Harlequin Productions ready to play its part in South Sound theater
This time last year, Harlequin Productions was preparing to announce its upcoming season lineup when a Seattle Times article — about a well-known playwright, an unwanted come-on and a lack of response by the theater’s leaders — changed everything.
The season announcement was canceled. Within a week, one of Harlequin’s founders, Scot Whitney, resigned. Six months later, another founder, Linda Whitney, was fired.
One year after Harlequin’s #MeToo moment, Olympia’s only professional theater company is still trying to separate itself from its founders. Later this month it will announce its 2020 season — dubbed “Transformation,” its first named season — that could set the tone for its next chapter.
“A lot of the community still identifies this theater company as Scot and Linda Whitney, when in reality it’s a whole staff, it’s a thousand subscribers, many more single-ticket buyers and 120 contracted artists annually,” said Aaron Lamb, who was made artistic director last year, shortly after the story came out.
In recent months, the theater has started offering new discounts and more student matinees in the hopes of reaching a wider audience. Last month it brought back its theater education program with classes for children, teens and adults, and it is revamping its membership program with new incentives for donors.
It also reorganized its administration following an external review, separating business and artistic duties, and adopted formal policies on harassment and bullying.
More changes will be announced at the season launch event March 30.
Scot Whitney declined to comment for this story, but Linda Whitney maintains they were “scapegoated.” The couple considered a wrongful termination lawsuit but decided not to pursue it; she says she has had no contact with the theater’s board or staff since she left.
Still, she says, they want Harlequin to live on without them.
“I hope they can make it work,” she said. “But it’s a hard question: How?”
‘There’s still some divide...’
The Seattle Times story centered on a 2011 incident involving playwright Israel Horovitz, who faced similar allegations as early as 1993. From 2009 to 2014, Harlequin produced six plays by Horovitz, who came to Olympia for rehearsal or opening nights.
Scot Whitney was quoted as saying an actress Horovitz tried to kiss on such a visit was “a big girl, she can take care of herself.”
Steve Manning of Tacoma acted in several Harlequin plays, most recently in 2017’s “Time Stands Still.” He blames the board for turning on the Whitneys; he says Scot didn’t handle the Horovitz situation well and was right to leave, but forcing Linda out was the wrong move.
“I think that there was a knee-jerk overreaction right in the very beginning, and then it snowballed,” he said. “I’m sure they’re convinced they’re doing the right thing, but I’m not sure the punishment fit the crime.”
The Horovitz news could not have come at a worse time for Harlequin. Season tickets were about to go on sale, and the season launch is typically a time to solicit donations. Both numbers were down — 2019 season ticket sales fell about 10 percent compared with 2018 — though Lamb says single-ticket sales have kept ticket sales for recent shows about average.
Harlequin has opened a revolving line of credit against the value of the historic State Theater, which it bought in 1997, to address long-standing cash flow problems. Lamb says in the past those were handled with credit cards and pleas to donors.
“That’s the worst thing we could do right now, and it’s not true, because we have other options,” he said. “Asking people for money and telling them we’re going to close (if we don’t get it) will undermine donor confidence and people won’t give. And then we’ll be in bigger trouble.”
But the moves the theater company has made have fueled their own rumors. Manning worries borrowing money could put the State Theater building at risk. Lin O’Leary, a long-time season subscriber who has volunteered as an usher for nearly a decade, says she got nervous when she saw empty seats.
She and others wrote letters to the editor at The Olympian calling for people to support the theater, no matter their feelings about its administration. Other letter writers vowed to protest in the Whitneys’ honor.
“There’s still some divide when it comes to Harlequin,” said Billy Thomas, publisher of the arts and culture publication Oly Arts, a season sponsor of Harlequin this year. “There were some long-term supporters of Harlequin in the community who were shaken by (the Whitneys’ leaving) and who came out of that in different directions.”
Lamb started at Harlequin as an actor in 2009 and later directed. In 2017, he and the Whitneys came up with a five-year plan for him to take over when they eventually retired. All that was set aside with last year’s shake-up.
Now, he says, he is focused on bringing people into the theater.
“I want to make sure that whatever we’re doing, people know that we’re here, and they know that we’re here for the work we’re doing, not necessarily for the news we may have created in the past.”