August Executive Town Hall

Date of Event: August 18th, 2023
Location of Event: Center Theatre Lobby

Attendance: 30 total

TPS offered this space for Senior Arts Leaders to discuss the state of the theatre in the Puget Sound, brainstorm routes for actionable improvements, and reflect on the following resources together with community: 


  • Dr. Crystal Yingling began the Executive Town Hall by inviting the attendees to introduce themselves and the organizations they represent, and also spoke about the upcoming 23rd Annual Gregory Awards + Gala:
    • The 23rd Annual Gregory Awards + Gala is back!!! This year’s Gregories will be on October 23rd, 2023. Limited tickets go on sale September 1st. 
    • This year, The Gregories will include the People’s Choice Awards, awarding one organization from 2020-2023 in each of the 5 Puget Sound boroughs. These awards are voted on by TPS membership. More information available on the TPS website.
    • TPS is working to bring back how we can have an auditing process that better supports the entire Puget Sound. This year’s Gregories will hopefully be able to bring back the full-scale Gregories for 2024. 

State of National Theatre

  • To open up the discussion, one Senior Leader discussed the following statistics:  Nationally, theatre audience attendance is down about 50%. Giving is down about 20%.
  • Internationally, giving is down about 20% (giving to hospitals, other organizations). The fact that theatre giving specifically is also only down around 20% is encouraging!

Impact of COVID

  • Senior Leaders voiced that a significant number of organizations replaced people in leadership positions right before COVID hit, and questioned the impact.
  • It’s a lot easier for a smaller audience to feel full than a big audience.
  • COVID changed the theatre community. Senior Leaders expressed that it costs twice as much to do the work now— people can’t live on talent alone. 
  • In terms of educational theatre, some programs have come back really strong while others not so much. After COVID, educational camps have done great, meanwhile educational theatre programs that come into schools are growing back to pre-covid numbers much more slowly. It can feel really hit or miss. 
  • Additionally, for educational theatre specifically, audiences are parent-driven, as they are the financial models for both tuition/ ticket sales. The wider community audience is much slower to come back.

Theater Closure Concerns

  • There used to be 16 equity theaters in Seattle. Places have closed like an exodus. As we lose theatre institutions, others are shrinking, and the number of jobs and productions is shrinking. Plus, with the high cost of living in Seattle, many artists have left. The less opportunity, the less actors will stay. The opportunity needs to be there.
  • One Senior Leader described the Pantry Metaphor. We keep opening the ‘pantry cabinet’ to pick a tech director, sound designer, etc. But we have failed to restock the pantry. Who is doing the grocery shopping?
  • Can TPS be a point person to help fill the pantry?
  • One Senior Leader suggested that organizations might pay a much higher premium for TPS if they knew that work was being done
  • People need to attend the TPS Community Town Halls 
  • How is Seattle (+beyond) to replenish its pantry? We have to keep the practitioners we have and invite the new ones in.
  • Seattle loves to talk about things. What do we do if we don’t activate those thoughts?

Strategies to Combat Closure Concerns

  • Relationship-building with donors. There is a significant change in giving when you build a relationship with the audience. 
  • One Senior Leader discussed the move from a volunteer staff model to a paid staff model. Grew really fast from government funding and large foundation grants.
    • Idea of creating a case study of Sound Theatre— how to move from volunteer to paid staff model? Good example of this.
  • Foundations are not very time responsive— how do we dance that relationship with foundations?

Taking Care of Artists

  • Senior Leaders voiced that we must expand thinking about the sustainability of institutions to include a focus on the artists that we work with. We talk about advocacy– tends to be money for the arts. What about the sustainability of taking care of the artists?
  • Health insurance— there used to be an insurance plan for Union and TPS members back in the late 80s and early 90s. Now, artist insurance is coming from day jobs.
  • How do we separate the art from healthcare/housing? 
  • Equity aspect— Equity is only available to actors and stage managers. 
  • SMASH Seattle— provides health insurance regardless of income to musicians
    • Senior Leaders agreed that all of their different arts industries are interconnected. Is there room for collaboration with SMASH?
  • What we are facing: if we can’t find a model that works, we won’t be around. 
  • American Arts Policy: we have trained people to pay less than what the cost is actually to produce the work. The problem is bigger than the theatre leaders. What is the American policy? Change needs to happen there. But until then, Senior Leaders agreed that they have to survive.
  • Philanthropy has a lever on the work we do— can act as a subsidy. Artists can also be a lever— a Senior Leader referenced the Washington Post article.

The Puget Sound Ecosystem 

  • Senior Leaders agreed that we have to have a system where people are getting paid at a smaller level, and then can advance. Stage Managers have gone to advanced higher levels of theatre. What about others?
  • We aren’t going to survive if we don’t have people at the bottom and moving up the ranks. Senior Leaders also agreed that there is no theater community without all the levels. 
  • There are Senior Leaders trying to figure out how to survive at a lower level. They feel proud of the people who have moved up, but then how do they survive?
  • Giving experience to people who are developing their talent. Recognition that this is part of the ecosystem, but how can we make it work better? When Senior Leaders contribute something like this into the ecosystem, what do they receive in return? How do we give back to those organizations who have trained people at the smaller levels?

Resources and Brainstorming

  • One Senior Leader discussed SB1116 in California— a grant program that allows small arts organizations to get reimbursed for payroll costs. Tied in with Paymaster.
    • In California, had producers, unions, everyone working together to make it happen
    • Our Puget Sound community could be open to a similar mindset 
  • Inspire Washington
  • Grants from 4Culture
  • Senior Leaders noted how few organizations are in a new zone of 500-1 million annual budget.
    • Vulnerability of midsize theaters
    • Clearly, there is a vulnerability that happens in that zone. We want to make sure we are taking care of staff and artists, but we are also able to produce theatre. Feeling of understanding that vulnerability in that space
    • There’s a reason to attend to some of what those vulnerable points are
  • How do we foster artists without this step?
  • Smaller organizations could partner with outside orgs (environmental organizations, for example). When thinking about potential partnerships, we have to ask, how is the work we are doing connected to outside organizations? How can we make it in a way that is mutually beneficial to both parties? 
  • Sharing resources rather than building the same things and competing
  • It’s challenging when you are wanting to do something as a POC, but you have to prove yourself/justify/fit into someone else’s larger vision. Going back to the larger question, how do we pull our resources to do more of that political lobbying?
  • Solidarity Economics— pooling together resource so we don’t spend where we don’t need to
    • Through a Solidarity Economy, TPS can gather more groups and find the common interests/needs to provide better support who we are serving
  • SEIU Union in Chicago
    • Union not asking for more money, but “want our people to be paid better because that will be better for US.”
  • Theatre Communications Group — different theaters recognized that after COVID, it was going to take a lot to bring people back. They pooled their resources and market for everyone. 

Space Venue Conversation and Suggestions for TPS

  • Seattle has a crisis of affordability of space– we need more spaces that fit the size of the show
  • Reference to Inscape 
  • Suggestion for TPS: add availability of rentals, (SPACE4ARTS), rehearsal space, performance space, conference room. As a hub for TPS to create
  • One Senior Leader voiced a huge problem is the lack of venues in South King County– there are only 3
    • People have seen great theater under a restaurant. You can do that in Seattle. You can’t do that in Renton or Burien. 
  • TPS is looking to expand Space4Arts, and in the process of new TPS resident theatres
    • One geared toward Theatre4, BlackBox, and Center Theatre. We can use those as a way to activate those spaces. To make that successful is to have a community shared type of space. Lobby area would be shared. We must all be willing to openness: a lobby that is more than just a space to wait for show

What are the ‘Sign-Posts’ Before Closure? How can we Work Together to Reverse Before it’s Too Late?

  • Senior Leaders questioned the ‘sign-posts’ that an organization might see when they wind up on the path towards closure. How can those ‘sign-posts’ be identified before it’s too late? What action steps can be taken to help prevent an organization from having to close? How can Senior Leaders work together in the Puget Sound Theatre Ecosystem to support each other’s organizations?
    • Senior Leaders agreed that one big ‘sign-post’ is audience retention
  • Senior Leaders questioned: are we all having similar problems, just at different sizes?

Agreement to Transparency and Openness in Director’s Debriefs

  • One Senior Leader posed to the group: As we face this time where some will make it and some won’t, how do we as leaders want to approach when an organization needs help? What is our safeword so there is a mutual understanding across leaders? (Operation Pineapple Zoinks?) 
  • We are denying the community to do what the community does when we don’t have a call to action.
  • How do we establish that community to feel comfortable to say that safe word?
    • Leaders agreed that so many of us might feel scared to voice something— scared of losing donors, funding, etc.
  • In Director’s Debrief, we can be transparent and open with each other, utilizing Director’s Debriefs as a space where Arts Leaders feel comfortable to say something and feel connected and supported with a community of other leaders. 
  • Transparency around the numbers is going to be powerful when speaking with others. If we are all trying to perform confidence and stability, because our funders expect that, that could be harmful. Being transparent is being responsible by sharing this information so you can make sure you know what is going on. 
  • Group of leaders who feel comfortable to say, “here are some things that I know/resources I can share” when someone voices a problem
    • The platform for this could even be a Slack forum. Or it could be through TPS serving as a hub.
  • One Senior Leader voiced how when ACT almost went under 20 years ago, people from other organizations making PSAs saying “support ACT!!”
  • Senior Leaders questioned if there could be a TPS advocacy person? If TPS could be a resource for organizations to go to if they need to say the safe word and they need help
  • The biggest thing we can do when the moment comes and we get the alarm, we have to show up

Concluding Messages

  • TPS is starting a google group for Director’s Debrief:

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