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A Small Theatre Company Teaches A Big Lesson About Going Out On Your Own Terms

When you hear about theatre companies going under, poor finances tend to be the major culprit. In the case of Arlington, Virginia’s American Century Theatre, the decision to close is more a matter of “mission accomplished.”

What’s the Latest?

ThisWashington City Paper headline offers an interesting quandary: 

American Century Theater Is Financially Stable. Why Is It Folding?

For those of you not heavily invested in the DC theatre scene (or specifically the league of mid-tier troupes based in Arlington, Virginia), American Century Theatre is a 20-year-old company that specializes in producing under-appreciated works written by American authors during the 20th century. Despite staging a remarkable recovery from near bankruptcy ten years ago, the company surprised many when it announced the upcoming 2014-15 season would be its last. The reason, depending on your perspective, offers lessons about growth-focused business plans and the decision to call it quits on your own terms.

What’s the Big Idea?

Two quotes from the above-linked articles strike me as particularly thought-provoking. Each offers a rationale for the decision to end the company. The first, from ACT’s artistic director Jack Marshall: 

“We were in a status-quo rut that I didn’t think we were getting out of.”

And the second, also from Marshall:

“I think the point was the 20th year was the time to say, ‘We began this theater with a thesis and an assertion and we proved it.'”

One of those sentences evokes a feeling of desperation; the other a sentiment of triumph. It appears the reason for ACT’s closing lies in the fact that Marshall perceived the long-term success of his company to be dependent on a growth plan, a need to take the next big step: own its own venue, increase its development efforts, and woo more expensive talent. At a certain point, some organizations feel as if they lose relevancy if they don’t commit to change. If this is true, does it mean that those companies are destined to either sputter from lack of action or eventually become the next of its industry’s juggernauts? Is a business plan dependent on continuing growth always right for an organization?

I like Marshall’s second rationale better and I feel he’d be well off sticking to that side of the story whenever people ask him why ACT is to be no more. That’s because it’s a message of “mission accomplished” and “we did what we set out to do.” And is there any shame in that? American Century Theatre is not a for-profit organization, it doesn’t at the moment employ a anyone full-time, and it’s slowly running out of those under-appreciated 20th century texts to stage. The company is at a crossroads and instead of choosing one direction or the other, it’s elected to plop on down at the fork and call it a life.

I suppose the big question to ruminate on here is whether either of the choices detailed in the following question is more or less honorable: “Should we pursue growth even if it means deterring from our core mission or should we call it quits with our heads held high?” 

I don’t know if I have an answer to that. What do you think?

Read more about ACT at the Washington Post and Washington City Paper

Photo credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock


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