Executive Q&A with Benjamin Moore

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When Seattle’s flagship theater company opens its 50th season next month, Ben Moore will celebrate 27 years at the helm. He is only the third administrative director of the Rep and by far its longest serving. On his watch, and for 14 years before his arrival, the Rep has not had a budget deficit.

CHILDHOOD: I was born in Boston, moved around the country a bit, but the homestead remains Cape Cod, where I have siblings, a couple of kids, some grandchildren. I was late to the family, the youngest of four. My father [Charles] was a big influence. He was Henry Ford II’s publicist at Ford Motor Company in the late ’50s, early ’60s.

SCHOOLING: My father conspired to place me in the Putney School in Vermont, which is where I was introduced to the arts. After college [at Dartmouth], I got an MFA in arts administration at Yale [1970].

EARLY EMPLOYMENT: After a summer with the Wesport [Connecticut] Country Playhouse, I got a job at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco as an über production manager in a repertory company with a resident group of 40 or 45 actors who were employed no matter what—from Labor Day to Memorial Day. We could perform almost anything in the repertory. It was a golden era. I got the chance to spend all the money. And then after nine years, I thought, “Well, this is not really where I was headed when I was at Yale, so maybe I need to switch over to the admin side.” But that base of experience, putting the work on the stage, has served me extremely well.

SEATTLE REP: I came here at the end of 1985 and succeeded Peter Donnelly. I’d also been watching [then-artistic director] Dan Sullivan from afar, and I thought he was a remarkable practitioner of the art form, so the notion of working with him was thrilling because my life had really evolved to the point where the reason I was in this business, I realized, was this fascinating challenge of supporting an artist in an institutional context. We were together for 12 years and it was a wonderful time for me. I learned a lot. I felt like I grew up in the business.

CHANGES SINCE 1985: There are fewer of us now than there were then. That certainly has affected the overall ecology of the theater community and how it’s populated. There’s also been a huge shift. When I arrived here in ’85, we had more than 20,000 subscribers. We have 8,500 subscribers today. People don’t buy the product the way they used to, which is kind of discouraging because if we’ve constructed a good journey for a season with the theater, you’re not going to love everything but you’re going to go places you wouldn’t ordinarily choose to go on your own, and that to me is an adventure.

THE CHALLENGE: Ultimately, it comes down to money, and lots more resources have to be allocated to marketing the product. Every play demands a different approach. Some are more expensive than others, but, basically, they’re all more expensive [to market]. That means, in all likelihood, you’re taking money away from making the art.

CUTTING BACK: In fiscal year 2010, we downsized by 30 percent, took 20 percent out of everybody’s paycheck and closed the building on Mondays.

RAMPING UP: We’re in the process of developing a budget now that arrives at a level of compensation that is equivalent to what our people were earning in 2009. With the 50th anniversary, if there’s any time when we can do this, that’s when it should happen.

AVOIDING DEFICITS: The simple answer is that we have an endowment. We built an endowment on the traditional basis that you raise the money, establish a basis point, invest it wisely, and you spend earnings to support operations. Well, that sort of went south in 2008. We invaded the principal, pure and simple, to sustain ourselves through this difficult time. We’ve been very careful about how we rely on that, but it’s making everybody nervous because we can’t keep living in this way.

50TH ANNIVERSARY GOALS: We must make it clear that our commitment to developing new work is firm and is going to stick. With our season opener, [Cheryl L. West’s] Pullman Porter Blues, something we commissioned three years ago, [artistic director] Jerry Manning has done a beautiful job shepherding it through a variety of workshops, readings and such. Also, returning to work that is of some scale is critical because this past season we produced the smallest season on record, at least as measured by the number of actors on stage.

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