After over 50 years of bumping my head making theater in Seattle and around the country, I’ve developed a knobby brow and rather thick skin. As in any other walk of life, the rough and tumble of working in the professional theater here has required persistence and a determined optimism, including a willingness to acquire some scars and endure failure and go back to work.
The many Seattle theatrical institutions I’ve worked for, all of them not-for-profits, have always struggled for resources, but over the last five decades have managed to produce a great deal of work, much of it accomplished, some of it extremely good. Seattle’s been lucky in this, compared to many other places around the country.
Now it feels like that luck is running out.
Bad news has been rolling in from many theaters. The Ashland Shakespeare Festival, one of the country’s largest companies, announced an emergency fundraising campaign just to keep its doors open, and its artistic director just departed after four years at the helm. Tim Bond has arrived to take her place, which is good news, but he has a gigantic problem in front of him.
Another profound shock was that the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles had to cancel its 2023-24 season. The Taper has been a major player in the U.S. regional theater since 1967 and a perennial source since then of new plays. Actor’s Theatre of Louisville dropped its Humana New Play Festival, another venerable important player in the generation of new work. The Joseph Papp Public Theater in Manhattan, another leading stage, just announced layoffs of 20 percent of its staff.
Locally, Book-It has closed. The Rep is about to announce its new artistic director, who will have to confront diminished subscriptions and an increasingly expensive building to perform in. ACT’s managing director has announced her departure later in the year, and ACT has similar problems in terms of patron numbers and the cost and location of its building.
The 5th Avenue Theatre was forced into an emergency fund drive.
Some of the causes for such distress are obvious. COVID broke the habit of attending live performances, and it’s unclear if and when audiences in Seattle will return in great enough numbers to sustain these theaters. Yet even returning to pre-COVID numbers is no guarantee of continued survival, since those early indicators were already worrisome.
The national government came to the rescue with COVID funds and banking some of those funds is the reason why many of them survived. But now, having run through those funds, as the writers Phil Shallat and John Engerman wrote, “The wolves are no longer at the door. They are in the vestibule and calling for us by name.”
Charles Ludlum, the amazing founder of the Ridiculous Theatre Company in New York, put it this way: “The theater is a humble materialist enterprise which seeks to produce riches of the imagination, not the other way around.” The impulse to make theater comes from some obsessive fascination with the event itself. The impulse to get up in front of your grade school classmates to tell stories and pull funny faces has nothing to do with financial remuneration.
I remember waiting with my fellow cast members John Aylward, Tom Spiller, and John Lee for the curtain to go up at Intiman, and all of us marveling that the house was full for Beckett’s bleak great artifact of High Modernism, and that many in the audience were young people. In fact, so many young people came to the show, the house staff dubbed the play Date Night at Intiman.
What worries me more than money at the moment is the spiritual pall hanging over the theater community – a simmering angry paralysis mirroring our city’s wandering at anchor over its mixture of astonishing wealth, desire for social justice, and more and more people living in tents. The internal spirit of the core theatrical community seems damaged. We live in a time of wounding confrontations, sexism, low pay, work conditions. And these factors have made artists more suspicious of the companies that employ them, and of each other.
One hard truth has to be faced: no theater company is eternal. Historically, the art form has flourished in various ways. Different eras generate specific kinds of artistic energy during which plays gave shape to the zeitgeist of their times. And then those energies waned, as did the theaters and artists that created them, later to be replaced by something else. The regional non-commercial theater model got rolling in the 1960s, and overall was remarkably successful.
But perhaps, this wonderful period of theater-making in Seattle over the last 50 years, the span of my career, is simply over, and some institutions will have to die before the scene can be reborn again. For one thing, too many people have stepped into their streaming computer screens and are not coming out.
I think there should be a hard fight for keeping the salient theaters alive. Institutions, if they are vital anyway, are repositories of expertise, the gold of experience in the craft underlying centuries of the art form. Enduring institutions are needed because culture’s Big Problems last longer than many human lifetimes, and institutions create a means to keep our investigations of them alive through generations.
In my time, The Empty Space and Pioneer Square Theatre and the Rep and the Children’s Theatre and Intiman and ACT and The Group Theatre and Tacoma Actors Guild together created the possibility that theater workers could make a modest living here with some continuity, and because of that, Seattle theaters kept more of us in the profession, young, middle aged and old, while allowing us to grow our command of the art.
So now the question is, as Lenin put it, what is to be done?
Seattle is still full of many exciting theater artists, a whole new breed of talented actors, directors, and designers to go with the long haulers. What the scene lacks, I think, is an ebullient sense of itself as a community. All are folks who at one time or another felt the need to run away and join the circus. Their forerunners in the trade came into towns all over the world, sometimes towns that didn’t especially want them, with a drum, in colorful dress, and said, we are different, we are fun, you haven’t seen anything yet, come see us. What is needed now is some of that drum banging by the community en masse.
Jeff Hansen, one of the city’s best stage managers, was struck when he first arrived here in the 1980s by how relatively amicable and cooperative artists and companies in Seattle were, at least when compared to Minneapolis, where he began his career. There was plenty of competition, back biting, schadenfreude, and so on—the normal grousing and occasional personal animosities one can find in any professional community—but also a sense that the scene was larger than its component parts, that it had, somehow, a supremely local collective identity. And that the audiences felt this too, and took pride in it.
Here I propose a counter-intuitive idea: that the theater community concoct a city-wide festival, in happy defiance of The Current Big Problem. I can hear staffs, artistic and managerial, groaning at the notion even as I say it: it’s difficult enough just to make payroll these days, and plan and fund one’s own productions, without the added burden of organizing such a thing. But as theater seasons overlap, working to connect productions, either thematically or through some genre, might not be that difficult. Besides, Seattle has pulled this off before, as with the Goodwill Arts Festival.
Think how delightful it would be to see Fat Ham at the Rep in tandem, and cross-marketed, with a good production of Hamlet somewhere else in town. I remember a wonderful success that came out of thinking this way when the Opera’s Speight Jenkins’ matched his magnificent Stephen Wadsworth production of Wagner’s Ring with Jim Luigs’ and Scott Warrender’s Das Barbecue at ACT. The companies marketed them together, and everyone did very well by it.
Or consider a Seattle institution that will be returning with its passionate madness again this year: 14/48. It’s a model for the spirit that could bring such a festival off, 14/48 is a wild celebration of Seattle theater workers in which they immolate themselves wonderfully in the impossible task of mounting a brand- new play in two days. Its refreshing devil-may-care-attitude and serious fun are what grabs people about 14/48.
Artists have made great art in the midst of conditions far more onerous than ours. Theaters have been routinely closed by wars, censorship, financial collapse, and plague – century after century. The exhausted Leningrad Symphony played winter concerts during the Nazi siege without heat and food while starving people in the city were dragging the corpses of loved ones out of their homes and leaving them in snow drifts so that they wouldn’t rot indoors. Today, Ukrainians continue to make art while Russian drones and shells fall on them.
Working my way through that wonderful unclassifiable thing called Gargantua and Pantagruel during the pandemic lock down, I turned a page and suddenly found Rabelais jumping up and down, shouting two words at me from the mess of the early 16th century that made me laugh in the midst of my own fear and uncertainty: Live joyfully. I found myself tingling, even levitating a bit – the way you can feel when you’re making good theater, or attending it.
I’m as uncertain as anyone about the future, but this I know: as important as our town’s ticket buyers and philanthropists and educators and those in government are to the continuance of professional theater here, in the end it will be equally up to the artists in Seattle whether theaters survive or not. What matters is how flexible and open they are to both the past and the present in their efforts to entertain and instruct. Further: how much talent and, especially, courage they have. How much they can work together. How able they are to step out of themselves into us.