Like most 75-year-olds, the Lakewood Playhouse has seen plenty of ups and downs. It’s seen homelessness, war, hard financial times and the death of a loved one. But it’s also seen support, commitment and theatrical prowess.
But even the good times of late – a new director, a refurbishment and a big debt reduction – pale in comparison to what supporters say is the theater’s best asset: community. And when the ribbon’s cut tonight on the Playhouse’s 75th anniversary and opening of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” the Lakewood folks will show how they put the community into community theater.
“The fact that we’re still here after 75 years when we’ve lost (other local) theaters is a testament to the fact that a lot of people have loved (Lakewood Playhouse), have supported it, have nurtured it,” says managing artistic director John Munn.
Not only is Lakewood Playhouse still there, it’s thriving and back on its feet after a couple of uncertain years. This season, chosen by patrons, runs the gamut from old chestnut comedies (“Arsenic and Old Lace,” “The Odd Couple”) through tense drama (“12 Angry Men,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) and literature (“Pride and Prejudice”), with a musical (“Spamalot”), a radio play and a holiday show along the way. Audiences and actors will appreciate recent refurbishments like plush blue seats, more legroom, a classier lobby and a wrap-around covered veranda that’ll protect both scurrying actors and audiences at intermission.
And the future looks a lot more certain, with $40,000 in bills and more than half of a $70,000 loan paid off.
But life hasn’t always been breezy for the Playhouse, which began in 1938 at Lakewood’s Little Church on the Prairie, with Burton James from Seattle Repertory brought in to give some locals acting lessons. The Lakewood Community Players (as they were called then) produced a few plays at the Dekoven Inn before World War II took away both manpower and money. Plays resumed after the war in the Lakewood Terrace Restaurant, and by 1965 the company had built its own theater on donated land in what was to become the Lakewood Towne Center mall – the same building used today. John Olive became its first full-time paid director in 1990, and things kept improving.
Then came Marcus Walker. A Baptist minister, actor and director with a belief that theater should convey beauty and truth, he took over the Playhouse as managing artistic director in 2001. Over the next 10 years, it grew into what Walker called “a community theater with professional aspirations.”
“Before Marcus, there was no money to do anything,” recalls Scott Campbell, who worked at the Playhouse from 2000-08, first as a volunteer, then technical director, then associate managing artistic director. “We had about 10 subscribers. We even had to disassemble the shed out the back to build the set for the play I was directing.”
Walker changed all that. One of the first things he did was remove a big proscenium arch that dominated the small stage, and add more seating. The resulting flexibility to perform plays in the round or as a thrust or transverse stage has put the Playhouse into a position unique among local theaters. With 167 seats, it also dramatically increased audience size and revenue, and productions soared in quality.
“The budgets just exploded,” Campbell says. “It was truly a diamond in the rough. It needed a lot of polishing, and we did just that.”
The other important part of the Playhouse that was just beginning was the youth theater. Now called Lakewood Institute of Theater, it now teaches adults as well, and has been crucial for developing actors, volunteers and audiences.
“(Lakewood Playhouse) has a role in shaping our citizens,” says Marie Barth, a Lakewood council member and longtime Playhouse patron who’ll be at the anniversary event. “They reach out to young children and provide them with an atmosphere they may never see anywhere else. It creates confidence, innovative thinking and teamwork.”
It also creates an adult community, as parents get involved. Larry Hagerman went from helping out with on-set carpentry when his son Coleman began classes to his current job as technical director, one of the theater’s eight paid employees.
“As a volunteer, they never forgot to let you know you were appreciated,” Hagerman says. “We make it fun to be here. ... Without (those volunteers), we wouldn’t have a theater.”
Then in 2010, Walker was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma. He died in March 2011, leaving behind a grieving theater community uncertain about who would take the lead and which direction they’d go. He also left behind a large debt – $26,000 in bills and $40,000 left on a loan for a new, badly-needed air-conditioning system – at the end of the 2010-11 financial year. It was partly the recession, partly dwindling audience, and partly business practice, Munn says.
“Marcus made visions work, took productions to a level they’d never been before,” says Munn, who, like many at the Playhouse, still tears up when speaking of Walker. “But there were things he didn’t do.”
“It was difficult for Marcus to address the hard-line nuts and bolts of running a theater,” adds Hagerman.
Munn, a 47-year-old former comic book store owner who’d acted and directed at the Playhouse since he was 16, stepped in first as interim, then permanent director. Over the last two years, he’s reduced the annual budget from $500,000 to $375,000, cut salaries (including his own, to $25,000), cut production costs (often by reusing materials like the big window in “Arsenic and Old Lace”), set up a more professional business model, solicited more grants, donations and local scholarship funding, and increased audiences through better marketing.
And thanks to a generous board member, the loan is now down to $30,000, and the bills were about $2,700 as of last week.
Munn is also upping the ante on what happens inside the theater, with both the new seats and a set for “Arsenic and Old Lace” that’s bigger than anything previously built at Lakewood. It includes a staircase that ascends almost to ceiling level.
He’s planning to pay off the remaining debt within two years, then begin a campaign to fund a building expansion.
He’s also continuing Walker’s mixture of challenging and popular shows, and collaborating with other local theaters by loaning sets and props and meeting regularly with the directors of Tacoma Little Theatre and Tacoma Musical Playhouse.
“All boats rise together,” Munn says. “It’s all theater.”
But what has really kept the Playhouse going for 75 years, say those involved, is the community – including the 100-odd volunteers from Spanaway to Puyallup who do everything from raise money to act.
“It takes a whole community to make theater work,” says Campbell. “(Lakewood has a) strong, passionate community – the audience, the actors, the artists, everybody. It provides creative energy.”
Robin Dean, the volunteer scenic artist who’s created the powder-blue Victorian set for “Arsenic and Old Lace,” agrees. “I love it,” she says. “They’re a wonderful theater. There are tons of volunteers and John Munn is amazing. I intend to be here for a very long time.”
Lakewood Playhouse turns 75
What: A production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” and a 75th anniversary celebration
Where: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd. SW, Lakewood
When: 4:30 p.m. Friday ribbon cutting with Lakewood Chamber of Commerce; 5:30 p.m. City of Lakewood proclamation; 6 p.m. silent auction and wine/cheese reception; 8 p.m. “Arsenic and Old Lace;” 9 p.m. intermission and live auction
Also: Show continues 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 13
Tickets: $25 adults; $22 military; $21 seniors; $19 students and educators. Pay-what-you-can performances at 8 p.m. Sept. 19 and 26. Anniversary celebration prior to the show is free.
Information: 253-588-0042, lakewoodplayhouse.org