It's no act: Scandiuzzi rejuvenates a prime Seattle theater
"You don't remember civilizations by their banks or their notaries, but by their artworks," says the manager of A Contemporary Theatre.
IN THE RAMBLING, stylishly renovated landmark building that houses ACT Theatre, a throng of Seattle actors and directors, musicians and playwrights are hard at work on every stage. In the Falls Theatre, the Bullitt Cabaret, the Allen Theatre, in rehearsal and dressing rooms, they're toiling on the latest edition of the 14/48 festival — a whirlwind event for which a fresh batch of short-short plays are written, scored, rehearsed and presented within 48 hours.
The joint is jumping, and that is just the way ACT manager Giancarlo Scandiuzzi likes it. In his modest second-story office, just above the fray, this casually dapper man of 57 is crunching numbers with his attentive staff.
Exuding a kind of zesty savoir faire you can't fake, this seasoned businessman and impassioned arts advocate is a veteran of the creative trenches. He's been an actor, a filmmaker, a rock music and indie films promoter. And it is the art of making art that stokes his desire to transform ACT into a thriving cultural nerve center.
"A big passion of mine is to help realize somebody else's dream, to provide resources for other people to become successful," the gracious, upbeat Scandiuzzi explains in a Swiss-Italian accent that only enhances his considerable charm. "This has been a recurring theme in my life, from very early on. And it is something I have the opportunity to do at ACT every day."
Quietly, fervently, Scandiuzzi has helped make Seattle the vibrant performing-arts haven it is today. He and his equally committed wife, Eulalie, have given their time and talents as well as substantial sums to dozens of arts and educational projects, small and grand.
And Scandiuzzi's current mission is perhaps closest to his heart: rejuvenating a prominent 47-year-old Seattle theater that went broke, and nearly went under, in 2003. His bold tactics and inventive stewardship at ACT could well serve as a model for other nonprofit performing-arts groups, here and beyond. (These days he's also advising artistic director Andrew Russell at Intiman as he attempts to revive that fragile Seattle company after a financial meltdown.)
After years of fiscal struggle, ACT is again balancing budgets, paying bills on time, and slowly whittling away a $2 million-plus debt owed on a bank line of credit. The theater has paid off its mortgage and owns the sprawling former Eagles building free and clear. In 2011, ACT's five-play mainstage season was its best-received in years. And, paradoxically, ACT is offering the most shows in its theatrical multiplex per year ever — doing, as Scandiuzzi trumpets, "more with less."
On a lean 2011 budget, ACT produced more than 500 performances of roughly 40 different dance, theater, burlesque, music and other shows. Attendance rose and grew more diverse, reaching a broader range of ethnic backgrounds and ages.
Scandiuzzi first came to the theater in 2007. "Things were looking gloomy," recalls ACT's artistic director, Kurt Beattie, a respected local actor, director and playwright who was being treated for lung cancer at the time. "Carlo was a godsend."
At Beattie's urging, Scandiuzzi initially ran the theater's innovative Central Heating Lab, which presents the dozens of productions that supplement ACT's regular mainstage season. In 2008, when the managing director job came open, Scandiuzzi was the obvious and unanimous choice to fill it.
"We got lucky," says ACT's former board chairman and Real Networks CFO Brian Turner. "The theater needed some new blood, some fresh ideas and someone with a business orientation. Carlo brought a rare, wonderful combination of artistry and business acumen."
Fellow managers like Benjamin Moore, of Seattle Repertory Theatre, and 5th Avenue Theatre's David Armstrong are also admiring. Moore praises ACT's "adaptability in these challenging times, a contribution that has been critical to sustaining a healthy ecology for all of the arts in Seattle."
Armstrong, who with Scandiuzzi and other downtown theater managers successfully lobbied for the city's recognition of the new Downtown Historic Theatre District, adds, "Carlo has done amazing, sometimes revolutionary things to revitalize ACT. He and Kurt together are a great combination."
Scandiuzzi's son, Sebastien, 36, a videographer at ACT, assesses his father's crusade in more personal terms. "I've never seen my dad so happy," he says. "It's like he's come full circle."
THE STARTING point of that circle was Scandiuzzi's youth in Geneva, Switzerland.
The son of Italian immigrants who opened a traditional pizzeria and other eateries in Geneva, young Carlo grew up knowing the rewards of hard work and the pleasures of good food, music, drama, movies.
"My father loved opera most of all, and when I was 12 we went to see 'Rigoletto' together, my first opera," he recalls fondly. "It was seminal. Those early images stay and literally form the way you look at life, at art."
Drawn to acting, in his teens he entered Geneva's L'Ecole Superieure D'Art Dramatique. At 19, while studying there, he met his future wife and artistic soul mate, Eulalie Meadowcroft, an outspoken dynamo nicknamed Lalie. It was 1974, and this granddaughter of Northwest timber mogul Prentice Bloedel was a precocious adolescent who had been packed off to a Swiss school.
Before she met Scandiuzzi through friends, Lalie recalls, "I decided I didn't like boys and had no use for them. Perhaps it had to do with being a child of divorce." But on a vacation with other young people to Corsica, Scandiuzzi wooed her with absurdist drama during the boat trip to the island.
She remembers, "I quoted to him a line from my favorite play, Ionesco's 'The Bald Soprano.' He recognized it and quoted lines back to me. We talked and talked about books and theater and the arts, and I began to realize we had a lot in common. He also had this real kindness, which is always there in Carlo."
They wed a year later (he was 20, she 18), and in 1978 moved with their toddler son to begin a new life in Seattle near Lalie's family. Scandiuzzi naively expected the city "to be a big center for avant-garde theater."
It was not. But Scandiuzzi was a natural mover and shaker who could barely speak English but had the drive and pizazz to make things happen. He soon found kindred spirits at the Empty Space Theatre, a hot spot on Capitol Hill.
"I met Carlo when he did props for my play 'Oregon Gothic,' " remembers Beattie. "Right away I thought he was an absolutely great guy — devoted, hardworking, fun to be around."
Scandiuzzi also impressed as an actor, in roles at Empty Space. He found creative allies in actress Lori Larsen and her husband, Alan Lande, a freewheeling visual artist and instigator of noteworthy performance-art "happenings" in Seattle.
"Carlo saw a piece we did in Anne Focke's alternative gallery space, the and/or," says Lande. "He had a lot of youthful excitement" and soon the two began working together.
One wild-and-crazy collaboration? A performance-art event in which, reports Scandiuzzi, "Alan and I wrestled in the window of this building while smearing each other with mustard and ketchup."
Even back then, Lande recalls, "Carlo always talked about wanting his own theater." But he also embraced a new passion: a volatile breed of rock music that had exploded in England and was just hitting the U.S. Captivated by emerging British and American punk bands ("They were so theatrical!"), in 1979 Scandiuzzi cofounded Modern Productions — which presented The Ramones, Iggy Pop, Devo and other edgy bands at the Show Box. At the time, the Show Box was a dilapidated ballroom that had done time earlier as a big-band mecca, a psychedelic rock haven and a Jewish bingo parlor.
Beattie remembers "how wild that punk scene was, and Carlo was in the middle of it." But as the groups he introduced got famous and costlier, small promoters like Scandiuzzi were muscled out. He explains, "The bands let us promote them until they were big enough to play the arenas — then they were gone."
Restless and barely 30, Scandiuzzi next looked to Los Angeles, "with big dreams and high hopes. In Geneva, I was involved in making short films. So in the 1980s I thought, how about I try my luck producing and acting in movies?"
Don't blink, and you can catch him in small roles in a few big-budget Hollywood films — notably "Bugsy" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities."
But after a long, frustrating spell playing "mostly maitre d's and waiter parts, because of my accent and how I looked," he decided, "this is not for me. I'm letting go of that dream."
With a family that had grown to include daughter Nathalie (now 25, and owner of Ann Marie, a lingerie shop), he returned to Seattle and cooked up a new plan: Make "schlock sci-fi action films" and pour the profits into "serious" art.
It was a clever setup, he notes. "We were able to sell movies before we even shot them. We'd make a trailer, and from that get enough pre-orders to shoot the movie cheap and release it on video."
Some of these on-the-fly 1990s films were ridiculously cheesy — like "Index," a cheapie knock-off of the blockbuster action flick "Robocop." But "we made money hand over fist . . . Our big markets were in Korea, India, Europe."
Scandiuzzi is most fond of his neo-noir 2002 film "Outpatient," edited by Lynn Shelton and shot with a Seattle cast that included himself and the young Sebastien. But by then, "the bottom had fallen out of our market. VHS was everywhere, our customers wanted big names, better quality, real stories."
Quitting the schlock world, Scandiuzzi used his film-biz acumen to create a more altruistic enterprise. With fellow producer Scilla Andreen he founded IndieFlix — an ongoing Netflix-like Web purveyor of well-known and hard-to-find independent art films. Then in 2007, what Scandiuzzi calls "the opportunity of a lifetime" arose at ACT Theatre. And he was ready to come "full circle."
AROUND HIS kitchen table, over a tasty dinner whipped up by Carlo and his son, you get a more intimate sense of the Scandiuzzi family, their values and their investment in Seattle.
For wealthy people, they live relatively simply; no servants in sight. The same large, comfortable but hardly palatial Madison Valley home they've lived in for 27 years.
Lalie, a poet and visual artist, talks happily about her company, Moonjar, which creates ingenious toys and tools to teach children, poor and privileged, about money and how to manage it. She also runs The Eulalie Bloedel Schneider Fund (named for her mother), a foundation that mainly makes grants to arts-related programs for underserved youth.
The list of charitable and civic commitments these benefactors don't mention is much longer, including: Coyote Central, which serves Central District youths with arts projects and classes. The esteemed Copper Canyon Press. Seattle Repertory Theatre, for which Carlo has served on the board of directors. And Carlo's appointment by Mayor Mike McGinn last year to the Seattle Arts Commission.
Lalie's love of literature led them to initiate prizes for children's books in the Washington State Book Awards. And to fund, to the tune of $500,000, the Eulalie and Carlo Scandiuzzi Writers' Room in Seattle's Central Library.
Observes Chris Higashi, of the Seattle Public Library's Washington State Center for the Book, the writers' room "was a way to create a special space for writers in our new library, a convenient, quiet place to work and have access to our collection."
To no institution have the Scandiuzzis been more generous than ACT. Their $300,000 loan to the theater became a gift. They helped finance a new black-box venue at the theater named after Lalie. They've underwritten the annual ACT New Play Contest.
But as important as his largesse has been to ACT, his managerial and philosophical contributions are just as highly valued. Says former board chairman Turner, "Carlo has analyzed how much we bring in from tickets, from donors, and we have to live within that. A lot of nonprofits say they do that, but Carlo does it."
Since taking over, Scandiuzzi has streamlined budgets, reduced the staff (by attrition) and evolved an unusual membership program, which gives patrons unlimited access to ACT shows for a modest monthly fee. (It's grown from 39 members in 2009 to 1,151 in early 2012.)
His boldest stroke was a pay-what-you-can ticket policy for every performance — at the risk of undercutting sales of ACT's full-price tickets (which usually top out at $55).
"We have a responsibility to our community to make art affordable," insists Scandiuzzi. "We've brought in thousands of new people, more young people and seniors with this. We've seen an increase in ticket sales and revenue. And people give us what they can, an average of $13 for a seat that would have otherwise been empty."
ACT is partnering with an array of local arts groups — from tiny dance companies to the 5th Avenue Theatre — to keep as many as three or four of its venues busy at a time.
And Scandiuzzi is raising funds for some big 2012 events: a festival of Harold Pinter plays this summer, and an elaborate adaptation of "The Ramayana," a Hindu text revered by many Asian cultures, which premieres in October.
Scandiuzzi insists he's just carrying out the potential of ACT laid out by Beattie in a 2007 "manifesto" which envisioned the theater as a "vertical ecosystem of artistic practice" to create "light, consciousness, deeper thought, more fellow feeling, both in our audiences and in ourselves."
His own grand vision? "To help make ACT into a cultural engine, a place for the celebration of the arts. And for Seattle to realize we have this gem, this treasure."
"The arts have been essential since the beginning of time," he asserts. "You don't remember civilizations by their banks or their notaries, but by their artworks.
"If I have to choose between giving this child food or paying an actor's salary for a play, it should not be one or the other. It's everything together that makes us who we are as a civilized society."
Misha Berson is The Seattle Times theater critic. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.