Along with the melancholy news of yet another regional theater biting the dust (the 30-year-old TAG closed its doors at the end of February) is some good news for local theater: Susan Trapnell has stepped down from her position as managing director at ACT.
That's not to say Trapnell hasn't been one of the theater's greatest assets. As managing director in 1996, she engineered ACT's move from a cozy if somewhat shabby Queen Anne home (which became the new home of On the Boards—what giddy games of theater building and renovation we all played back then!) to a palatial, four-venue space downtown in the old Eagles fraternal hall. Then she helped rescue the theater from a brush with bankruptcy in 2003 (caused, in part, by the move to Eagles).
In the last four years, she's worked with considerable diligence to bring the theater back to some form of financial solvency, reducing a $1.7 million debt to a more manageable $600,000. She knocked on the doors of old friends, set firm budgets (something that didn't happen during the heady Gordon Edelstein days), and, along with the theater's artistic director, Kurt Beattie, put a big emphasis on local hiring, which saves per diem and transportation costs for actors (who otherwise would run up rent for two or three months). No magic, just sober hard work.
"If you take a snapshot, we're not a healthy organization," she told me recently. "But if you take a moving picture, we're heading in the right direction."
So why is her departure good news? The same reason it's good news when the patient's breathing is stable and the doctor can leave the operating room. Trapnell is stepping away from day-to-day operations and into a newly created position overseeing fund-raising for the theater's endowment. That should help ACT survive future crises. Her replacement is Jolanne Stanton, who spent the last year on ACT's board and the past six months preparing a strategic plan for the theater. It must have been some plan: Trapnell, Beattie, and the board have handed her the keys to the place, despite the fact that she has no theater-management experience.
Stanton does have significant experience with nonprofits, mostly in the online world, but is careful not to make any pronouncements on what her style will be like. "I'm still learning all the details. Artistically we're solid, but as a nonprofit, we're always going to have challenges." Her first focus will be on two of the main dilemmas facing regional theater today: an aging audience, and the move away from season subscriptions to more flexible ticket packages for audiences less interested in seeing every show a company produces. As befits her background, she places strong emphasis on community connections and plugging ACT into like-minded, nontheater groups. "Book clubs, arts and lectures: These people are our people, interested in ideas and culture and conversation."—i.e., don't be surprised if an ACT ticket-pusher drops in on your next living-room discussion of The Kite Runner.