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Landmark Moment for Seattle Stage

Theater: After an extraordinary $35-million fund-raising drive, the regional A Contemporary Theater company has an elegant new home.

September 12, 1996|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — It had all the charm of an architectural dinosaur: gorgeous chandeliered ballrooms draped in cobwebs; elaborate, carved reception halls with blacked-out windows; no electricity. Sure, it could be turned into a world-class contemporary theater, if you had $30 million or so.

Fast-forward to Tuesday night, when Seattle's A Contemporary Theater, a regional company formerly housed in a residential district, debuted its new home at Kreielsheimer Place, a completely refurbished version of the elegant, elderly downtown landmark built in 1925 as the national headquarters of the Fraternal Order of Eagles.

In this city of progressive politics, the new double-stage facility is also home to 44 units of low-income housing, a key step in Seattle's bid to restore a healthy night life to a downtown that only a few years ago was rolling up the sidewalks at dusk.

An extraordinary public-private campaign raised $35 million in cash and real estate to finance the renovation, an effort that reflects the unusual vitality of Seattle's theater community and a civic commitment to the arts that will have allocated $400 million in arts-related capital building projects between 1983 and 2000.

Seattle is home to 11 professional theaters and more than 75 semiprofessional and fringe theater companies, in addition to hosting the well-regarded Fringe Theater Festival, which next spring will bring 70 companies to venues throughout the city. It's also a city where, with a population of 533,000 people, 150,000 season tickets to the arts are sold, according to the Corporate Council for the Arts.

"It's a very arts-literate community, not just theater, but music. There is a highly educated middle class, and also people who very highly value quality-of-life issues: water, views, mountains, clean air--and the arts go hand in hand with that," said Peter Donnelly, president of the council.

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Boeing Co. President Philip M. Condit headed the $30.4-million cash fund-raising effort, which began in earnest in 1992. The fund-raisers scooped up available public financing and then turned to corporate donors, including Boeing, Microsoft and Safeco Insurance Co. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's arts foundation donated $2 million, with bedrock financing provided by an initial $3-million grant from the Kreielsheimer Foundation, hence the new theater's name.

A Contemporary Theater, known as ACT, had its beginnings in the early 1960s, two years after the founding of the nationally known Seattle Repertory Theater. Seeking to expand on Seattle Rep's growing reputation in the classics, former University of Washington theater dean Gregory A. Falls launched his new company in a small, converted building in Seattle's Queen Anne district.

In a cheeky act of bravado, Falls asked Seattle Rep for its mailing list of 9,000 subscribers. Donnelly, who was then producing director at the Rep, remembers "a very nervous weekend" trying to decide how to respond. On Monday, the list was handed over, and a climate of cooperation that has been the hallmark of the city's theater community was born.

Since then, the nonprofit company has gone on to produce many seasons of contemporary comedies and dramas on its trademark intimate scale, including last year's hit "The Gospel at Colonus" and well-regarded productions of Christopher Hampton's "Tales From Hollywood" (1986) and Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love" (1984).

For years, ACT had sought to move out of its small red-brick headquarters, but nothing attainable loomed--nothing, except the old, virtually abandoned Eagles headquarters.

"I have to say, I never jumped at the idea," managing director Susan B. Trapnell recalls. "We were moving out of a space that had never been designed as a theater, and the idea of moving into a building that had not been designed as a theater was not high on my list."

Recounting her first tour of the building, she says: "All the windows were painted black. We were going around with a flashlight. But I just got kind of wowed by the shape and the size of the spaces, and then seduced by the aesthetic attention."

Now, $35 million later, the grand ballroom's ornate ceilings, balconies and chandeliers are intact, but dropped into its center is a six-sided arena stage surrounded by 390 seats.

Downstairs is a 384-seat thrust theater, replacing the historic old lodge room, and a coffee bar that used to be a bank vault. The gym became a rehearsal room; the restaurant with the 1930s-era zodiac ceiling is now a snazzy cabaret for singing, dancing and experimental theater work.

The thrust theater is actually 70 seats smaller than the one in the old facility. "We had decided from the beginning that intimacy was what this theater was known for," Trapnell said of the decision to build two small theaters rather than one big one. "We wanted to create a full-house experience for the subscriber, and when single-ticket demand warranted it, we'd add a week to the run."

Former USC theater artistic director Peggy Shannon, a veteran of L.A. Theater Works, joined ACT as artistic director in 1994 and directs this week's debut production, the onstage premiere of "Cheap," Tom Topor's adaptation of Moliere's comedy "The Miser." (Shannon produced the play in Los Angeles for National Public Radio in 1991.) The arena theater will open Sept. 27 with the family drama "The Crimson Thread" by Mary Hanes.

Shannon said Topor was initially noncommittal about the idea of mounting "Cheap" for the stage. "But then he saw the project and he started getting excited about it. The idea that there's a city in the U.S. that's spending $30 million to build a noncommercial theater--you don't hear about that every day."

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