Beast With One Back

Two Shakespeare companies are better as one.

When Seattle Shakespeare Company and Wooden O—two midsized theater companies, both financially sound and artistically successful—merged back in April, it was "unprecedented," says John Bradshaw, managing director of Seattle Shakes. At the start of their talks, "we did some research for models of other companies that have done this. We couldn't find any." Certainly on paper it's a brilliant fit: Both companies perform Shakespeare and use many of the same artists. Sharing resources and staff means they can now spend money in other areas, including a new touring schedule and an increase in salaries for artists (including more Equity contracts for Wooden O). Under the terms of the merger, Wooden O, which has produced free performances of Shakespeare in the Park for the past 15 years, is now a department of Seattle Shakes. George Mount, Wooden O's founding artistic director, continues to oversee the summer shows as the new Director of Outdoor and Touring Performance. The majority of Mount's staff was maintained, as was the company's commitment to free outdoor shows. "It was codified in articles of the merge that these details were protected," says Mount, who also maintained a degree of control over the directors and artists whom Wooden O uses. The company is now in rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet, opening July 10, while Seattle Shakes opened All's Well That Ends Well a week ago. Though it's still in the honeymoon phase, this merger seems to have been a very good idea. In fact, it's such a good idea that it makes me wonder: Why don't we see more of this? Obviously, many midsized companies have a mission and aesthetic so distinct that a merger would make no sense. One could only gape at the chimera that would result from a Taproot/On the Boards merger. (Now that would be a diverse audience base). But are the missions and aesthetics of our three largest theaters—ACT, the Intiman, and the Rep—so very different? All three use the same pool of local professional actors and artists and produce a mix of classic and new work. Given that ACT had a near-death experience several years ago, and that Intiman's still carrying a formidable debt, wouldn't it make sense for these companies to merge their backroom resources, like mailing lists and administrative staff? "I can't say it's likely," says ACT's artistic director Kurt Beattie. "In the dark days when our theater was half-closed, Susan [Trapnell, ACT's managing director at the time] and I sat here and went through every possible scenario we could think of. But something like a merger, that's a Gordian knot. The harder you look at it, the weirder and more complicated it gets." "There's always the problem of institutional identity and ego, if you will, that presents special challenges, along with issues like branding," says the Rep's managing director Ben Moore. There have already been some joint ventures. Moore and Beattie are both proud of the successful 2001 visit by theater genius Peter Brook and his company, a co-production of the Rep (which covered contracts and marketing), ACT (which built the show's venue), Intiman (company management and outreach), and the now-defunct Empty Space. A more recent cooperative effort of several theaters raised funds for a combined purchase of Tessitura, a ticketing/marketing/development software that came with a $2 million price tag. Now all of these theaters, along with the 5th Avenue and Seattle Children's, share the system. Intiman's also made extended use of the Rep's costume shop, and the 5th's been using the Rep's scene shop to construct some of the set for this summer's Shrek. Meanwhile, David Esbjornson, the Rep's artistic director, is in the midst of planning a city-wide Arthur Miller Festival for next year that would involve the big three and over a dozen other local companies. Still, remembering how quickly theaters like Tacoma Actors Guild and the Empty Space went under while funders and artists stood by in shock, I couldn't help asking Moore if the Rep, the most fiscally sound of the big three, would ever consider a full-out merger if one of its brethren hit another financial crisis. "We would, cautiously," he says. That's surprising, and good news indeed if more bad times should be headed our way. It's heartening to hear that if another theater threatens to dip below the waterline, the Rep wouldn't be adverse to throwing them a line.

 
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