Spooky Action Theater, a small company which has faced misfortune in the past, has become the recipient of a bequest valued at $1.6 million, Spooky Action’s Artistic Director Richard Henrich announced yesterday.
The gift is in the form of its donor’s unique art collection, which will be auctioned off in Washington, New York, Paris and Geneva. The collection includes everything from works by Tiffany, Art Deco furniture, paintings, designer clothing, jewelry, musical instruments and antique autos to Native American textiles and clay dolls. Over 1,000 pieces in all.
Since its inception in 2004, Spooky Action has had a staff of one. It has fallen on Henrich to produce, promote, even, after losing space at Montgomery College, to take up hammer and saw and build his own theatre in the Universalist Church on 16th Street NW in Washington. Which was what he was doing the last time we talked on the phone. “Are you really building it yourself?” I asked. “Listen!” he said, as the unmistakable whine of a drywall screw gun biting into studs came through the line.
Things have changed, thanks to the gift. This time, I caught up with him on his way to his office, where two part time assistants were busy working on the myriad details of handling a $1 million+ collection.
The donor, who elected to remain anonymous, had been a longstanding Spooky Action patron until his latest illness. He and Henrich shared an interest in art and developed a colloquy which stretched over time. “Some of our discussions were about what art is and what its true value is. I told him that the value, to me, is not in the object. The objects are something that merely stimulate an experience. That’s why we value them. They connect us and the world. Theatre does the same thing. It is very ephemeral but there is something that sticks with you. It somehow connects with what we are all searching for.”
“Spooky action, the company’s Web site tells us, is Einstein’s observation that two particles can become entangled such that, forever after, a change in one is matched by instant change in the other, no matter what the distance between them.” So it makes sense that an art collector would wander into a theatre named for a phenomenon from quantum physics and be changed, not by what he saw, but by who he met.
Henrich told us he never envisioned, in the time the two men exchanged phone calls and an occasional visit, that he would receive such a gift. What were his first thoughts? “That it is was too much. We’re a very small theatrre company and suddenly we have this massive gift. I thought – what will people’s expectations of us be? It was stunning.”
As to how he could have become entrusted with handling such valuable works of art: “I think he felt a personal connection with me as he did with some of the artists represented in his collection. I think he had confidence that I could deal with his massive, unique collection. And that I could translate that into what we are trying to key into here at Spooky Action.”
I asked what this meant to him personally. “It’s a validation. That what we have been doing and thinking all this time really meant something… to somebody… who had the ability to make this wonderful gift.”
We talked about some of the items now being handled by he and his assistants. “At first, I didn’t recognize two slender delicate bar stools signed WE. I learned that was the imprint of Wharton Esherick, a very prominent wood craftsman in the 60s whose works are in the Museum of Modern Art.
And then there is the car – a one of a kind 1965 Alvis Graber convertible. “[The British auto maker] Alvis had a relationship with a Swiss coachmaker which produced 10 special order cars that year,” he explained. “This one was the only convertible produced. All original parts. It is in great running order with 18,000 miles on it. Car collectors are beginning to learn that the car exists and are calling me with offers.”
Unlike many people who have come unexpectedly into money, Spooky Action doesn’t intend to change many things. Heinrich says the company will stay at its16th Street location, and present three productions per season. “The funds will be placed in an endowment,” Henrich explains. “The company will receive interest from the endowment each year.” He’s not certain how much that will be, but he is thinking it might be, based on a 2 – 3% rate of return, around $30,000 per year.
“We’re looking at a budget of $150,000 – $175,000 ultimately maybe going up to $250,000,” Henrich says. “So we still need to fund raise to support the company.
As part of that effort, Spooky Action will be holding a GALA March 31, 2012, which will include an auction of specially selected objects from the collection. “[There will be] some interesting items – such as modern art – that the donor liked.” Most of the items will be modestly priced. “Some paintings could be valued at $200 or so.” But not everything must go. “There is one piece of furniture – a circular settee that looks like it’s from a grand lobby from the late 1800’s and some large macramé art that may become part of Spooky Action’s lobby,” Henrich says.
“I’m interested in intimate theatre. If I can sell 50 – 100 seats per performance, I will be thrilled. Because I think performance in a small space gives the kind of experience that is so unique to theatre.”
Thinking, again, of his friend and the bequest: “This gift was made in the spirit of generosity and hope. I keep that in mind. Part of our mission is to help emerging theatres, and we have here a good size space for companies just getting started. We can help facilitate things for them at a reasonable cost. So that our good fortune can be good fortune for other struggling theatres.
Spooky Action’s next scheduled production is David Mamet’s The Water Engine, February 16 – March 12, 2012.
Thanks to Tim Treanor who assisted in writing this article.
Seeing Spooky Action Up Close by Tim Treanor