Local theater gets creative to make ends meet

Because of gradually declining ticket sales, Harlequin is expanding its efforts to raise money through crowdfunding both online and off.
Because of gradually declining ticket sales, Harlequin is expanding its efforts to raise money through crowdfunding both online and off. Courtesy photo

Harlequin Productions, beginning its 27th season this weekend, has been weathering a sort of financial climate change.

For the past dozen years, the theater — like many across the country — has seen gradually declining ticket sales. It’s kept its operating costs fairly steady, but compared to other similarly sized theaters, Olympia’s professional theater company gets far less money from donations.

“We’re hanging on by our fingernails,” said Scot Whitney, the theater’s managing artistic director. “We need to make the theater more sustainable.”

A 2014 survey conducted by the Theater Communications Group, cited on the Harlequin website, found that theaters Harlequin’s size get an average of 64 percent of their income from contributions; only 29 percent is earned. At Harlequin, earned income covers 71 percent of the budget, with only 29 percent coming from contributions.

“It’s pretty shocking — pretty amazing,” Scot Whitney said.

A group of dedicated supporters gives year after year, subscribing and attending fundraisers and buying raffle tickets. But unlike the larger cities where many professional theater companies are located, Olympia isn’t home to large corporations with the resources to support the arts.

So Harlequin is expanding its efforts to raise money through crowdfunding both online and off.

The company is participating in The Community Foundation of South Puget Sound’s Give Local crowdfunding campaign, happening through Dec. 13. As of Wednesday, the theater had raised just more than half of its $10,000 goal.

Scot Whitney and his wife and managing partner, Linda, also have been working to increase membership in the RLT (Real Live Theater) Club, which asks patrons to commit a monthly donation of $10 or more. (Donors are entitled to a cookie at each performance they attend.)

When the membership drive began, the theater had just over 100 donors. It now has more than 250, with a goal of 300, Linda Whitney said.

That’s one sign of a brighter and more sustainable future, the Whitneys said.

Another is that nearly 1,000 people have signed up for season tickets. That’s more than last season, and season ticket sales continue.

Advance ticket sales for “Stardust” also are up over last year.

And development director Hap Clemons has been successfully applying for more grants, such as the $5,000 Community Foundation grant the theater received last month.

The company also won a Social Impact Theatre Award, including a grant, to support its production of “I Am My Own Wife,” opening next month. The one-person show tells the true story of a transgender woman’s life in Germany during and after World War II.

The Whitneys are working to attract funding even from people who might not be interested in theater.

“Theater brings people downtown,” Scot Whitney said. “Just because somebody isn’t sitting in the seats doesn’t mean they’re not benefitting from our presence. All of the restaurants know this.”

Harlequin sells about 20,000 tickets per year, and audience surveys show that 75 percent of those attending a show will spend money in a store or restaurant before or after the show. Half report both shopping and eating while downtown.

While seeking support that reflects that impact, the Whitneys are not letting financial concerns change their programming.

“Rather than go, ‘Oh, ticket sales are soft. Let’s do ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Pajama Game’ and those kinds of big musicals,’ we say, ‘No, we are going to continue to do challenging work,’ ” Linda Whitney said. “We are going to do work that has serious actors telling great stories, important stories, stories that resonate with where we are in history right now.”

Harlequin Productions 2018 season

“Here Comes the ‘Rain’ Again” could be Harlequin’s theme song for 2018. The theater’s just launching 27th season includes three plays whose titles use the word with which Western Washingtonians are all too familiar.

Many of the season’s plays deal with social issues, said Linda Whitney, Harlequin’s artistic director. (Yes, even the new “Stardust,” in which the status of brown people in the United States, in both the 1960s and today, is an underlying theme.) There’s a play about a transvestite, and one about the lives of policemen. On the lighter side, there’s one told from the perspective of a most unusual dog.

When: Evening shows at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays

Where: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia

Tickets: For straight plays, $34 general admission, $31 for seniors and military, $20 for students and youth; for “Stardust,” $49 general admission, $45 for seniors and military, $25 for students and youth; for other musicals, $41 general admission, $37 for seniors and military, $25 for students and youth. Discounted rush tickets are available a half-hour prior to curtain, and pay-what-you-can shows happen on the first Wednesday after opening weekend.

Season tickets: $150-$205 for the full seven-show package, $139-$227 for flex passes that allow you to choose available seats for any performance of four, six or all seven productions.

More information: 360-786-0151, harlequinproductions.org

The shows

  • “The Stardust Christmas Fandango” (Dec. 1-31): Harlequin’s tradition of nostalgic holiday musicals continues with an early ’60s show that highlights the Latin American influence on the era’s music and culture.
  • “I Am My Own Wife” (Jan. 18-Feb. 10): Doug Wright’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winner is based on the true story of a German transgender woman who survived both the Nazis and the East German Communist regime.
  • “The Art of Racing in the Rain” (March 1-24): The uplifting comic drama, based on the best-selling novel by Garth Stein, gives a view of humanity from a dog’s perspective.
  • “Three Days of Rain” (May 3-26): Richard Greenberg’s Pulitzer-nominated drama begins with a man discovering his family’s history and then goes back 35 years to the time when his parents were his age.
  • “Magical Musical Midsummer Musical” (June 21-July 21): This original retrospective of the work of Harlequin musical director Bruce Whitney includes not only music and dance but also illusions and aerial arts.
  • “Ruthless” (Aug. 16-Sept. 15): How outrageous is this Off-Broadway musical? Its 8-year-old heroine is willing to resort to murder to win the lead role in a school play.
  • “A Steady Rain” (Oct. 4-27): Keith Huff’s intense drama explores the lifelong friendship of two Chicago policemen struggling to cope with the most harrowing case of their careers.


Among the ways to donate to Harlequin Productions: