ACT Managing Director Becky Witmer Keeps Theater In Business

Becky Witmer dishes on being a theater kid and handling the strangest patron complaints.

April 12, 2018

Nancy Guppy

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This article appears in print in the April 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Becky Witmer is managing director of ACT a contemporary theatre. She joined ACT in 2011 as director of marketing and communications and served as general manager from 2014 to 2015. ACT recently renewed Witmers contract for three years. On her to-do list: a new website and major repairs to the terra cotta facade of ACTs historic, 93-year-old building.

Were you into theater as a kid? Oh, yeah. I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and my amazing parents would drive me all over the Midwest so I could see the big Broadway hits like Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.

What do you do now at ACT? I work in equal partnership with Artistic Director John Langs. He selects the shows for each season and my job is to make sure we have our support systems in place to make his vision happen.

What kind of support systems? I oversee marketing, fundraising/development, finance, production, a 35-member board and, since ACT is in an eight-story historic-landmark building that houses five theaters plus three floors of affordable housing, I work with our facilities and operations team on maintenance and renovation.

Did you ever think when you started your career that youd be in charge of roofing and HVAC systems? Never! (Laughs) Luckily, Ive surrounded myself with experts who know how to keep everything running.

Were you at all scared to take this job? I recently listened to Hillary Clintons book What Happened and she talks about all the times she gave a young woman or young man an opportunity and how the men might say, Yeah, that sounds great, I wont let you down, and the women might say, Are you sure? Maybe I need another year to get ready. So, while it took me a while to get comfortable and find joy in the job, Im so glad I said, Yes.

Where do you find the joy? One place is in our Whatcha Making? days, when I regularly visit our creative departments prop shop, scenery shop, paint shop, costume shop, stage operations department and spend 90 minutes seeing what theyre working on and hearing about whats exciting and whats challenging. Ive gotten to know our craftspeople and I have a much deeper understanding of and appreciation for what they do and how they do it.

Whats unique about ACT? We are 98 percent local. We build our shows here. We hire here. We support our creative economy here. Its certainly healthy to bring people in from the outside, but Seattle is loaded with talent and we are proud to provide work for the artists in our community.

What was your first job in the theater? When I was 15, I did a summer internship at a theater company in St. Louis, where I got to work on all aspects of the shows building sets, running sound, developing a patron database and thats when I realized you can have an exciting, creative career in the theater thats not on stage. It changed my life.

Were you ever a performer? I was a singer/dancer/actress growing up.

Do you secretly wish you were still on stage? Let me put it this way. I never sit in an audience and think, I could say that better or sing that better. Now, I do have a karaoke machine in the basement, plus my loving husband [Seattle composer, musician and sound designer Rob Witmer] will play the piano and let me sing my favorite musical numbers. Hes my one and only audience.

People dont subscribe to theater seasons the way they used to. How has ACT adapted? We have $20 Tuesdays, pay-what-you-can Sundays and the ACT Pass, which works like a gym membership or Netflix, where you pay a monthly fee and see as much theater as you want.

Whats the strangest complaint you hear from patrons? If the double-chocolate brownies arent available, people get
really pissed!

Whats the main driver in your life? My Aunt Jane lost her husband, my Uncle Jim, far too early. One day, we were talking about what we want to do with our lives and we made a pact called LLYMI Live Like You Mean It. For me, that means loving my theater work, spending time in the mountains and pushing myself to do things Ive never done.

How would you describe your relationship to money? I follow the thirds rule: Save some; spend some; share some.

Has ACT been affected by the current political landscape? Whats been interesting are the conversations with audiences. There was a talk-back after The Crucible where an audience member asked the cast how the played had changed them, and the cast turned it around and asked the audience how the play had changed them. It was a powerful moment that led to the audience deciding, as a group, to become more politically involved.

How did you get good? By having a great boss early on who took me under her wing and taught me how to support art and have fun doing it.

When do you know that a play is good? When you like it.

For more on the lives of entertainers, artists and entrepreneurs, tune in to Art Zone with Nancy Guppy on the Seattle Channel (seattlechannel.org/artzone)