Sunday, September 1, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Act Makes Its Move -- Theater Company Is Finally Sitting Pretty In The Heart Of Seattle

Seattle Times Theater Critic

After 10 years of big dreams and thwarted plans, a critical change of sites, a vigorous beat-the-clock campaign to raise $30 million, a major shift in artistic personnel and a fair degree of skepticism to combat, A Contemporary Theatre is finally sitting pretty in the heart of downtown Seattle.

The company's brand new home, realized through a skillful blend of careful planning and enthusiastic community support, is a gleaming architectural gem in Seattle's rapidly changing urban crown.

"We're a relatively small organization that has just gone from a $230,000 building to a $30 million one," says ACT's managing director, Susan Trapnell. "And I think this is a great story for the '90s. It shows what the nonprofit arts in their best form, with a lot of support from a community, can really accomplish."

Occupying several floors of an eight-story landmark structure at 700 Union St. that was built in 1925 as the national headquarters of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, ACT's new home is a splendidly spiffed-up, three-stage performance complex now known as Kreielsheimer Place. (The name honors the Seattle family whose foundation kicked in $3 million toward the restoration.)

From the street, the handsome gray terra cotta building boasts a freshly buffed exterior. Inside, it is elegantly appointed, gracious and imposing, with gleaming stone floors and high ceilings, long hallways and velvet-covered benches, tall windows and ornate

gilt-and-plaster trimmings. A somewhat chilly architectural formality is warmed by a rich color palette, with sections of wall and decorative acccents in deep hues of blue, plum, russet, wine and teal.

In addition to its three performance spaces, the building now has several roomy lobbies and bars, ample rehearsal and scene shops, and a phalanx of administrative offices. Out of sight (and earshot) from the public areas are 44 units of moderate-income rental housing, managed by Seattle's Housing Resources Group.

The location of ACT's new theater center also promises to be advantageous. Positioned at Seventh Avenue and Union Street, across from (and connected via internal tunnel to) the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, Kreielsheimer Place sits at the heart of the city's new cultural corridor - walking distance from the Seattle Art Museum, the NikeTown entertainment center and the site for Seattle's new symphony hall.

"When we first told our subscribers we might move downtown, their big concern was safety," says ACT board president George Willoughby. "But now there's so much more happening downtown at night that it doesn't bother people anymore."

Founded 31 years ago by visionary director Gregory A. Falls, ACT always has been a nonprofit subscription-oriented troupe specializing in intimately scaled drama, starring talented Seattle actors. Splashy Broadway musical comedies with show-biz stars they are not.

For the first 30 years, ACT's home was a cozy, unassuming red brick structure with an informal neighborhood aura, nestled at the foot of Queen Anne Hill. And its seasons featured chamber-sized comedies and serious dramas (plus the occasional mini-musical) by modern British and American authors.

The company has been trying to relocate into a roomier theater for years. During the eight-year reign of Falls' successor, Jeff Steitzer, ACT came very close to participating in a planned Pike Street real estate development - until the project went belly-up.

Now, with an even more central location, a stately building at least twice the size of the Queen Anne layout and a higher civic profile, can ACT keep its artsy, informal ambience? Or will it have to evolve a new artistic personality to suit its upscale new digs?

It may take a season or two to answer those questions. And to discover whether the new ACT will keep its Queen Anne audience while attracting downtown workers, tourists and conventioneers to its shows.

Just now, Trapnell and artistic head Peggy Shannon are working on more immediate tasks: introducing Seattle to the town's newest theater. And raising the $1.1 million still needed to pay off the building's $30.4 million construction tab.

The premiere of `Cheap'

Life as a "legit" theater center for this building begins with the world premiere production of the new comedy "Cheap," by Tom Topor.

"Cheap" baptizes the Gregory A. Falls Theatre, one of the two mainstage theaters in Kreielsheimer Place. The Falls Theatre is situated below street level and has a rectangular "thrust"-style stage configuration very similar to ACT's setup on Queen Anne.

On an upper story reachable by pedestrian ramp, in what used to be the Eagles ballroom, is ACT's second mainstage: an arena (or "in-the-round") venue, not yet named.

Each of these theaters has about 390 seats, fewer than ACT's original 454-seat Queen Anne playhouse. The company defied expectations by erecting two venues of modest capacity, rather than at least one larger auditorium. (A third performance space, the Dorothy S. Bullitt Cabaret downstairs, has flexible seating. It will be used primarily for rentals, play readings and other nonsubscription events.)

Trapnell and Willoughby stress that their multi-theater plan is the result of years of intensive research - including a logistical study conducted by Boeing on ACT's behalf, and staff visits to playhouses around the country. Trapnell notes that by alternating the six or seven plays in an average season between the two compact theaters, ACT can extend a hit without postponing the next show in line - a timing flexibility few other local theaters enjoy.

Also, says Trapnell, this size of venue allows ACT to consistently maintain "the feeling of performing before a full house, and the actor-audience intimacy we've always had. That's an important part of our artistic identity and we didn't ever want to lose it."

Questions from critics

How the two mainstages actually function artistically can only be discovered through watching a performance. Following the premiere of "Cheap" in the Falls Theatre, comes the Oct. 1 opening of the arena theater with "The Crimson Thread," an Irish-American family drama by Mary Hanes.

Some local theater hands question whether ACT's new venues have sufficient backstage and wing areas to substantially expand or enhance the company's production capability, and whether the sightlines and acoustics will be adequate. And a few wonder whether ACT would have done better starting from scratch with a new building, rather than spending more than $30 million to adapt an existing one that was never intended to be a theater.

But even ACT's toughest critics would agree that a walk through Kreielsheimer Place reveals an attractive, impressive-looking facility with numerous user-friendly amenities. The gleaming, many-stalled women's bathrooms are a vast improvement over the Queen Anne restrooms. A spacious internal box office area should improve traffic flow. (ACT has preserved the tiny, historic ticket booth in the original Eagles entrance, but will not use it.

There are free hallway phones for local calls. Before the show and during intermissions, theatergoers will find roomy areas to wait and kibbitz, with several bars dispensing refreshments. A large, airy "special events room" is available for ACT special functions and rentals.

ACT producing director Phil Schermer, who co-designed the facility's three theater spaces with principal architect Gary Watasuki, of Callison Architecture, agrees that the renovated building contains so many different levels and rooms it can be a bit confusing at first.

But he says helpful signage will be up soon. And he boasts that the Falls theater has more legroom (an extra 2 inches) between seating rows than on Queen Anne, more elaborate lighting, a raised balcony above the orchestra level and an enlarged stage with a hexagonal floor, fully equipped with trap doors for special effects.

Both mainstage theaters feature plush new seats. The elegant and playful color scheme was concocted by the building's interior designer, veteran scenic artist Shelley Henze Schermer.

In the arena theater, one encounters some culture clash. The 390 seats rise up steeply on all sides of a sleek round stage. But the gilded balcony, ornately decorated ceiling and crystal chandeliers of this former ballroom and rock music hall have been preserved in strict accordance with the room's historical landmark status.

Unfortunately, some of those features are obscured by a giant ceiling structure containing air circulation and lighting equipment. And the old proscenium stage where Martin Luther King once orated, and the Grateful Dead rocked, is now just a painted relic in the background.

ACT's decision to turn the ballroom into an in-the-round playhouse, rather than a more traditional proscenium one, is the most controversial aspect of the renovation. Producing shows in the round can be notoriously tricky in terms of sightlines, acoustics and scenic design. But some well-known American theater companies do successfully exploit this configuration - most prominently, the famed Arena Stage in Washington D.C.

According to Schermer, the arena layout was a logistical necessity.

"I played with about 18 different ways we might have fitted a proscenium in there, and none of them worked," he explains.

Artistic director Peggy Shannon acknowledges, "I'll have to choose very carefully the kinds of plays that will be presented in the arena." But Shannon adds that as a student she liked staging shows in-the-round at the Glenn Hughes Playhouse, at the University of Washington. And John Dillon, who is directing "The Crimson Thread," also enjoys the challenge.

Dillon has staged in-the-round shows elsewhere, and says that the arena "is a very old form that takes you back to the centrality of the spoken word, and the actor in space."

ACT's financial strategy

Always a fiscally prudent operation, ACT is readying a detailed strategy to keep its new downtown operation solvent. By enforcing lean, steady production budgets, carefully factoring in increased building costs for maintenance and utilities, and holding onto its 10,500 subscribers, Trapnell says ACT should be able to directly earn 70 percent of its annual $3 million budget, and only increase its costs by about 10 percent over what they were on Queen Anne.

She sees some additional economic opportunities in holding over hit shows like last year's "Das Barbecu," and in occasional rentals to outside groups.

A more immediate element of ACT's game plan is to quickly raise the $1.1 million needed to pay for the construction of Kreielsheimer Place and waste no money on debt interest. And to find another $1 million in gifts for an operating endowment, a financial cushion that lets the theater expand in good times, and weather hard times.

The ACT project already has won cash support from many sources. In a well-orchestrated capital campaign chaired by Boeing Co. president Phil Condit, deep pockets like the Allen Foundation, Boeing and the Kreielsheimer Foundation kicked in more than $1 million each.

Other substantial grants, among many, came from Microsoft Corporation and the William H. Gates Foundation, SAFECO Insurance, Priscilla Collins, and the Kresge Foundation. Roughly $3.1 million from the state, county and the National Endowment for the Arts was received, along with $8.1 million in preservation funds and tax credits. (The Housing Resource Group paid $3.2 million to construct the housing units.)

Some 3,000 individuals also gave money, on average about $200 each.

The final stretch of a long fund-raising campaign can be the toughest. But Trapnell and Willoughby say they have identified good prospects and are thrilled to have come this far so fast.

"I'm both proud and a little astonished about what we've accomplished," notes Trapnell, who has worked nonstop on the Kreielsheimer project for two years.

"Now I want to show people we've built not only a beautiful theater, but a theater that functions well."

-------------------- ACT's opening events --------------------

A Contemporary Theatre will hold a public ribbon-cutting ceremony for Kreielsheimer Place at noon, Friday, at the Seattle Sheraton Hotel parking lot at Seventh Avenue and Union Street. Free tours of the new theater will follow from 1 to 3 p.m.

"ACT Lights Up Downtown," a gala opening benefit, is 6:30 p.m. to midnight next Sunday at Kreielsheimer Place, 700 Union St., with food, dancing and entertainment by Edmonia Jarrett, Jayne Muirhead, Valerie Piacenti, and many others. Tickets are $50 or $150. Reservations: 292-7660.

"Cheap" by Tom Topor premieres in the Gregory A. Falls Theatre on Friday, and runs through Oct. 20. Tickets are $15.50-$29, with student and senior discounts. Reservations: 292-7676.

Published Correction Date: 09/05/96 - The Theater-In-The-Round On The University Of Washington Campus Is The Penthouse Theatre. It Was Misidentified In This Story.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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