A MODEST PROPOSAL By Judith Cullen

TAG The Tacoma Actors Guild can survive – and thrive. Not alone, and not as it has been off an on over the 25 odd years of its existence.  TAG must finally become what it set out to be in 1979: TACOMA Actors Guild.  What Tacoma must decide is if that is something it really wants, or if it was just the dream of two college professors and their friends and – for a time – it seemed like a good idea.  As Tacoma comes within reach of achieving its “destiny” in the twenty-first century, and continues to develop a thriving artistic culture, will a full and diverse theatre “ecosystem” be left out?

Ken Miller, in his article of February 11, presents a version of TAG’s history and his conclusion of what it would take to reconfigure TAG for a successful future, and that of the entire local theatre scene.  There are some interesting ideas in his opinion.  Ideas that you would find area theatre leaders have been pursuing seriously in the past five years.  However, if Mr. Miller had been taking a math quiz, he would have failed it.  Like the venerated Mr. Swift and his satirical essay on hunger in Ireland, he uses snippets and slices of the facts that mislead and deposit the reader at an astounding conclusion.  In Miller’s case, he does so without the benefit of satire. 

About “LORT”

When TAG opened in 1981, they strove to and became a member of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT).  They have not been so for many years. Mr. Miller presents LORT membership as a kind of gold standard in which all theatres are created equal. Indeed that would have made the TAG of the 1980’s on an equal par with The Seattle Rep, which was already producing Tony Award winning scripts at the time.  LORT rates membership in a four-stage system, much like some unions do.  It is based on the budget, number of seats, etc.  TAG was a LORT D, the lowest category.  ACT, Intiman, and The Rep all fell in higher categories. Comparing TAG with The Rep is like comparing apples with watermelons – the ones cleverly injected with liquor.

Qualifications for new LORT membership are:

  • The theatre must be incorporated as a non-profit I.R.S.-approved organization;
  • Each self-produced production must be rehearsed for a minimum of three weeks;
  • The theatre must have a playing season of twelve weeks or more; and
  • The theatre will operate under a LORT-Equity contract.

Please note that the necessity or guarantee of professionalism only applies as it relates to Actors Equity, not to other unions.  Unions that represent Technicians (IATSE), Designers (USA), Directors (SSDC or DGA), musicians and others are not specified.

There are only eighty-four members of LORT currently.  While the list contains many of our most venerable theatre institutions, there are some notables missing.  The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, as an example.  Does that make them hacks?  In the Seattle scene, Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) is missing from the list.  The Children’s Theatre Company is also “MIA.”  Along with SCT, the Minneapolis based company is among the top producers of theatre for young people in the United States.  Is that sort of theatre, produced by professional companies with Equity performers, some how the less for the lack of LORT membership?

By the way, in TAG’s old St. Leo’s days we built scenery in the gymnasium, rehearsed in the cafeteria, built costumes and props in various classrooms, and sold concessions from the principal’s office.  As I recall, we actually performed in an auditorium.  I worked for TAG fresh out of college from 1984 to 1988.  I started out as a scene shop apprentice.  Even then, TAG engaged students and talented community members along with professionals in creating productions.

To Arms!  To Arms!

According to data from the State of Washington and the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Pierce County has grown 37% since 1980.  In fact, 33% of that growth has happened since the 1990 census.  That’s just Pierce County. 

Given that our County has no LORT theatre, only two AACT member companies, and has grown by 37% in the past twenty-five plus years – twenty listings in the GO Section of the News Tribune seems quite plausible.  Given those numbers, most of those eight AACT and LORT member listing must have been from . . .? Outside of Pierce County! Talking about competition, does anyone else remember that in the 1980’s Seattle boasted the highest amount of theatre per capita outside of New York City?  What happened to that?  Well, a recent Seattle Times article points out how the center has dropped out of the Seattle theatre market and “the fringe” bears little resemblance to that of a decade ago.  So where has all this competition come from – or has it just changed and evolved in time, just as our region has grown and evolved. No theatre work?  Too much competition? I think not.

Let’s look a little more broadly to complete the picture.  Mr. Miller compares theatre activity in the States of Washington and California.  Yes, if you count Berkley Rep, the Bay Area has four LORT theatres.  According to Theatre Bay Area (a non-profit advocacy organization) they have 300 organizational members and over 100 of them claim San Francisco as the place where they produce.  Sound like a lot of theatre?  It gets better. 

Two other mitigating factors make California an unfortunate choice for comparison.  First, of the eighty-four LORT theatres in the United States, eleven of them are in California: significantly more than any other state in the Union.  Pennsylvania comes in second place with seven and New York in third place with six.

California actually has fifty AACT member companies. No surprise that over the past five years the national Board of AACT has been discussing how to improve participation in the West.  This past year they formed a Western States Task Force to develop strategies to that end.  What’s the most active AACT state in the West? Washington, of course, with thirty-three member companies.

Washington State has a population of six million, thirty-three AACT companies, and three LORT (not four!).  Let’s start with the LORT numbers in our search for a more apt comparison.  The States of Florida, Connecticut, and Massachusetts each have three LORT companies as well.  Florida has a population of nearly 16 million, and has forty-nine AACT member companies. Pennsylvania has a population of twelve million and has thirty-two AACT companies.  Connecticut has a population of three million and has fourteen AACT companies.  Massachusetts has a population of six million (like Washington!) and has twenty-eight AACT companies. In this company, our Evergreen State starts to look rather average.  Or perhaps we should find a descendent of Paul Revere’s horse and someone to ride through Massachusetts and Connecticut shouting “To Arms! To Arms! You have too much theatre!”

TAG can’t go on this way”

No.  It cannot.  I think you’ll find every single member of the current TAG Board and Staff agrees.  Further more, theatre professionals around the nation have been, and continue to debate whether the non-profit arts model is working at all.  Did TAG perhaps fall prey to “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” and grow too much and too fast in the 1980’s?  There are plenty of valid arguments to support that notion.  Did the expectations brought on by a new space raise the stakes for TAG at a time when it might have been a stretch to deliver on them? Absolutely.  The Seattle landscape is littered with the carcasses of companies who fell into exactly the same trap during the great building boom of the 1990’s and didn’t manage to make it even this long.

At some point we need to walk away from the issue of what TAG was or should have been.  The pertinent and pressing question is: What can it be?  What will it be?

Mr. Miller presents the concept of a theatre eco-system.  I agree with the concept, but not quite the melting pot version he advocates. In his model, individual company identities and uniqueness would melt away and we would become one big producing festival year round.  What on earth is compelling and diverse about that?  If we use the same model and apply it, perhaps local music groups could save on cartage fees if all the Tuba Players shared the same three instruments.  What do we need three museums for?  Let’s just have one or two large and centrally located galleries in which we could rotate major shows and exhibits.  A little extreme perhaps?  It’s like suggesting to food retailers that all we really need is plain potato chips.  What is an eco-system in nature? It is a group of diverse and interrelated organic elements that makes an interdependent whole greater than the sum of its parts.  Does Tacoma really have to become a “one-chip town” to become a healthy theatre eco-system, or can it capitalize on the inherent diversity and continue to build co-existent efficiencies that allow that diversity to thrive?

Are there economies to be pursued?  Yes there are.  Some of them even already exist, though Mr. Miller fails to acknowledge them.  Some companies do share personnel.  Thanks to the excellent work of the Non-Profit Center, some administrative functions now can be outsourced for a savings.  Even before the 2005 “fall”, Students have appeared onstage (and backstage!) at Theatre on the Square, as well non-professional actors.  A core of TAG supporters from amongst the theatre professionals locally have been discussing how local theatre talent could be utilized for different tasks in a renewed and reconfigured TAG organization.

I personally worked for four different local non-profit arts groups this month.  Two of them were theatre companies.  I wrote grants, developed literature, designed scenery, and oversaw scenic art.  Does Tacoma lack talent?  No way!  Tacoma has to stop losing its local theatre talent to other markets.  By the way, most of the theatres in Pierce County use their facilities twelve months a year thanks to booming educational programs. Given the chance, TAG would as well.

So what’s it to be in Tacoma?  We have a diverse visual arts culture, a booming music culture, dance, . . . what about theatre?  I suggest that a Tacoma theatre “eco-system” without a professional company is an incomplete culture.  A professional company provides leadership.  What’s more, Tacoma deserves a healthy and fully diverse theatre culture. 

In recent years we have all celebrated and embraced cultural tourism and economic development.  It seems to have finally brought Tacoma about as close to its “destiny” as it has been since the Northern Pacific railroad chose Tacoma as its western terminus in 1884.  Tacoma is my home, the place of my birth, and a City that should not consider itself second to anyone.  Isn’t our theatre heritage a part of that?

Tacoma had theatre a full forty years before there was a major institution in Seattle.  Let’s forget about what TAG has been, and focus on what can be. If ticket holders, community supporters and donors don’t step up soon there will be nothing left to save much less reconstruct.  Tacoma will once again be relegated to playing second fiddle to Seattle and Spokane, and I’ll have to go to Portland to find those theatrical Sweet Onion Maui Chips that I like.

Buy Tickets.  See “Proof”.  Make a donation.  Do not let TAG go softly into that great good night.  Keep debating whether we might or might not need it, and what form it should be, and the point will be moot before you can say, “I’ll have sour cream and onion flavored, please.”


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