Two Seattle Companies Say They Will Merge

Seattle’s ACT Contemporary Theatre and Seattle Shakespeare Company — two of the city’s most enduring theater companies — may soon become one entity, the companies announced Wednesday. 

While the merger is not yet official, the boards of both ACT and Shakes have unanimously approved exploration of a merger, and a representative for the organizations said they are working toward having a memorandum of understanding signed by the end of this month, and a legal merger agreement finalized by the end of the year. 

The goal: to become one company, honoring Shakes’ and ACT’s respective legacies of classical and contemporary theater, operating out of ACT’s current multi-theater home at the former Eagles building in downtown Seattle at 700 Union St. Shakes’ fall 2024 production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” which kicks off its 2024-25 season, will be its final show in its longtime production home at Seattle Center’s Center Theatre.  

While it’s unclear yet how the proposed merger will affect staff numbers, both ACT Artistic Director John Langs and Shakes Executive Director John Bradshaw remain hopeful that few, if any, jobs will be lost in the transition.  

Bradshaw will lead this new as-yet-unnamed artistic organization as executive director (though his exact title has yet to be finalized), and a search will soon be underway for an artistic director. ​​Langs announced in April that he will leave Seattle this fall to become dean of the School of Drama at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. 

The merger announcement is “about a year in the making,” Langs said over Zoom. “So we’ve known a lot longer than we’ve been able to say anything about it, as we were finding a way to meet these industry headwinds that have been so crippling to so many organizations.”

Those aforementioned headwinds, which include skyrocketing production costs and uncertain subscriber numbers, have been battering theater companies nationwide for several years. Joining forces and resources is a practical solution, both Langs and Bradshaw said. From a numbers perspective, Seattle is losing a theater company. But what it’s getting in return, if all goes well, is a more robust company, with more capacity to make more art on a bigger scale. 

ACT, founded in 1965, currently has 45 full-time staff members, nine board members, and a fiscal year 2025 operating budget of $6.8 million, according to press representative Shane Regan, while Shakes has a staff of 22 (including seasonal box office employees and front-of-house staffers), 20 board members and an operating budget of $2.5 million. Hammering out a combined budget is part of the work ahead for the companies’ boards, as well as a combined organizational chart for staff. 

Both leaders sound hopeful that few jobs, if any, will be lost in a merger. “The new company will be larger than the existing companies, so that creates opportunities,” Bradshaw said. “And one of our values, on both sides, is our people.” Consolidating executive leadership, the most expensive roles in any organization, frees up room in the (now bigger) budget.

“Our intention is to grow and to have more room at the table, rather than less,” Langs said. 

Along with the announcement of Langs’ departure, both companies are in a state of flux. Shakes has been under the leadership of Makaela Milburn, interim artistic director, since September, and Michael Ross has been acting as ACT’s interim managing director since Anita Shah departed at the end of 2023.  

“It’s been uncomfortable because we have a lot of people asking a lot of questions [about hiring permanent leadership],” Langs said. “Which is why we want to get out and say, ‘this is what we’ve been working on, this is why it’s been a little murky in both of our shops.’ It’s about protecting the integrity of both institutions, but we feel good enough about it now to talk about it.”

The 33-year-old Seattle Shakespeare Company has long operated out of the Center Theatre at Seattle Center Armory, a shared space. “We’ve been looking for a [permanent] home for 17 years,” said Bradshaw. That need has become more urgent in recent years, he said, as presenting theater at Seattle Center has become more complicated with the opening of Climate Pledge Arena driving up traffic and parking costs.

Langs, for his part, has been trying to consistently fill ACT’s massive, four-theater space for years, without burning out ACT’s staff, which would require an increase in staff and capacity. 

“Quadrupling the number of people that come through the doors of ACT Theatre every year is really, really good for what needs to happen downtown,” he said. “And we’re going to need everybody’s support, the city’s support, ArtsFund’s support — anybody who believes in the cultural vitality of the place that they live.”

When a promising lead on a permanent space for Shakes fell through last year, Langs approached Bradshaw (the two have known each other for decades, and each has a long history with the other’s company) to float the idea of a merger.

And how do you honor the legacies of two companies with long histories, loyal followings and disparate artistic missions: a classical company and, quite literally, A Contemporary Theatre? 

“There will be one company, but there will remain two different brands of theater,” Bradshaw said. Within this one new company, he explained, there will be a Seattle Shakespeare season and an ACT Theatre season, and subscribers will be able to buy subscriptions to one or the other, or a mix of the two. “I think that you have to keep those streams clear, to honor that past and that future,” he said. 

Shakes has also recently begun expanding into new works, first with Keiko Green’s “The Bed Trick,” inspired by Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” and now with a just-announced new musical from Justin Huertas called “The Bad Parts,” inspired by “Much Ado About Nothing.” 

But the classics remain the company’s heart and soul, which makes this potential merger of classical and contemporary an exciting point of artistic cross-pollination, said Langs. “Being able to say, ‘What if this season we paired a really scintillating production of a Shakespeare play that spoke directly to [the work of] a bleeding-edge contemporary playwright?’ — I think that’s an enviable position for any artist to be in.”

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