Tacoma Musical Playhouse makes $1.2 million in improvements to theater

Audience members taking their seats at Tacoma Musical Playhouse might not notice the $1.2 million in improvements the nonprofit community theater has just installed. But they will when the show starts.

The orchestra, once seated well into the theater, has been moved to a new loft. The stage has been lowered 15 inches and a new sound system has been installed. Those are just the highlights of many improvements the theater made in 2013, the second phase of a retooling that will eventually include a new black box-style performance space for more avant-garde productions.

TMP’s 2013-14 season is the theater’s 20th anniversary. As the largest community theater in the Northwest (based on season ticket holders, ticket sales and budget), TMP presents six Broadway-style musicals per year with orchestral backing. It also offers classes, camps, workshops and productions through its 10-year-old CampTMP, which grows in popularity every year.

Its latest production, “Annie,” opens tonight and runs through Dec. 22.

The theater was founded by Jon Douglas Rake, who serves as the managing artistic director, and Jeffrey Sturtecky, the theater’s business manager and music director, along with development director Diana George. Rake and Sturtecky relocated to Tacoma from Los Angeles shortly after the Rodney King riots resulted in a gun battle on Rake’s front porch.

“We saw a lot of potential here,” Rake said of Tacoma in the early 1990s.

After first using churches and schools as venues, they rented the property on Sixth Avenue in 1996 and later bought it for $1 million. The building was a movie theater turned church before TMP took it over. Budget constraints meant that many less-than-perfect aspects of the building had to be tolerated. With the latest remodeling, those are now mostly gone.

“It’s now a very professional setup rather than thrown together,” Rake said.

The recent renovation added a lighted hallway behind the stage. Previously, actors and crew had to travel behind the curtains or through the basement to get from one side of the stage to the other.

Other aspects of the renovation include new lighting and a sound booth. A new sound system enables better effects. The sound of a car, for instance, can move around the theater.

The relocation of the orchestra and installation of sound baffles to dampen echoes has resulted in a cleaner sound, Rake said. The proof came in the recent production of “Les Miserables.”

“People have said that was the first time they heard every word,” he said.

The lowering of the stage to 33 inches above the seating area and enlarging the stage’s proscenium width by 6 feet has improved sightlines, Rake said.

“Now there’s not a bad seat in the house,” said Sue Snyder, director of marketing.

Though some seats were added after the orchestra moved into the loft, some seats were taken away to accommodate patrons with disabilities. Total capacity remains at 380.

The recent remodeling is the not the first – $800,000 was spent on a new lobby, bathrooms and dressing rooms in 2007 – and it won’t be the last. Up next is the alternative performing space for more cutting-edge shows. “Where we can do those edgy ‘Avenue Q’ shows,” Rake said. A date for that project has not been set.

Rake acknowledges that the theatrical choices TMP now makes are populist. But he also programs at least one show a year that challenges audiences. This year they are presenting the gay-themed “La Cage Aux Folles.” “Young Frankenstein” and “Shout!” are also scheduled.

The improvements were funded by a two-year capital campaign that brought in grants (including state administered Building for the Arts) and donations large and small. TMP has an annual operating budget of $1.6 million (royalties and script rentals for a musical can run up to $20,000) and six full-time employees. It has 2,600 season subscribers.

A 16-member board oversees the theater, which has always operated in the black, Rake said. It operates like a business, he said, with strong oversight from the board.

Though actors don’t earn a living wage, TMP does pay its performers – “Annie” has 28 actors, 10 musicians and eight technical crew – and draws talent from around the region, Rake said. In addition to his regular stable of actors, about 350 hopefuls audition every year.

The theater rents out costumes to local high schools for a nominal fee. It’s a way to encourage the next generation of performers, Rake said.

Rake is bullish about the future of musical theater. “It’s progressively changing as the audience changes,” he said, citing the consistently sold-out “Book of Mormon” as an example. He hopes to get that show to his stage one day. But given its popularity on Broadway, it’s still years away from any community theater.