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Originally published November 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 1, 2006 at 10:00 AM

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Empty Space was a survivor until last "rainstorm"

When a good theater company dwindles, sputters and dies, it's unfortunate. But when a good theater is on the artistic upswing, and suddenly...

Seattle Times theater critic

When a good theater company dwindles, sputters and dies, it's unfortunate.

But when a good theater is on the artistic upswing, and suddenly drops dead from cardiac arrest, it's a jolt.

On Friday the board of directors of Seattle's long-running Empty Space Theatre announced the company would shut down immediately, and may declare bankruptcy.

Board chair Erik Blachford, ex-CEO of Expedia.com, said the main reason for pulling the plug on the troupe was a cash shortfall that made it impossible to continue without a large loan, donation or new line of credit. Blachford said none of those options panned out.

The decision surprised many in the Seattle arts scene, even Empty Space artistic director Allison Narver, who said she was informed of it little more than a week ago.

"I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me," she said. "I was shocked and disappointed. I'm still reeling. We were as close to being stable as any time since I took over" in 2001.

Narver acknowledged the company has struggled financially for years, and the board was suffering "battle fatigue."

But lately the Empty Space seemed to be getting its act together. Partnering with Seattle University, it moved from a pricey rented space in Fremont to a new, rent-free theater, the Lee Center for the Performing Arts on the SU campus.

Carol Wolfe Clay, a stage designer and teacher who chairs SU's Fine Arts Department, was also stunned to learn of the Space's demise.

"I'd known there were concerns for about a week," she said. "But I thought things were moving along, and we were all adjusting and getting ready to work together on the first co-production with Empty Space and our students."

Clay had cause for optimism. In its brief tenure at the Lee Center, Empty Space mounted two critical hits: Lauren Weedman's solo piece "Bust," and Seattle author Paul Mullin's play "Louis Slotin Sonata," about the scientific "fathers" of the first atomic bombs.

Just weeks ago the company announced a 2007 season that included the Tony-honored play "I Am My Own Wife," and Narver named Sheila Daniels, longtime Seattle stage director and Cornish College instructor, as her new associate artistic director.

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"The irony is, I was planning our 2008 season when this came down," noted Narver. "I certainly protested. But I'm not on the board and neither is [Empty Space managing director] Melanie Matthews."

She went on, "This was a small board that worked hard in the past, that had put in a lot, and had just reached the end of it. Had we built up the board more effectively during our hiatus, I think things would have turned out very differently."

In late 2004, Empty Space mounted a successful but draining "do-or-die" funding drive that raised $400,000. It reduced a large debt and let the company keep producing. In 2005, the group went on hiatus for a while to move its operations to SU.

Blachford said the move proved expensive, and the 2004 funding campaign was tough on the board.

"A theater the size of Empty Space probably should have a board of about 20 people," he said. "We ended with eight, and only half of them were really involved."

Though board members felt the company's current $75,000 debt was "manageable," and were waiting for some secured grants to come through, they worried about not meeting payroll for the next show, "Forbidden Xmas." Said Blachford, "We didn't want to be in the position of not paying the artists."

Empty Space was founded by M. Burke Walker, in a small Pike Place Market venue in 1971. Early on it gained a national reputation for daring productions of modern scripts by edgy authors.

For years, Empty Space also mounted zany, popular outdoor shows in local parks. And it was a fecund training ground for gifted theater artists, including current ACT Theatre artistic head Kurt Beattie and Seattle Children's Theatre artistic director Linda Hartzell. "I'm very saddened," Beattie said of the closure at Empty Space, where he worked for many years and was artistic director in the early 1990s.

"But the theater's had a fantastic run, and done a lot of great work. It's just a shame the community can't see its way to support a vital midsized theater. Apparently Seattle's not about that right now."

Narver said she understands the board's position, but regrets the outcome. "It felt like we had survived a flood, and shut down because of a rainstorm."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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