SEATTLE -- In another blow to Seattle's theatre community, which has weathered the loss of such vital companies as AHA! Theatre and Alice B. Theatre in the past few seasons, The Group Theatre, renowned for its support and encouragement of multi-cultural theatre, laid off its staff on May 11, 1998, and canceled its last show of the 1997-1998 season.
The theatre's board voted Monday to liquidate its assets to meet its debts. The theatre is now about $120,000 in debt (with a '97-'98 operating budget of $769,950). Board president Francis Timlin was quoted in the Seattle Times as having said "We haven't taken a vote on what to do once those obligations are met. It's not clear what we're able to do for next season."
In its prime, the 20-year-old company, established by artistic director Ruben Sierra, was notable for its multicultural playwrights festivals and works by the likes of Keith Glover, Cruz Gonzalez and Chay Yew. Playwrights such as Athol Fugard and Derek Walcott received their first Seattle exposure at The Group. It also had a good handle on musicals including a hugely popular A, My Name Is Alicewhich was extended repeatedly and revived, Rap Master Ronnie and Falsettos. The Group will be best remembered, though, for its Voices of Christmas, conceived by Sierra as a celebration in words and music of holiday traditions from around the world.
The decline of The Group Theatre largely began when it moved five years ago from its home at the University of Washington, where it was heavily subsidized, to its present facility on the lower level of the Seattle Center House. The costs of renovating that space into a 192-seat theatre, the decline of national funding to the arts, plus the problems attending the move of any theatre, resulted in cash shortfalls.
"In hindsight", says managing director Donna Howell, "Money should have been spent on bringing the old audience with us. We didn't. So each year we lost hundreds and hundreds of patrons." The group's all-time high for season subscribers was 2,200 versus 961 for the current season, and single ticket sales had also declined dramatically. Timlin did say that The Group may be able to maintain a stripped down operation, staging one play and a "Voices of Christmas" each year.
Current artistic director Jose Carasquillo lamented the loss of the theatre to the Seattle artistic community. "If they had any talent, regardless of who they were or what they looked like, they could get their works produced (at the Group). That's no longer the case, and that's really, really sad."
-- By David-Edward Hughes