A Fiendish Conversation with Seattle Rep's Benjamin Moore
Managing director isn't exactly the glamor position in an arts organization, but it's the one charged with keeping everything afloat when the hull (inevitably) springs leaks. For 28 years, Benjamin Moore has guided Seattle Repertory Theatre with a steady hand while serving as its managing director, general manager, and production director. Not only did he oversee hundreds of productions and the construction of the the Rep's second stage (the Leo K. Theatre), he also managed to steer the theater through the economic recession. But now it's time for a new cast. After announcing his plans to retire two years ago, June 30 will mark Moore's final day as the the company's managing director. With the unfortunate passing of artistic director Jerry Manning earlier this year, Seattle Rep will be have an entirely new duo (artistic director Braden Abraham and managing director Jeffrey Herrmann) at the helm for the 2014–15 season and beyond, but the impact Moore and Manning had on the organization will be felt for years to come.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Moore about his favorite Seattle Rep productions, his continued fight to find more funding for the arts, and the importance of the "human laboratory" that is theater.
Over the course of your time at Seattle Rep, what things that stick out as your proudest achievements?
Let’s see, how many of them do you want? I’ll give you a couple of categories. In the context of very tangible achievements, building the Leo K. Theatre back in ’97, or more to the point, pushing that project, which took about ten years to be realized. And a lot of fundraising, of course. And a pretty wonderful outcome in terms of this lovely small, intimate theater that made more sense out of this full facility. When we built the first building back in ’82—I wasn’t here at the time—the intention was to have two playhouses and we couldn’t afford it. So when I arrived in ’85–’86, on the top of Dan Sullivan’s list was finishing the project, finishing the second playhouse. So we got that done, and I think the result is very satisfying, a good outcome, and made the facility complete. That is among those things I’m most proud of.
On a less tangible front, I think managing the transition in artistic leadership back in 2008, when we had an unexpected change at the artistic helm. It was a tricky time for us; it was a bad time in many other respects being in 2008. We managed that transition really well with the interim appointment of Jerry Manning, who was my sixth partner in making theater. Over the course of my career, I’ve had six different artistic directors that I’ve partnered with, and this was the best of the lot. I was happy that I stayed around long enough to actually experience a wonderfully balanced partnership with Jerry Manning and to usher him in, to play my part in making that a smooth transition. And then have, as the outcome, such a satisfying partnership with him for the last four or five years is another thing that I certainly count among my best achievements.
It seems the Rep has made it through the recession less scathed than some other arts organizations. What were the keys to dealing with that economic downturn?
We definitely are still recovering, as all of our other peers are as well. I only recently starting thinking about this in the way I’m about to describe.
One thing is that I took a sabbatical in 2007. And I’m a political junkie and love to read, particularly biographies about political figures, and I also started doing a lot of reading about the economy. When I came back from that sabbatical in September 2007, I was really anxious about where we were headed. I didn’t have a crystal ball but I could just feel the shifting sands under my feet, even though this was a little bit early. I’d been reading a lot of sort of pessimistic forecasts, so I was loaded down with a lot of uncharacteristic pessimism or at least skepticism, and caution that drove me, and the organization, to do some of the things that we undertook. That really set a context for me through the course of operating cycle—‘07 and ‘08—to start thinking ahead, because I could feel that we were going to have to make significant adjustments.
And, of course, we did that in 2009 when we put together the plan for ‘09–’10; this is when we downsized about 30 percent. And we did this insane thing of shifting the organization onto a four-day work week, closing the building on Mondays. We did a lot of cutting back by attrition. As people were leaving their jobs in ‘07, ’08, and the first part of ’09, we just didn’t replace them. We did some adjustments, we changed the staff structure, we did a lot of integrating of all the revenue-producing activities. And by that I mean we took down the silos in the organization, and put the business of selling tickets and the business of raising contributions into one larger and much more integrated department. And that actually resulted in a net decrease in head count and it made us more efficient. We also learned how to say no. We’re not very good at that yet. Having downsized the organization and taken 20 percent out of people’s time and out of their paychecks, we decided we had to right-size the organization, and that meant we had to eliminate some programs; not a lot, but trimmings here and there. And we learned not to take on new enterprises, new initiatives.
In addition to that, of course, we reduced the size of the shows we were producing. We made the most out of partnerships with peer organizations around the country as well as here locally. And all of those remedies—although they weren’t necessarily remedies, they we were just in some cases stopgap measures—a lot of those adjustments have remained with us. We did restore some of the wages we cut back in 2010, but we’re still just as lean, in fact leaner, than we were two or three years. We learned to be more productive, more efficient, because we had to. I think that answers your question, probably with too much detail.
Over the course of your time at the Rep, are there any productions that really stick out as favorites?
Absolutely. We’ve changed a lot programmatically in the time I’ve been here. We can almost never approach any of the classical repertoire because it’s too expensive, generally speaking. The work in the 16th, 17th, 18th Centuries, these are all big plays; they all require large casts. And we think now that anything more than a cast of six is large. We used to do projects that populated the stage with casts in the late teens, early 20s. So I regret the fact that we’re not resourceful. We don’t have enough resources at this point to do Shakespeare, Shaw, O’Neill, any number of those great writers. We are able to do Albee. And I think that a lot of his work constitutes American classics, particularly Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf that we just did.
As far as favorites are concerned, I do favor some of the classics that we have produced over the years. The one that comes to my mind early on in my time, back in ’87, was a production of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, which was helmed by Dan Sullivan. It was really brilliantly done. Somehow the images that Dan conjured onstage really live sharp and bright in my mind today. Those things have definitely lingered on for now better than 20 years.
Also I think, on the opposite end of the scale, The Brothers Size, a brand new play by this brilliant young African American writer by the name of Tarell McCraney, which we did maybe four seasons ago. It’s a three-hander, beautiful and extraordinary—a lovely alternate to the voice of August Wilson. Very different, however, exploring some of the same issues basically. A much younger writer than August certainly was. And speaking of August, I think a production of Jitney—which we did because we’ve done all of August’s work—which is not really necessarily considered among his very best, considering the ten plays he wrote as part of the century cycle. But it was the most complete rendition of any of his plays, in my view, and probably because it had had several incarnations before it got here. It was really seasoned beautifully. It was a play that I, in particular, related to because of its central theme, which is focused on the relationship between a father and his son.
I’m not one for musicals, as a general rule. It’s not that I don’t go to them, it’s just not something we do on a regular basis. We did produce Sunday in the Park with George, one of Stephen Sondheim’s best plays, best musicals. I think we did this in 1990, if I’m not mistaken. It was really a brilliant rendition, actually far better, I believe, than the Broadway production of that play was. Those three really demonstrated the breadth of our programming.
What do you think is the importance of the Rep in the cultural makeup of Seattle and its arts community?
The best way to answer this is to reference the programs that are largely invisible, which are fundamentally focused on schools and youth and, speaking somewhat self-interestedly, audience development. I got into this business 40-some years ago, looking at the choice between working in commercial theater as opposed to working in not-for-profit theater. And I wanted to be part of a community; I wanted to be part of an organization that provided resources to the community beyond just the business of putting on plays. That includes taking on the responsibility, this is part of our obligation, not only to entertain at times—we love to make people laugh—but I think what has always inspired me is making choices of plays that’re relevant to our time; even old plays, that are remarkably relevant to this time, but also in the case of a new work that we’re developing. Something that really resonates and stimulates dialogue; makes it possible for somebody to see a play and be in some small and medium and large ways transformed by that experience, and engaging with fellow citizens to talk about stuff that’s important. Because the theater is nothing but a human laboratory. It’s a way for us to see ourselves, and to see ourselves differently, perhaps. That’s the responsibility of an organization like this in this community.
So we try and do things—like we’re going to do the LBJ plays (All the Way and The Great Society). This is an opportunity to talk about the Great Society that he tried, that he envisioned in the ‘60s. And where are we today? What do we mean by a great society at this point in time? How can we have some civic engagement around some of the issues that are part of these two plays, part of this narrative, which is truly Shakespearean? LBJ rises to the top with a tremendous amount of power and ability to legislate meaningful improvements to society, but how has that set of achievements been obscured by the war and by all that was going on in this country in the ‘60s? There’s a certain demographic in this town that don’t know anything about LBJ, don’t know anything about what was going on in the ‘60s, really, because it’s not taught in the schools, at least not to the degree that I think it should. And I think this is an opportunity for us to create a lot of a lot of exposure, a lot of exploration of some of these important issues.
This is only a part of what we do in the schools and, frankly, touching young minds with a first live theater experience is critical not only for the youth in the community, but for our own future sustainability. Since the schools have really sort of emptied out art as a part of basic education, we have to go a fair measure in trying to make up for that, because it makes for better learning, frankly. The arts enhance, or can enhance, all of the curriculum. The work we’ve been doing in developing programs that have now been cycling through every year for the last 15-20 years is having an impact. We have a teacher professional development program. We have a teaching-artist development program to develop artists who have an ability and an interest of being in the classroom. How can they partner up with teachers in the classroom to make all of the subject matter more compelling, more interesting, more engaging? So that stuff is at the core of our mission. It doesn’t register. It’s not so very visible as the plays we put on, but it has tremendous impact.
And our internship program—which has been around for 30 years has now—I think it’s like 400 interns have graduated into professional positions all around the country over the course of that 30-year span. And that impact is, I think, is very measurable and, frankly, a lot more long-lasting than necessarily a whole bunch of plays we put on. (Laughs) They come and they go.
So what’s next for you?
I am going to continue to make these LBJ plays successful. This is a project that I’ve been working on for three or four years. I’d hoped to get it done before I left, but the Broadway production of All the Way kind of got in the way, if you will. When a commercial producer steps in, you kind of have to step back. So we managed to secure a license to All the Way, even though it hasn’t yet run its course on Broadway. And bringing that together with its companion play—The Great Society—which is happening in November-December, is the biggest thing we’ve ever done. I’m going to stick around and help Jeff Herrmann, my successor, and everybody else here to make sure that’s a success. That’s definitely sort of a part-time gig for me, but it’s going to keep me occupied.
And then I’ve been working for about six years on this public funding initiative, which is called the Cultural Access Washington. In order to advance this plan, we have to get taxing authority from Olympia, which is not an easy thing to do. But we’re making great progress. We almost got the job done last session. We’re re-gearing for the session in 2015. If we can get the taxing authority, then we can move down the line toward a public campaign to put this idea to a vote. It’s really about taxing the citizens of King County or the citizens of Seattle, if that’s the way it plays out, to levy the smallest portion of sales tax that one can actually ask the public to approve. And that will build about a $45–$47 million dollar fund that will be distributed to about, oh, I don’t know how many organizations in King County. But all stripes, all sizes. It’s all about creating more access to all of the programs that each of these organizations produce on an annual basis and, at the same time, provide a little stability for these organizations. Make up for the fact that Washington state ranks very, very low in the U.S. in per capita funding to the arts and culture. And we need to remedy that. That’ll be a game changer. I’m going to turn into a volunteer and try to get that job done over the course of the next three or four years. I’m still in the game. I’m just operating on a slightly different landscape.
Was that what made you decide that now was the right time to retire?
Partially. This initiative, as I said, has been going on for six years. I’ve only been able to do this on the side because there just isn’t any time. It needs more time. It is a volunteer effort because we don’t really have a lot of resource. What resources we have, we are taxing ourselves so that we can pay some people like a lobbyist in Olympia to do this work.
Two years ago is when I decided to advise the board that the contract that was running at the time, and is about to run out, would be the end of my time. And, I must say, that was really because I sensed it was just time to get out of the way. I’ve been here a long time, longer than I ever imagined. There are many good people, younger than I. This organization deserves new leadership, new energy. It is kind of a new era, as it has turned out, because when Jerry passed unexpectedly, we turned to Braden. So now we have two young guys, not exactly the same age, but a new generation of leaders. And this is exactly what should be happening right now. I feel it in my bones. (Laughs)