Slocum House, at 605 Esther St. in Vancouver, houses Clark County's oldest theater troupe. (The Columbian files)
Curtain falls on theater plans
Thursday, January 10, 2008
BY BRETT OPPEGAARD for The Columbian
While advocates for a long-awaited Southwest Washington Center for the Arts push to build on a vacant block at one corner of Esther Short Park, on the opposite corner, a much smaller cultural proposal has gone fallow.
The Slocum House Theatre Company and the city of Vancouver, which owns the historic home at Esther and Sixth streets, announced ambitious plans to renovate and expand the artistic venue three years ago. But Mike Heywood, the troupe's president, acknowledged that the all-volunteer group has been able to raise only a couple thousand dollars for the project since.
The company intended to start a Friends of Slocum House fundraising arm to get the project going, but that, too, has sputtered. Heywood said only two or three people have shown interest in participating.
Heywood called the goal of raising $2 million "a daunting barrier."
"People want to go to the theater and be in the theater and work backstage," he said. "But it's harder to get them to consider themselves as the foundation for fundraisers with a project that doesn't have a driving force behind it."
Slocum's stalled plans call for tearing down the dilapidated hodgepodge of construction
on of the historic home, building a bigger theater (increasing from 61 seats to 100), expanding the lobby, adding meeting rooms and improving public access.
Heywood said the expansion idea "was kind of a flash of enthusiasm in the city government. And people move on, and budgets of the departments that hatched the concept were cut, so there's not any real momentum."
Unless the troupe can mobilize and generate the millions needed to make this happen, he said, "those plans are going to sit on the shelf."
Heywood said no one on the company's current board of directors, including him, is pushing the idea anymore.
He blamed neither the artscenter effort nor the Hilton Vancouver Washington, which offers meeting space, for sapping Slocum's effort.
"When you look at it as a realistic proposition, there's just not the demand for it," Heywood said. "I'm really not interested in building another community theater. What I'm interested in is keeping this one lively and active. We're doing well with what we have."
The company will open its 2008 season Friday with a production of Robert Fulghum's "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," a five-person piece of storytelling theater with minimal props.
The oldest troupe in Clark County, founded in 1966, nearly went broke a few years ago. It has rebounded, in part by selecting such economically sensible shows, Heywood said. The company has put together a string of several financially solid seasons.
In 2002, the group's savings had dwindled to $2,000. The company responded by increasing the number of shows per year, extending runs and keeping tight controls of budgets to quickly build that nest egg back up to about $20,000.
In 2006, the latest annual figures available, the group raised about $17,000 more than it spent. It also set a new attendance record for a production run, with "The Odd Couple" filling 95 percent of its seats.
For the past three years, the group has been averaging about 75 percent occupancy, up from the 60 percent valley of 2003, said Rebecca Kramer, the troupe's vice president.
Heywood said Slocum has "turned it around."
"We're doing more shows. We're better financial managers," he said. "We're out of that sinkhole for another decade at least."
If you go
What: The Slocum House Theatre Company presents "All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten," based on the book by Robert Fulghum.
When: Opens Friday and continues through Feb. 3, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays plus Jan. 24 and Jan. 31, and 2 p.m. Sundays.
Where: Slocum House, 605 Esther St., Vancouver, in Esther Short Park.
Cost: $10, $8 for ages 60 and older and 11 and younger.
On the Web: www. slocumhouse.com