Horizons Theatre, a Washington fixture for 13 years, is suspending operations, following the decision of Leslie B. Jacobson, one of the company's founders and its artistic director, to resign at the end of the year.
In a series of recent meetings, the theater's board of trustees voted to cancel long-scheduled but frequently delayed plans to move into new quarters at 1401 Church St. NW.
"Hope for Breakfast," an original drama that the company had commissioned and intended to present in late September at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, has also been shelved.
The trustees, however, stopped short of dissolving the company, which has made a reputation for itself as the only theater in the city (and one of the few in the country) producing theater "from a woman's perspective."
"We're not discounting the possibility that Horizons may come back to life in the future in some other form," Jacobson said yesterday. "But it's hard to say right now what that form might be."
For the next few months the company will retain an office at Grace Episcopal Church in Georgetown, its home from 1982 to 1988. It also intends to schedule a fund-raising event in the fall to help liquidate the company's debts, which Jacobson put "in the low five figures." However, the theater's two remaining employees, general manager Ginger Moss and director of development and public relations Angela Welsh, have been laid off.
The suspension of activities marks the second major setback this year for Washington's once-burgeoning small theater scene. In March the American Playwrights Theatre declared bankruptcy after 18 financially troubled years.
"This speaks of the difficulty lifting up an institution in today's climate," Zelda Fichandler, Arena Stage's founder and longtime producing director, said yesterday. "At Arena, we had the privilege of a long, slow climb up, and the luxury of $55 salaries and $2 tickets. That's no longer possible in this climate. I think you're going to see a lot more casualties."
Cheryl Williams, chair of Horizons' 11-member board of trustees, yesterday turned aside speculation about the organization's future and said that Horizons' immediate business was to "honor its debts."
"There's no hope for a theater that says, 'It's a bad time in the arts. We didn't get the support we needed. So too bad for our creditors.' All we want right now is to get to the point where all our business commitments are met. Then, let's see."
Horizons' board is made up primarily of what Williams described as "successful working women, none particularly moneyed, who do this on the run." While praising their commitment, she acknowledged that "what the organization needed were people who could ante up the cash and the time. The business infrastructure wasn't there."
In one respect, Horizons is also a victim of bad timing. Two years ago, riding a crest of success with such productions as "A ... My Name Is Alice" and "Eleemosynary," the company signed a lease with the U.S. Property Development Corp. on a 5,000-square-foot space at 1401 Church St., a former plumbing warehouse next door to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. U.S. Property was to install a new heating and air conditioning system, and occupancy was promised for March 1990.
In July 1989, Horizons launched a capital campaign to raise the $200,000 required to turn the space into a 150-seat theater and cover the first year's rent of $53,000. Citing problems with utilities and the city's building code, however, U.S. Property was twice forced to delay the date of occupancy, pushing it back the first time until the fall of 1990, then putting it off to the spring of 1991.
"Lots of theaters don't have permanent spaces," Jacobson said. "That wasn't our problem. Our problem was thinking we did have a space, and then having to make contingency plans at the last minute, when the space wasn't ready. Because of the delays, we ended up being homeless at a time when we all know it is not good to be homeless."
In the last 15 months Horizons has staged three productions, each in a different facility. It performed its last show, Craig Lucas's "Reckless," at Montgomery College's Black Box Theatre in Takoma Park in April.
"For the last two seasons, we have put together seasons and had subscription drives, and then, through no fault of our own, been unable to deliver the plays we promised," Jacobson said. "People didn't know where to look for us. We lost the momentum we had, and our capital campaign came to a standstill."
At the same time, she noted, costs have escalated. At $40,000, the budget for "Hope for Breakfast" would have been twice what it cost the company to produce a show at Grace Episcopal Church.
The company was founded in 1976 as the Pro Femina Theatre by five actresses, who collaborated on its repertory of original plays. The texts were arrived at through improvisations and explored such issues as the mother-daughter relationship, childbirth and aging from highly autobiographical points of view.
It wasn't until the spring of 1983 that the group produced its first fully scripted play by an outsider, Elizabeth Diggs's "Close Ties." That signaled a transition away from plays drawn on the performers' own experience to plays by established playwrights. Reflecting the expanded range of material, Pro Femina changed its name to Horizons.
Among the works it successfully produced in subsequent seasons were Caryl Churchill's "Top Girls," Robin Swicord's "Last Days at the Dixie Cafe," Franca Rame and Dario Fo's "Orgasmo Adulto Escapes From the Zoo," Kathleen Betsko's "Johnny Bull," June Havoc's "Marathon 33" and Doris Baizley's "Mrs. California." Most of the playwrights were women, but in recent seasons Horizons had begun to produce plays by male authors whose sensibilities Jacobson felt accorded with the company's.
At its best, Horizons' work was both socially relevant and dramatically rewarding. The theater was frequently nominated for Helen Hayes Awards. In 1988 its production of "A ... My Name Is Alice" won in three categories: Outstanding Resident Musical, Outstanding Performer in a Resident Musical (Sandra Bowie) and Outstanding Director of a Musical (Jacobson). That show also enjoyed a five-month commercial engagement at Chelsea's in Georgetown.
"I always saw our mission," Jacobson said, "as defining the female aesthetic. And since feminism at its best is humanism, we liked to think of Horizons as a humanistic theater, although nowadays humanism can seem a dirty word. We tried to create an environment of trust and support and nurturing."
At its peak, Horizons had an annual budget of $185,000, employed a staff of five and counted some 200 subscribers. In all, it produced 35 shows.
Although relations with Grace Episcopal Church always remained cordial -- and the $12,000 annual rent was a blessing -- coexistence could be awkward at times. Jacobson had come to think it increasingly urgent for Horizons to have its own home.
But the ups and downs of the last two years have left her and many of the theater's trustees "exhausted," she said. As an associate professor in the department of theater and dance at George Washington University and the mother of two young daughters, Jacobson has often found herself stretched thin. Although her resignation as artistic director does not automatically signal the demise of the theater, Jacobson has been its major animating force. The fact that no immediate successor was apparent figured in the trustees' decision to cease operations indefinitely.