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The show goes on for Centerstage

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

Two nuns shoot hoops in their habits, killing time while they wait for the action. A few other sisters flutter around the room, making sure everyone is comfortable and having fun.

Suddenly, the lights dim and a hush falls over everyone. When the Reverend Mother makes her entrance from a back wing, the audience jumps up from their seats and woof-woof-woofs an Arsenio Hall greeting, fists pumping the air.

Centerstage Theater’s production of “Nunsense” was performed last month to a fairly full house at Knutzen Family Theater, part of the city-owned Dumas Bay Center.

The show had a great run, Centerstage officials said. The Saturday before closing weekend, they sold out the house. The next afternoon, they were only 30 shy of a full house.

The audience liked the musical, an energetic caper with the Little Sisters of Hoboken, whose chef, Julia, Child of God, accidentally poisoned most of the sisters with a batch of suspect vichyssoise.

During intermission and after the show, people gathered in animated clusters, cheerily recapping the funnier parts. Younger members of the audience attempted vocal reenactments.

The musical also was good in the professional sense. Centerstage isn’t a union theater — meaning it doesn’t hire actors represented by the guild, because it can’t afford to pay them — but it’s not amateur theater, either. The company puts on productions of nationally acclaimed plays with experienced actors, directors, set and costume designers, and musicians.

Nunsense” director and choreographer, Kerry Christianson, for example, has been an actor, choreographer and, most recently, director, in the Seattle area for 10 years. She was the assistant director for “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” at Centerstage in 2004, and last year she directed “Getting Out” at Theater Schmeater, “Influence” at Theater Babylon, and a staged reading of “Tappy McCrackin Saves the World” at Theater Puget Sound.

The “Nunsense” actors were no less credentialled.

Phyllis Wilson, who played the part of Sister Mary Regina, the Mother Superior, has worked at Intiman, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Theater Schmeater, Seattle Public Theater, and Taproot Theater Company. Natalie Moe, who played Sister Mary Hubert, graduated from Northwestern University in 2002 with a degree in theater and musical theater, and has been acting in Seattle ever since.

Taralynn Thompson, Sister Mary Robert Anne, has performed as Alice in “Alice in Wonderland,” the witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” Sally in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and Olivia in “12th Night.”

Michaela Koerner, Sister Mary Amnesia, graduated summa cum laude from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque with a bachelors degree in theater and a bachelors degree in music, and she’s performed with Fringe, ACT, Seattle G&S Society, Storybook Theater, NWPC and the Dickens Carolers.

And Jennifer Chadwick, Sister Mary Leo, has performed with Bellevue Civic, Theater Schmeater and Exchange Theater.

“The caliber of the players and the productions belies what might be a perception that Centerstage Theater presents low-quality productions — Christmas angels with cardboard wings, for example, or or local yokels taking on multiple parts, with shoddy sets and ham-fisted dialogue.

Centerstage is unique because it’s not traditional community theater, stocked with true amateurs, “and I don’t mean that pejoratively,” said Alan Bryce, Centerstage Theater’s white-haired, English-accented artistic director.

Bryce studied acting a little in high school, but said he didn’t become deeply enamored of the art until he enrolled at Hamilton College in upstate New York, where he was seduced by the theater. He’s been working in it ever since.

About two years ago, he and his wife moved to Federal Way. When the artistic director position at Centerstage Theater opened up about 18 months ago, he took it.

About the time he took the reins, money from Centerstage’s sale of some property ran out. The theater has in recent months been seriously considering the possibility it might not be able to continue if it doesn’t find some steady, long-term revenue sources.

“Theater simply doesn’t pay its own way in terms of ticket sales,” said Federal Way City Councilwoman Jeanne Burbidge, a long-time arts supporter whose daughter participated in Centerstage’s acting classes in the 1980s.

In addition to paying the rent, theater companies need to purchase scripts, acquire costumes and sets and pay all the staff.

The balance after ticket sales usually is made up in fundraising, with local government allocations, competitive King County Arts Fund grants and sponsorships making up the bulk of the budget. All production companies need to be actively fundraising, Burbidge said, and they need an active board of directors and volunteers to pull it all together.

But while ticket sales don’t cover the cost of producing and executing a performance, they can reflect a community’s interest in what the local theater is doing. That’s why Centerstage staff were excited about “Nunsense’s” sold-out shows, and why they’re thrilled the Weekly Volcano, an arts and culture publication in Tacoma, gave Centerstage the honors of Best Season for its 2004-05 run.

It’s a process of turning around the theater that Bryce, at the helm, is carefully guiding. He’s starting by offering things people recognize and might enjoy seeing. By playing the familiar, the theater develops trust.

“I change artistic policy to the best of my estimation to reflect more of what the community wants to see,” he said, holding a pen in his raised hand. “We do ‘Nunsense’ and ‘Noises Off’ because people recognize them.”

The finances

Last year, Bryce looked at Centerstage Theater’s finances and at the city’s finances and noted how much money both entities were losing. He offered a suggestion: If the city would give Centerstage $100,000 a year, Centerstage would take over the operations of the Knutzen Family Theater.

“The city would be $55,000 ahead, and we’d be $80,000 ahead and much more secure,” he said.

There were a series of meetings that were “done with great seriousness on both sides. They were terrific,” he said. “I pointed out we’re in real danger of folding. We’re not in the red yet, but we will be.”

But after crunching the numbers, city staff said no.

For one thing, the city just sunk $2 million into upgrades and maintenance at the Dumas Bay Centre, and officials were concerned about whether Centerstage, which was admittedly experiencing financial difficulty, could afford to maintain the facility to the city’s standards.

For another, parsing out staff and use time would be difficult. The Knutzen Family Theater is located within the Dumas Bay Centre. Both are owned by the city and sometimes staff work overlaps.

It was a disappointing decision, but Bryce didn’t throw up his hands and quit. He went back to the city and pointed out Centerstage is the dominant user of the Knutzen Family Theater space. If Centerstage Theater went dark, the Knutzen Family Theater would be empty 350 days a year, he said.

“I said, ‘Why not forgive us our rent and you’re not worse off than if we close?’ They jumped on that,” he said. “That’s the situation we’re in now. It’s fabulous, but it’s not a long-term solution. We need to go back and take another look at Centerstage taking the Knutzen Family Theater.

“I know the city has reservations. (But) we all have to address (the fact that) if you’re going to have anything in that building, it’s going to cost money,” he said. “Closing down is not an option. We have to think of something. We have to come up with a better proposal.”

Forgiving the rent is a stopgap, and one Bryce said won’t hold forever, but it buys theater staff some time to think of something else.

Seated at his desk in his windowless, wood-paneled office in Centerstage’s administrative space, Bryce shared an old saying that sometimes floats around his circle. “’The theater’s been dying for 3,000 years,’” he said. “Somehow, we still keep going.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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