April 18, 2013 in Features

Without financial help, the curtain will fall on Interplayers

By The Spokesman-Review
 
File photos photo

After 33 years, Spokane’s Interplayers Theatre faces long odds to remain open.
(Full-size photo)

When I first walked into Interplayers 24 years ago, I did so with trepidation.

I had just moved from Seattle, and I retained the typical Seattle attitude about Spokane’s cultural life, namely that it was nonexistent. As the lights dimmed at what was billed – somewhat grandly – as Spokane’s “resident professional theater,” I fidgeted and worried.

Then after about 15 minutes, I quit worrying. The people who ran this theater, Bob and Joan Welch, seemed to know exactly what they were doing. The quality of the acting was on par with Seattle – in fact, some of these performers were familiar from Seattle stages. And they were not performing a standard crowd-pleaser like “Grease.” They were performing, if memory serves, a contemporary play titled “Dog Logic,” the live-theater equivalent of an independent film.

I still remember the emotion that flooded over me. It was gratitude – gratitude to be in the hands of professionals, gratitude that I could see new, provocative live theater without driving to Seattle, gratitude to be living in a city that clearly valued this kind of cultural experience.

So I settled back in my seat and simply let good theater wash over me. Thousands of us have continued to do so for decades. Yes, there have been some ups and downs, especially in the years after the Welches retired in 2001. Some of those downs have been, frankly, pretty down. But the ups have been astounding. I can’t do justice to Interplayers’ entire 33 years of work in a short space, but I can present a couple of lists that give a taste of what Interplayers has given Spokane:

• “Art,” “Sight Unseen,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Doubt,” “Dinner with Friends,” “How I Learned to Drive,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Gin Game,” “Dancing at Lughnasa,” “An Inspector Calls,” “The Miracle Worker,” “Arcadia” and “I’m Not Rappaport” – all of which won either Pulitzer, Tony, Obie or Olivier best-play awards.

• David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, Steve Martin, Neil Simon, Samuel Beckett, A.R. Gurney, Alan Ayckbourn, Sam Shepard, Wendy Wasserstein, Eugene O’Neill, George Bernard Shaw, Moliere and Shakespeare – all of whom have had their words spoken on Interplayers’ stage.

And if this all sounds a bit high-brow, Interplayers has never hesitated, thank God, to fill its stage with straight-up slapstick, such as “Greater Tuna” and “Inspecting Carol.” The latter provided me with one of my all-time favorite Interplayers memories: Ebenezer Scrooge getting smacked in his tender portions by his own tombstone.

I am waxing nostalgic about Interplayers because I recently attended the most somber season announcement in the theater’s history. The season itself is not the problem – a characteristic Interplayers mix of great classics and thought-provoking new plays.

No, the ominous part arrived when artistic director Reed McColm announced that this 2013-14 season will take place only if Interplayers can raise $150,000 by May 31. That sounds to me like one hell of a lot of money to raise in one hell of a short time.

How did Interplayers land in this existential crisis? Well, the theater has lurched from financial crisis to financial crisis for nearly the entire post-Welch era. Its litany of troubles and bad luck would fill chapters, and I don’t have space to rake up all of those old coals – except to say it has involved all of the typical travails of any nonprofit arts organization, and then some.

Many of us believed that the theater turned a corner last year when local philanthropists Patty and Jerry Dicker “rescued” Interplayers by buying out Interplayers’ mortgage. That was a significant boon, without question, because it freed Interplayers from its crushing debt. Yet Interplayers still must pay rent, not to mention utility bills, insurance bills, royalties and professional salaries (as minimal as they are). It all adds up to $20,000 per month of overhead, which doesn’t include the cost of producing the actual plays. Ticket sales cover the costs of the plays – no small feat – yet not the $20,000 monthly nut that comes due even when the theater is dark.

So now Interplayers needs $150,000 before summer starts, or it can’t even contemplate a season. McColm broke the theater’s needs down roughly like this: $40,000 in back salaries (some unpaid since November); $10,000 in unpaid utilities bills and other bills; $20,000 in royalty fees; and the rest to cover the summer overhead. And one more thing: $20,000 in legal fees to secure McColm’s American work visa.

That bad luck I was talking about? It also includes the fact that their artistic director has been banished back to his home country of Canada, except for brief visits, until he can get his complex work-visa issues resolved. (An aside: Aren’t there any theater-loving lawyers out there willing to donate their services, pro bono?).

Desperate pleas for help are nothing new for Interplayers. In 2002, a “Save the Interplayers” drive netted between $200,000 and $300,000. Since then, Spokane’s arts donors and business patrons have had their generosity stretched beyond the breaking point by urgent pleas from nearly all of our arts organizations. So I am under no illusion that Interplayers’ plight has an easy solution, or even any solution at all.

I also realize that Spokane is in no danger of being shorn of theater. Interplayers is not the only stage in town – we have the Spokane Civic Theatre and several other quality community theaters. But this doesn’t mean we can watch our 33-year-old professional institution fade into oblivion without a pang.

I can’t pony up $150,000 to save Interplayers. All I can do is remind people of what Interplayers has meant to the cultural life of Spokane, and what we stand to lose.

This is something I would have been compelled to say sooner or later. But I’d rather say it now, and not on May 31, while writing Interplayers’ obituary.

Jim Kershner was The Spokesman-Review’s theater critic from 1989 to 2011. To get in touch with Interplayers, call (509) 455-7529 or go to www.interplayerstheatre.org.

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