Executive Director Mark Chenovick created his own opportunity at SecondStory Repertory, and now the once-struggling Redmond Town Center theater is looking toward the future.
Mark Chenovick could not have picked a worse time to start as SecondStory Repertory’s executive director.
It was 2010, the organization was $107,000 in debt, and The Seattle Times had reported that the fringe theater on the second floor of Redmond Town Center was on the brink of closing forever. A fundraising campaign prior to Chenovick’s arrival had raised some money, but it wasn’t enough to balance the books. New leadership was needed, and Chenovick applied for a job to replace the outgoing executive director.
The title might sound august and esteemed, but Chenovick didn’t draw a salary for the first six months. Instead, he and longtime managing director Jen Klos focused on controlling costs and preventing insolvency. Seven years later, the pair has paid off more than $60,000 of the debt and stages more than a dozen productions every year, all on an annual budget of approximately $250,000. They also have proved themselves to a board of directors that is pleased by the pair’s ability to keep the 86-seat theater a viable entity.
“The board is just super-supportive,” said Chenovick, 46, in the theater’s lobby one weekday afternoon. “They understand that we know how to make the theater happen, and they understand the amount of work that we do to keep this place open.”
Theater always was important to Chenovick. As a child, he performed in community theater in his hometown of Helena, Montana. In early adulthood, he moved to Seattle to study performing arts at the University of Washington. After college, he performed throughout the United States and Canada in touring productions, and even performed on a cruise ship in the South Caribbean. He also learned behind-the-scenes skills working as a production manager and technical director. Even his former day job remodeling residential homes taught him something theater-related: how to build sets.
Today, SecondStory Repertory annually produces seven mainstage shows, six shows geared toward youth, and a range of monthly improvisational performances. “For our larger musicals, we sell 60 to 75 percent of every show,” said Chenovick. “Kids’ shows are selling out every Sunday. We are very busy.”
Chenovick recently spoke with 425 Business and reflected on his career at the Eastside theater.
Q: SecondStory Repertory first opened in 1999. Has it always been located in the mall?
A: Indeed. The theater was created by an arrangement between the developer and Rosemary Ives, who was the mayor of Redmond at the time. The city negotiated with the developer to include a nonprofit theater in the mall. About $250,000 was used back in 1998 to do the build-out, and then another $35,000 to $50,000 the next year to kind of jump-start the theater and get it going. It was just a really lucky combination of political wherewithal within the city of Redmond and the willingness of the developer to take on the charge.
Q: You and Jen Klos arrived at the theater in 2010. What were those early years like?
A: When Jen and I took over, there was $107,000 worth of debt, most of it owed to different vendors and artists. When Jen and I were hired, they were going to close the theater. They said, “If you want the job, you can have the job, but we don’t have any money to pay you. Unless you can make money to pay yourself, there is really no job here.” We worked for free for the first six months just to get everything wrapped up and under control from the state that it was left in. At this point, we’ve consolidated that debt to about $45,000 and to a single board member, myself, and Jen. When Jen and I started, there was an amazing need for somebody to come in and work for hardly any money to make theater happen. We were willing to do that. The first week here, I went over to Robb Hunt at the Village Theatre in Issaquah and asked for his advice. He said get spending under control, live within your means, and keep the tension between management and the artists. You have to maintain a certain level of tension because you want your directors fighting for the best show possible, and you want your managers fighting for responsible use of funds.
Q: During those first six months, how did you make it work?
A: All our grants dried up because people read the newspaper headlines and they said, “Well, we think you are going to close, so we’re not going to give you any grant money.” It made it extra hard. In our desperate time of need, none of the granting organizations were willing to extend that money that had been coming in for years so that we could continue operations.
We did it all on ticket sales and shifted our business plan to 75 percent earned income and 25 percent donations. Ticket sales started climbing, and we started selling out shows. Things kind of steadily picked up in terms of people returning to the theater. The longer we go, the more money we raise through donations and grants and stuff like that. We’re back to the grant levels that we were at before all of that hullaballoo.
Q: Are there any protections for keeping the theater in the mall?
A: It’s a constant negotiation. Our current lease expires in 2018, at which time we will go back and beg them to keep us here for an amount of money that will continue to ensure our operation.
We’re basically here by the grace of the mall. If the mall decided they didn’t want us to be here anymore, we wouldn’t be here anymore. We have no political clout. We have no financial clout to throw around anywhere. We are a little fish in a big pond. I think that one of the things that we benefit from is an acknowledgement of that. We’re the tiniest fish going.
For now, we exist at the whim of the mall owner and their opinions of whether or not the arts are important. So far, they have shown us that the arts are important and they are committed to this. If the mall decides they would like to keep us here and we bring a lot of people and a lot of customers to the restaurants and foot traffic, then they will keep us around. So if we are good for business, they will keep us. We just try to stay good for business.
Q: How do you stay good for business?
A: We really like to produce a variety of shows targeted at kids as well as adults. We constantly have two shows happening at any given time to mitigate the risk of a single show failing. If we have one good show and one bad show, it’s a little bit easier to maintain the cash flow we need to keep the doors open. We also try to mix in an assortment of commercially viable shows with more artistically challenging shows. We do a certain number of shows that are lesser-known shows to the mainstream, and better known to the artists.
Q: How do you deal with what sounds like a very tenuous situation, running a small theater?
A: Well, it’s like they say: Running your own theater is living the dream. Well, someday you are going to wake up. That dream will be over, and you’ll have to move onto the next dream. We’ll see what happens and when it happens and how it happens. You can’t just look at the gloom and doom. You’ve got to stay optimistic. If you’re not optimistic, it would be hard to come in every day.
Q: What is the business environment like for Eastside theaters?
A: It comes down to space. We spoke with a couple city council members, and one of them said, “I’m looking at your books and your numbers, and with property values in Redmond as high as they are, a business like yours shouldn’t exist here.” That’s true. But a lot of theaters are in the same situation.
Q: Why were you interested in being the executive director at SecondStory Repertory?
A: I always wanted to run a theater, but there are no jobs available to do that, literally. The artistic directors and the managing directors at theaters hold these jobs for decades, and when they retire it almost always invariably goes to an internal promotion or someone that is known. This was the only opportunity to do this in the area that had popped up in the 12 years that I had been looking.
I was in the remodeling industry prior to this. When the housing bubble burst, there just weren’t any jobs. At the time, everyone was just in crisis mode. I couldn’t find work. Not doing something is just not in my nature. I have to be working. I love working. I love to be creative and create things. So, it wasn’t an option just to kind of sit back and not do anything. I figured this was a great opportunity at the time to try and do this and make a go at running a theater.
In the meantime, I was just trying to brush up on all the necessary skills to run a theater: accounting, website, graphics, marketing, press-release writing, grant writing. I build all the sets, paint all the sets, do all the lighting, and do all the sound. I do everything but costumes. Part of me feels as if, in a way, this is an experience-builder. If I could get a job at a larger theater somewhere and run a larger theater, that would be great.
On the flip side, the skill set that I have is so tailored to a small theater that I don’t know if I would fit in or be happy at a theater that is so compartmentalized. I’m not a person who necessarily likes that environment. I like being part of that creative process, every element of it.