Interplayers Theatre was incorporated in October 1980 as Spokane Interplayers Ensemble by the husband and wife theatrical teaching and performing team of Bob and Joan Welch. It was the first resident professional theatre company in the history of the Inland Northwest.
The Welch’s had moved to Spokane in 1954 to raise their family from New York City, where they attended the Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research (where Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler were on the faculty) alongside Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Walter Matthau, and Tony Curtis.
The Ensemble was an outgrowth of the Professional Actors-in-Training Program that the Welch’s developed during their 18 years running the theatre department at the small private liberal arts Fort Wright College. When the college closed as a four-year institution in 1980, they decided to form the Ensemble. Joan was designated the Artistic Director and Bob was the Managing Director.
It took a year to establish the professional company and find a home. They signed a lease on the old Eagles Lodge building at 174 S. Howard in September, and they opened the theatre on October 30, 1981. The first production wasThe Male Animal by James Thurber and Elliot Nugent. It had special significance to the couple – they had gotten married between the matinee and evening performances of the play at the New School in 1948.
Interplayers has produced at least seven plays per season since that opening night. Eight years after the Welch’s signed that first lease with the four city firemen who owned the building, they were able to buy it. Until that time, Interplayers has only had possession of the second floor. Rehearsals took place in what is now the Gellhorn Gallery.
By 1995 Interplayers had 3,000 season subscribers and was running at 93% average capacity per season. Personnel included a permanent technical crew of seven as well as office staff and of course the company of 36 ensemble actors. It had a 16 member Board of Trustees and an 18 member Advisory Board.
The Welch’s retired from Interplayers in 2001, after 20 years of running the theatre, directing a number of the productions and always keeping their hand in by acting in a few each season. They handed the reins of the theatre over to Robin Stanton, who served as Artistic Director from 2002-2005. Nike Imoru took over for the 2005-2006 season, followed by Wes Deitrick in 2007, and Karen Kalinsky from 2007-2008.
Reed McColm took the artistic helm in 2009 and is the current Artistic Director. He was joined in 2011 by Pamela Brown as Executive Director.
Interplayers has been a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization since its founding. Over the years it has received grants from The National Endowment for the Arts, the Washington State Arts Commission, Foundation Northwest, Washington Trust Bank, US Bank, Safeco Insurance and many area charitable foundations such as the Johnston-Fix, Leuthold, Jewett, Greg Green, Dicker, Harriet Cheney Cowles, Johnston-Hanson and the Wasmer Fund for Arts.
Interplayers began life as Spokane Interplayers Ensemble. And that’s what it remained until the Welch’s retirement. After that it was called Spokane InterPLAYERS. Then in 2008 it became Interplayers Professional Theatre and finally the Board of Trustees decided in 2012 that it would be known simply as Interplayers Theatre.
Then, in 2014...
Following years of financial struggles and narrowly avoided closures, Interplayers Theatre has reached a point where it can no longer can continue. Its board of directors has concluded several weeks of negotiations by signing a deal that will see Interplayers merge with Lake City Playhouse.
Once the documents are finalized at the state level, the 34-year-old professional theater will be officially subsumed by the 54-year-old Coeur d'Alene community theater led by George Green.
"On July 4, our board met with the purpose of closing the theater for financial reasons," says Michael Bowen, president of Interplayers' board of directors. "We [thought] 'Maybe we have to close, maybe we have to declare bankruptcy.'" As a third alternative, board member Ryan Oelrich suggested approaching Lake City Playhouse, the theater that Green salvaged and revitalized four years ago, "to see if they would be prepared for some type of partnership or merger."
"It turns out that Lake City Playhouse had in fact had a couple of board meetings for the purpose of planning for what happens when Interplayers folds. They saw it coming. They were ready."
The terms of the resulting merger are fairly straightforward. Lake City Playhouse will assume all Interplayers' assets and liabilities, as well as operational control of the theater. A significant portion of those liabilities is approximately $92,000 in outstanding debt.
"I'll put a big '-ish' on that figure," says Green. "We've come to an agreement on what the known liabilities are. I anticipate that there will be some future things, and that's not uncommon in this type of situation."
This wasn't the first time Interplayers found itself in dire straits. Two years ago, the theater was saved by a lease renegotiation with landlord Jerry Dicker, owner of GVD Commercial Properties. At the time, Interplayers Executive Director Pamela Brown claimed that Interplayers was "debt-free" and could "start from zero."
But the arrow quickly moved in the wrong direction on the number line. One year later, Interplayers said its 2013-14 season was contingent on its ability to solicit $150,000, some of which was to be used to cover legal fees associated with erstwhile Artistic Director Reed McColm's work visa. The theater raised only about half that amount but persevered nevertheless.
How it managed to do so is a matter of some contention. Bowen says that there was "lack of financial transparency" on the part of the executive staff, and the volunteer board of directors as a group didn't thoroughly audit the "reams of paper" they were given for inspection.
"When we appointed a finance committee of two of our board members to really investigate the finances in late June, it became evident that we were further behind on payments to vendors," says Bowen. "And more seriously, we were tens of thousands of dollars behind on state and federal payroll tax. I wish we'd realized the depth of our financial problems a year ago or we might've been able to change things."
However, the idea of a merger isn't a new one. A decade ago, after months of hand-wringing over red ink, Interplayers considered joining forces with Actors Repertory Theater of the Inland Northwest (ARt). (Incidentally, ARt was led by Michael Weaver, who recently stepped down as Interplayers' artistic director for the second time under such circumstances.) The two theater groups were ultimately unable to finalize the deal. In what would become a recurring theme, Interplayers restructured just enough to move forward alone.
Bowen says Lake City Playhouse — and more specifically, Green — is "the best hope and the only hope we have" to realize the board's primary goal of ensuring that professional theater continues in the same location. "His passion is for the theater. He's a go-getter. He's effective. And he has rescued that theater."
Despite the merger, little will change outwardly in the near term. Lake City Playhouse will carry on "business as usual," according to Green, as will Interplayers' season opener, Broadway Bound. The second-slot production, Hound of the Baskervilles, will likely be replaced "with a viable option" on account of insufficient rehearsal time and unpaid royalties.
Both Bowen and Green point out that the organizations' two months of discussions covered more abstract topics that could affect the venture.
"How is it going to be perceived to have a community theater merge and be the surviving entity of a professional organization? How is the public, how are the artists going to feel about that?" asks Green. "But we need to be clear that we're operating a business over here. The only difference between a community theater as a business and a professional theater as a business is that a professional theater is paying its performers on stage. We're both 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, and that's why this merger is allowed to happen."
"The goal is to have professional theater in the [N Howard Street] location," he says. "I just want to make sure that both the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene communities understand that this is being done in effort to create something positive for artists and patrons alike."