Staging a Comeback

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Thanks to an effective emergency fundraising campaign, this cash-strapped Seattle theater avoided a final curtain.

In early 2001, when Allison Narver became the new artistic director of Seattle’s Empty Space Theatre, the move seemed almost poetic. Narver, fresh from a Broadway gig as resident director for The Lion King, had returned to her Northwest roots to head the nonprofit theater where she began her career answering phones as a 22-year-old intern. But within weeks of Narver’s arrival, things started to fall apart—literally. “The front of our building fell down from residual earthquake damage,” she recalls, adding that restoration efforts seriously interrupted the theater’s business flow.

As if that weren’t enough, the terrorist attacks that would rattle our country the following September put a damper on arts funding of all kinds. Empty Space never caught up on its mounting debt. By late 2004, the 35-year-old theater was forced into an abrupt hiatus, and Narver announced that it would have to raise $350,000 or close its doors for good. The news sent pangs of disquiet through Seattle’s already troubled performance community, which has seen numerous midsized theaters fold since the dotcom bust shattered the area’s economy in the late ‘90s. Some predicted that Empty Space would soon be among the casualties.

But such forecasts were premature. Not only did Empty Space escape the fate of its less fortunate counterparts, the theater has since emerged to produce one of its most successful and critically acclaimed seasons ever. What kept it alive? One superbly mounted emergency fundraising campaign, spearheaded by Narver and carried out by dedicated staff and volunteers. The far-reaching effort summoned over 3,000 individual donors, raising a total $403,865 for Empty Space in less than three months.

Empty Space’s campaign stands out as a prime example of how a passionate, grassroots effort can rescue an ailing venue, even with the limited resources of a midsized nonprofit. Though Narver’s best resource was her longtime dedication to Empty Space, she admits to accepting the possibility of failure before ever going into the campaign. A do-or-die attitude, she says, was crucial for her emotional preparedness, especially given that there are no second chances with emergency fundraisers. “You only get to do a campaign like this once in your lifetime,” Narver adds. “Otherwise, it’s like you’re crying wolf every 20 minutes, and people will just lose all faith in you.”

Empty Space’s staff and board of directors worked together toward the common goal of economic recovery. Narver anticipated payroll shortages months in advance, and recommended to the board that the theater be put on hiatus before its staff and performers suddenly found themselves without paychecks. Then, when it came time to approach potential donors, Empty Space opted for complete transparency. “We presented everybody with a detailed business plan upfront,” Narver says. “We had to really assure people that we figured out how we could live differently, how we could change the way we do business, so this would never happen again.”

But pitching to potential donors was a two-sided coin. And while sound business concerns effectively fueled the practical side, a plea for the arts thrives on the emotional side. For Narver, that meant identifying precisely why her theater is so vital to the health of Seattle’s performance community. In a town where the number of midsized theaters has been dwindling, Narver’s case was somewhat self-explanatory. Empty Space is known, for example, as one of the few risk-taking theaters left in Seattle. (Consider its final production before the hiatus: an adult-aimed puppet show called Frankenocchio, which chronicles the circus adventures of a wooden boy and his severed head.) This brassy track record was a major selling point for theatergoers who enjoy edgier fare. Lovers of mainstream theater, meanwhile, responded to Empty Space’s reputation as a springboard for emerging local talent. “We’re sort of the last remaining bridge between fringe theaters and larger theaters,” Narver adds.

With an effective pitch in place, attentions turned to alerting the public of the theater’s dire straits. Press outlets, like newspapers and radio stations, were employed with a host of interviews and articles. But the campaign didn’t end there. Narver contacted the Chamber of Commerce for Fremont, the Seattle neighborhood where Empty Space resides. Chamber staffers quickly organized “Dine out in Fremont,” a charity fundraiser involving 18 Fremont-based restaurants, all of whom donated a portion of an evening’s proceeds to Empty Space. “Huge numbers of people participated—went out and ate and drank,” recalls Fremont Chamber of Commerce spokesperson Jeanne Muir. “It turned into a very large neighborhood celebration as well as a fundraiser.”

Narver and her team left no potential resource untapped, and their fundraising diligence spurred aid from a multitude of unlikely sectors throughout the city. Would-be rival theaters held charity performances. Local rock bands played keg-fueled benefit concerts.  Even Seattle’s political-activist sector pitched in when Hubert Locke, a well-known local activist and friend of Narver’s, heard of Empty Space’s crisis. Locke, who sits on the advisory board of a group that organizes public lectures, arranged for a percentage of proceeds from a local appearance by Robert Kennedy Jr. to be donated to Empty Space.

Today, as longtime members of Seattle’s theater scene weigh in on Empty Space’s post-campaign outlook, many point to changes in the company that go beyond cosmetic. “I think they’re in a more stable position for the long run,” says Karen Zeller Lane, executive director of Theatre Puget Sound (TPS), a service group for stage professionals in the Seattle area. “Their campaign has enabled them to forge new ground in building relationships with their patrons and funders, as well as with the theater community itself.”

Zeller Lane, who has worked for TPS since 1999, believes Empty Space’s recent networking blitz could signal a new era for Northwest theater as a whole, one that consciously works to foster deep-rooted connections between patrons and producers. And while the region’s arts industries have shown hints of recovery since the late-‘90s crash, Zeller Lane doesn’t expect to see a return to the complacency that pervaded area performers during the breezy years of the dotcom boom. “The crash forced us all to realize that we can’t take our community or our patrons for granted,” she adds. “We have to always be clear about who we’re serving—not just make art and say it’s great because we made it.”

Allison Narver agrees. She says self-awareness is part of Empty Space Theatre’s new credo these days. Since its near-closure a year ago, the theater has been in a constant state of reinventing itself for sustainability. (New staff members have brought sharp administrative expertise to the table, and a new venue is being scoped out for early 2006.) As for who should get the credit for Empty Space’s rebound, considering that the bulk of support came from individual donations averaging under $200, Narver says the answer should be obvious. “The sheer number of people who donated to Empty Space was very stirring,” she adds. “I think it’s a real testament to this city that they weren’t willing to let us go without a little bit of a fight.”

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Originally published in Stage Directions magazine, January 2006

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