There’s no business like show business. But most nonprofit performing arts groups in the Puget Sound region’s dynamic cultural landscape need the support of avid patrons like Emily Davis, Bill Kuhn, and Pat Daniels to go on with the show.
This Seattle trio and other theatre-lovers aren’t content to just sit in the audience, or write the occasional donation check. They’re loyal boosters and volunteers. What is in it for them, other than heartfelt gratitude, good seats, and opening night receptions? Entrance into the fascinating process of creating theatre—which, according to Kuhn, Daniels, and Davis, is more than worth the price of admission.
When they moved to Seattle in the 1970s, New York transplants Bill Kuhn and his wife, Pat Daniels, were already stage fans. But they had no idea there was top-quality theatre so far from the bright lights of Broadway.
“It took us a while to see what a deep pool of talent Seattle had,” recalls Kuhn, a computer scientist. Over the years he and Daniels began attending, subscribing to, and donating to numerous local theaters, including the city’s two Tony Award-honored playhouses, Seattle Repertory Theatre and Intiman Theatre.
“In the past the Rep would do a lot of classics, and we’d read the plays by Shakespeare or Moliere aloud to each other before we went to see them,” remembers Daniels, an engineering professor who has taught at University of Washington and Seattle University.
But their interest and involvement intensified in the 1990s, after they became regular visitors to ACT Theatre, a buzzing downtown theatrical multi-plex ensconced in the landmark Eagles Building.
“We discovered for a modest annual donation we’d get invited to technical rehearsals, play readings, and pre-show events,” says Kuhn. “We’d get to meet the actors and technicians, and find out more about the process of putting on a production. It was fascinating.”
“Bill and Pat know what it takes to bring great theatre to life,” says Becky Witmer, ACT’s appreciative managing director. “People who make supporting and attending live theatre part of their lifestyle help to keep us going strong.” Witmer notes that while much of ACT’s income comes from ticket sales, contributed revenue is essential. And more than half of that comes from individuals, in small and larger contributions.
Kuhn, now retired, also learned that his own talents and expertise from years in the computer industry could be valuable to ACT. Seven years ago he joined the board of directors and took on the challenging task of redesigning, building, and writing a website for ACT’s 50th anniversary.
“It was a huge project,” he explains. “We created a comprehensive site (acttheatrehistory.org) that lists every play they’ve done and all the actor and other credits. Pat proofread it.”
Daniels has also enjoyed the audience post-show talkbacks with artistic director John Langs and others, and special invitations to readings of new plays. She remembers award-winning author Steven Dietz “just grilling us, after a reading of his play Bloomsday. He didn’t want praise, he wanted to hear what we didn’t like, so he could make a good script even better.”
Other memorable occasions: attending with other supporters the Broadway opening of First Date, a musical ACT developed in Seattle. And mingling with members of local Asian communities, leading up to an ACT adaptation of the ancient Hindu epic, The Ramayana. “Many people think it takes a lot of money to get the fringe benefits,” notes Daniels. “But for a donation of as little as $100, you can get more involved.”
“We’re not the richer donors,” Kuhn adds with a chuckle. “But it’s part of my contribution to give what I can in time and expertise to make that up.”
A retired Seattle lawyer, Emily Davis is also an inveterate theatre-goer. Though she loves to travel, her busy schedule when she’s home includes frequent trips to a variety of local shows both on large stages and in tiny “fringe” theaters. (“At one time I think I had six season theatre subscriptions,” she says.)
In the early 1990s, Davis fell in love with Book-It Repertory Theatre, an acclaimed troupe that dramatizes works of literature. She has been devoted to the company ever since, as they’ve developed a passionate following for their adaptations of works by the likes of Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, and current Northwest novelists.
“When I first got involved the artistic directors (Jane Jones and Myra Platt) were putting on these wonderful works on a nothing budget,” says Davis. “They had a real skinny staff, nobody was making any money, so I’d help out in the office sometimes.”
Like Bill Kuhn, Davis followed up her interest by becoming an active board member. She, too, received a backstage crash course. “I loved the ability to see what goes behind the scenes, how they make the art,” she recalls. “And with my law background I loved learning about the business end of theatre—dealing with union contracts, getting the rights to books they dramatized.”
As the company has grown and prospered, a highlight for Davis is going to the “first read” for shows like Book-It’s recent version of Maya Angelou’s famed memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
“The people designing the costumes, the lighting, the sound, the sets introduce themselves, and talk about their ideas. They show their sketches and design models,” Davis says. “And the actors read through the script together for the first time. It’s so interesting to me, and really gives me an appreciation of how it all comes together in performance.”
Davis has now stepped up to become a bona fide Book-It “angel.” Each year for the past two years, she has donated $5,000 as the co-producer of a Book-It show: The Brothers K in 2016, and Welcome to Braggsville in 2017. But, she stresses, “Some other Book-It friends will give $100 or $50, whatever they can spare. In the theatre every penny is meaningful.” She says she’d especially encourage seniors “to get involved even if they feel they don’t want to contribute or serve on a board level. It’s so satisfying, and you learn so much.”
Misha Berson writes about the arts for The Seattle Times and many other publications, and is the author of four books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard).