Arts and Entertainment

BPA caught between acts

Dick Daniel is in the spotlight as Bainbridge Performing Arts board president. - ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo
Dick Daniel is in the spotlight as Bainbridge Performing Arts board president.
— image credit: ROGERICK ANAS/Staff Photo

Editor's note: This is the first of two parts

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The curtain is rising on a new act for Bainbridge Performing Arts.

But just how the lines will read is unclear.

Facing the decades-old organization are what some see as a lack of artistic direction, and persistent financial problems related to maintenance and operation of the Playhouse.

Also, some feel that BPA has come to depend too heavily on Seattle directors, who bring in too many polished Seattle performers – this, for a company that has defined itself as “community” theater.

With the resignation of managing director Joanne Ellis at the end of May, both the financial issues and the theater company’s need for clear artistic direction have come into sharp relief.

“It’s a watershed moment,” said Dick Daniel, BPA board president. “Now that Joanne Ellis has left, the organization requires new leadership.

“And we want to reconnect with the community.”

Ellis resigned last month after seven years, citing family concerns.

Her strong hand as managing director had partly compensated for the fact that the theater has gone without an artistic director – who helps determine program content, carrying out the theater board’s “creative direction” – since 1997.

Under Ellis, enrollment in the theater school increased from 65 to 380 children.

Programming also expanded to the current season’s fare of three major productions; one theater school production per quarter; monthly “improv” performances; three two-week summer camps; three symphonic concerts and four chamber concerts.

This past season, orchestra performances and other major productions drew 4,941 people through the theater turnstile, although that number doesn’t include events that were not sponsored by BPA.

But Ellis was uneasy at the notion of taking on some functions of artistic director, including selecting directors and developing and booking shows.

“Every year I’d say, ‘Gosh, is this the year we get an artistic director?’” Ellis said. “I’ve always told them that I’m a business manager – not a producing manager.”

In 2000, the results of a “Business Volunteers for the Arts” study indicated that, lacking wage parity and artistic and development directors, BPA lagged behind other Seattle-area community theaters.

“It was a money decision,” Ellis said of the failure to hire an artistic director. “They didn’t have the funds.”

The organization’s ongoing financial challenges have stemmed largely from maintenance and operating costs associated with the BPA theater building, known for the past several years as the Playhouse.

Last year, BPA brought in about $462,000 in revenue – donations of $160,000; box office receipts of $256,000; and net profits from bookings by non-BPA events, $46,000.

While revenue during that period roughly equaled expenses, the organization has the added burden of paying off borrowed money.

A term loan of $100,000 has been paid down to $85,000, Daniel said.

“Five or six years ago, they got in the hole and took a loan for operating costs,” Daniel said. BPA also has access to a “revolving” loan of up to $12,000, he said, “to meet cash flow needs.” That fund is currently “maxed out.”

New direction

Daniel joined the BPA board in 1999 and took over as president in 2000. He says that as the board looks for a replacement for Ellis, the responsibility will likely be split between a director of operations and an executive director.

“Depending on the qualifications of that person, we might redefine what ‘director of operations’ entails,” Daniel said. “Meanwhile, the board provides leadership with artistic background as we seek a new strategic plan.

“Strength on a board comes from experience and continuity and this year we’ve been building strength.”

Current board members include Daniel, Jim Quitslund, Michael Droke, Chris Snow, Jerry Gjovaag, Kathleen Jennings, Wini Jones, AnnaMarie Lavieri, Bob Malecki, Deborah Vancil and Tom Williams.

Both Daniel and Quitslund, who heads the board’s production committee, see opportunity – as well as challenge – in the change of leadership.

Quitslund hopes to expand programming to include theater and performances that are not Broadway-oriented, including different types of music. Earlier this spring, several restaurateurs staged a blues concert in the building, and the house was filled.

Quitslund is also the board liaison to what he terms “other cells of lively theatre culture on the island” that include Bainbridge High School theater, alums from the old Geasepaint company and local filmmakers, and Island Theatre.

In fact, BPA and Island Theater may collaborate in a project this fall. The project would bring the latter troupe back into a fold it left in 1994; Island Theatre was formed by disaffected BPA actors.

It would be the first step in an effort to reconcile interests that have felt at times estranged and to make a strong statement about BPA’s direction.

“I really, truly want this organization to prosper,” Daniel said. “It can. We just have to figure out how to make it happen.”

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