ACT board member.

So what went wrong? How could a major theater that sold 120,000 tickets in 2001, raised its budget to a record $5.8 million in 2002, and amassed an endowment fund of $1.25 million, be on the brink of extinction?

Board members, Trapnell and former staffers say the problems have been cumulative. They've gathered in force quietly since ACT moved from its original quarters on lower Queen Anne in 1996 to an elaborate new complex in the Eagles building, at Seventh Avenue and Union Street, and increased its expenses dramatically.

ACT had seemingly pulled off a remarkable relocation effort. In a campaign led by then-board president Phil Condit, chairman of Boeing, the organization raised approximately $30 million in federal, state, municipal and private funds to overhaul the dilapidated, 70-year-old Eagles structure.

In September 1996, ACT unveiled its new facility in a series of tours and parties to much fanfare. The company had carved out two 400-seat auditoriums and two smaller, more informal performing venues within the landmark terra cotta building. And Seattle Housing Resources Group financed and built new low-income apartments on the top three floors.

But Trapnell notes that ACT's first two seasons in the new complex were artistically rocky, resulting in lost subscribers and low single-ticket sales. By 1998, though, the theater appeared to have recovered its momentum under the vigorous new leadership of Gordon Edelstein. Edelstein scheduled more shows, raised the physical production values and brought national stars (such as Jane Alexander, Julie Harris and Alan Arkin) onto the ACT stage.

When Edelstein left Seattle last spring — to rejoin his family on the East Coast and become artistic head of Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. — ACT seemed to be thriving. At that point, manager Loder said ACT had a relatively modest 2001 operating deficit to clear up (about $211,000).

But Aebig now says ACT has been losing money for the past five years, and using up a $1 million line of credit to pay mounting operating debts. She blames the shortfalls in part on difficulties estimating costs associated with the large building, including personnel, janitorial services and utilities.

But why wasn't ACT more concerned about its long-term failure to get into the black? Aebig said, "We had a very optimistic fund raiser and a very optimistic board." Co-chair Janeway added, "The booming economy kind of glossed over the (financial) ills."

Former manager Trapnell, who ran the organization from 1982 to 2000 and became executive director of the Seattle Arts Commission, said the theater was "so desperate to support an artistic vision" that it overspent on the artistic end, "and everyone bought into rose-colored glasses."

Now ACT needs a rich "angel" or two to come to the rescue. Only a few people in Seattle can write a check for as much as is needed, and the economy is pinching even the rich. So what's the chance of that angel coming through in the next week?

"It's conceivable," says Trapnell.

(The previously scheduled FringeACT Festival, co-produced by the Seattle Fringe Festival, will take place in March as planned, regardless of the outcome of fund-raising efforts.)

If a rescuer does appear soon, and the company can dig itself out of the deep hole it's in, board members plan a major internal restructuring of the organization and are dedicated to have it live within its means.

"We want to take ACT back to its roots — to local actors, to local directors, simple production values," stated Janeway, "We think that's entirely doable."

If it isn't, however, the curtain will soon ring down on one of Seattle's oldest and best-loved theatrical institutions — possibly for good.

Misha Berson:

About ACT

Founded: 1965
Founders: Gregory and Jean Falls
Subscribers, 2002: about 9,000
Attendance, 2002: about 120,000
Budget, 2002: $5.9 million
Current debt: about $1.7 million ($1 million from a used-up line of bank credit, the remainder owed to local businesses and vendors)
Money needed by Feb. 21 to stay alive: $1.5 million
Amount in ACT's checking account: $3,000
Outstanding pledges from donors: $290,000, to be used only if $1.5 million target can be reached