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Theatre of the repine

Private management for Federal Way’s Knutzen Family Theatre angers some city officials

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A private theater company’s proposal to take over Federal Way’s Knutzen Family Theatre has some city officials up in arms. Administrators at Centerstage Theatre Arts Conservatory, which presents four annual performances at the city-run Knutzen Theatre, have presented city officials with a proposal. According to documentation accompanying the proposal, Centerstage would take over management of the theater under the proposed plan, an arrangement that Artistic Director Alan Bryce suggests would benefit both Centerstage and the city of Federal Way. Theater Coordinator Holly Rose isn’t convinced. 

“They’ve tried to do this several times,” says Rose, who stands to lose her job, along with several others, if the proposal is accepted. “Each year they’ve been told that it’s not a viable option, that their finances are not in order.” 


City officials have struggled for some time to finance operations at the theater, and there is widespread agreement that some change is in order at the facility. Proposals and ideas have been batted back and forth, but Centerstage is the first private group to come forward with a concrete proposal. In 2007, the city issued a $125,000 grant, drawn from utility taxes, to keep the theater afloat. Under the proposal presented by Bryce, Centerstage would take over management of the theater in exchange for a $75,000 management fee. Bryce contends that the savings to tax payers — a cool $50,000 — should make the deal a no-brainer.


Non-profit management of public theaters is not uncommon around these parts. The Kirkland Performance Center, the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts in Tacoma and Seattle Public Theatre are operated by non-profit groups. In each of those cases, arrangements have been successful to varying degrees, and, it can be argued, offer significant savings.  


But Rose contends that the savings in Federal Way wouldn’t be nearly as significant. In addition to taking over the theater and receiving a  $75,000 management fee, Centerstage has requested grants and additional funding that would narrow the savings down dramatically, says Rose. That remaining savings, in turn, may be further offset by additional expenses to the city and loss of theater revenue. It is important to note that the deal would save Centerstage about $40,000 in rental fees, which it pays for use of the theater and office space. In a letter to the Federal Way Mirror, Bryce lamented that the organization pays 23 percent of its annual revenue to rent the theater. 


Taking over management would offset that cost and provide the theater company with a share of revenue from theater rental and use fees. 


“I know why they would like to control the space,” says Rose. “They would get free rent and keep money from whoever gets to rent the space. I think they’re looking for additional income. As it stands, most of the revenue goes back to the city to support the theater.” 


In addition to dubious claims of savings, concerns have been raised about Centerstage’s ability to preserve public access to the theater. Centerstage is one of dozens of organizations that uses the theater. Some officials are concerned that if Centerstage took over management, access to the theater would diminish for some users. 


“As it works now, we’re an equal opportunity renter,” says Rose. “Centerstage has been quite impolite with some of our groups.” 


Bryce contends that at the very least the city will break even and they’ll get to keep the most prolific live performance organization in the city. Centerstage produces far more productions each year than any other theater company, and considers itself essential.

Bryce says he doesn’t understand all the rancor and contentiousness from city officials, but shares concerns with officials who may loose their jobs, as well as others who use the space.

“It would be in our best interest to remain sensitive to other users if we’re in charge,” says Bryce. 

As it stands, the city has two choices, says Rose. It can hand over the theater to Centerstage or it can approve an additional $50,000 to supplement the theater company’s budget. That money would come from the Arts Commission or the city manager’s contingency fund. Arts Commission members will vote on their recommendation soon, she says, followed by a city council vote, likely before year’s end. 

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