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Company of the century

Tacoma Little Theatre celebrates its centennial

Tacoma Little Theatre in 1939. Photo courtesy TLT

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When Chris Serface became managing artistic director of Tacoma Little Theatre (TLT) May 1, 2013, the company was in serious straits. "We had $10,000 in the bank and floundering ticket sales and attendance," he admits, "and not really a clear idea of what we were going to do next. We had a season, but we weren't really marketing the theater." Only about 300 patrons subscribed that year. That's not to say TLT had nothing to be proud of; however, it's a marvel when any arts organization can last over 90 years. The question was how to secure the theater's finances and public support in order to reach its centennial milestone.

This year, everything's coming up roses. With over 625 season ticket-holders and a $525,000 budget -- more than twice what it was six years ago -- TLT was able to send its show The Pillowman to AACTFest, the national community-theater finals. Recent houses have been at least two-thirds full for non-musical plays, 90 percent for musicals, and refurbishments to the auditorium and its creature comforts continue apace.

When asked what it'll take to keep the theater vital, locally and universally, for another century, Serface takes a long beat before answering: "a reawakening within our community of support for the performing arts. ... We have to adjust with the times. We're very excited about the Tacoma Creates initiative." Last November, Tacoma voters approved a 0.1 percent sales tax that went into effect in April, thereby raising a much-needed $5 million a year for homegrown arts, culture, heritage and science-education programs. "For a lot of us," Serface explains, "it's an opportunity to capacity-build our programs," in TLT's case expanding theater for young audiences and artists.

In the meantime, Tacoma Little Theatre is ready to party. Its 100th birthday celebration will be held in Slavonian Hall, a space that holds a position of honor in the company's history. "That's where we used to perform. We thought we'd take it out of our building," said Serface, "and do something where it's more of a gathering hall, versus an auditorium, 'cause what we want this to be is more of a celebration for people who've ever been involved in a show to come and reminisce with their friends, catch up with old (friends) and just celebrate and build community. It's not a fundraiser. It's not a sit-down dinner." Having said that, drinks and hors d'oeuvres will be provided, and donations are welcome and appreciated.

Serface planned the event as a moderated open-mic night with an emphasis on oral history. "It's really just a thank you," he said, "to everybody who's helped Tacoma Little Theatre be here for a hundred years." Tom Birkeland, last seen in Lakewood Playhouse's production of Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus and two readings at TLT, will host. "He did his first show when he was 8 years old here at Tacoma Little Theatre," noted Serface, "and that was a few years ago." Tongue still in cheek, Serface continues, "Alan Brown will serve as a "funneler of some of that history, making it fun and exciting and guiding people as they make their stories so we don't have any three-hour stories, not that anyone would ever do that." In addition, "We might do a few scenes of shows from days gone by."

TLT's 101st season gets underway Sept. 13 with the opening of a revealing comedy, Calendar Girls.

100 YEARS OF TLT -- A CELEBRATION, 6 p.m., Saturday, July 13, Slavonian American Benevolent Society (Slavonian Hall), 2306 N. 30th St., Tacoma, free, 253.272.2281

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