Tacoma, the city with the perpetual self-esteem issue, has put a lot of cash into creating a cultural center in its downtown core. In addition to the Museum of Glass and the renovated Washington State History Museum, there's the Theatre on the Square, a 320-seat venue that opened in 1993 as the new home of Tacoma Actors Guild. Unfortunately, TAG hasn't been one of the town's success stories. Ticket sales have trickled away as a series of artistic directors tried everything from light comedies to small-cast musicals to fill the theater. In 2004 the company ceased operations right in the middle of its Christmas show.
TAG was saved at the last minute by an energetic board and the work of Eastside theater impresario Kent Phillips, who imported several productions from his Bellevue Civic Theater. But just a few weeks ago, the company announced that due to lower-than-expected ticket and season subscriptions, it was again in trouble. It needed to raise $10,000 to ensure that its current production, Proof, and the next, Romeo and Juliet, could be mounted without incurring more debt.
TAG faces many of the same problems that killed the Empty Space last fall, including the challenge of competing with more prestigious organizations for grants and donations, and administering a full-sized company with a bare-bones staff (in this case, four full-timers). And as Tacoma begins construction of the American Car Museum, does it really want a company with a highfalutin mission statement about "language-driven, ensemble productions"?
Artistic director Charlotte Tiencken decided to find out. Instead of seeking out a couple of donors who could write some big checks (a standard response to this sort of shortfall), she sought out a thousand supporters who would be willing to give $100 each. In its first couple of weeks, the campaign's been a significant success, with 100 donors already signed up.
"This theater lost touch with its constituency and its community," she admits. "People didn't feel like they were part of the organization. This is our way of not just raising the cash, but of making the people of Tacoma feel that they're invested again." In addition, TAG is running a special promotion for Proof where past subscribers can come see the show for free, and donate the cost of a ticket afterward if they feel the show's worth it. Tiencken, in other words, is doing exactly what the Space should have done: reach out to the community directly with a clear goal, one that can galvanize a large number of people to take anactive part in their theater.
My own experience with TAG has been heartening. Last summer a new play of mine had a reading at the theater sponsored by the Northwest PlaywrightsAlliance, and I was astounded to see an audience of over 60 people who sacrificed a gorgeous August evening for a play reading. (In Seattle you'd be lucky to get a couple of dozen people, and that's with putting out the "free beer" sign.) It indicates that there's a hard-core base of Tacoma theater fans. Maybe a thousand. And maybe that's enough to ensure that the City of Destiny has a place at its core for a professional theater company.