If the first impression you get from Melanie Matthews is that she seems "together," your next thought is that it's a good quality to have at a theater that was only recently falling apart. Matthews does appear to be cheerfully unflappable, and yes, she does need to be. As the Empty Space Theatre's new managing director, she's in charge of making sure the company doesn't go belly-up again. An immense outpouring of financial affection from Seattle's community—a total of $403,865 from more than 3,000 individual donors, according to the theater—kept the Space afloat after it nearly sunk last winter. But reopening and staying open are two very different things. Not that Matthews is daunted. She'd done an initial phone interview for the position over a year ago. Yet when things began to crumble at the venerable Fremont institution soon after her October arrival in Seattle for a face-to-face interview— leaving the possibility of a job up in the air—she stuffed envelopes with the rest of the staff anyway. "What was great was the outpouring of support," says Matthews, addressing the challenges still to come by way of remembering the work already accomplished. "It's not too daunting because you think that people want the Empty Space to survive. We just have to learn from past mistakes, and make sure it never happens again." And just how does she intend to do that? "We've made sure that when we're budgeting, we're being realistic," she says calmly. "And you have to put up work that the people want to see—from a bums-in-the-seat perspective." Ah, about that "bums" bit: Matthews arrived here in July from England (she had to wait five months for a visa after her February hiring). She brought along a decade of management experience at several U.K. theaters as well as her MBA from Colorado State University. She says she'd initially considered house management, but soon found her strengths lay elsewhere. Her sympathy for the needs of an audience, however, are a big part of what she sees as one of the Space's immediate goals—entertaining the people who saved its life. "When you're focusing on survival, it can make you pretty blinkered," she says. "The thing we have to do first is not regain the trust of our ticket buyers, but [let them know] the focus is back on the work." At the moment, the work looks pretty promising: Beginning Wednesday, Sept. 21, Chay Yew directs Bryon Lavery's acclaimed drama Frozen, a look at three lives affected by the disappearance of a young girl (with a cast including local favorite Lori Larsen). "I'd like to see the theater build up their reserves again, so that they have a safety net, so that they can focus on new work," Matthews says, noting her respect for Artistic Director Allison Narver's creative acumen. "And I'd like Allison to be able to produce what she wants without having to worry about the financial stuff." The pressure must make Matthews feel like a strict taskmaster. "There are times when you've said 'no' more than you'd like to," she confesses, then brushes it off. "But, obviously, everybody understands the position we're in. Everyone upstairs is working together toward the same aim." firstname.lastname@example.org Empty Space Theatre, 206-547-7500, www.emptyspace.org.
FALL ARTS GUIDE 2005: FRESH FACES
A roundup of some of the new names that will shape the arts life of Seattle this season, plus don't-miss cultural events.
Peter Boal (Q&A)
What to Do