Ott choices for the Rep

Sharon Ott finds the way to win subscribers is to challenge them, not dumb down the shows.

When Sharon Ott took the helm of S.S. Seattle Rep last year,she had ample ground for confidence and even more ground for caution. In her 13-year tenure as its artistic director, the Berkeley Repertory Theater had flourished as few American regional theaters had during the difficult '80s and '90s, building ever larger audiences while challenging same with often "difficult," politically charged material.

It was an admirable, almost unexampled record. But would the same formula play in Seattle? Audiences in both towns are more venturesome and sophisticated than the national theatrical average. Berkeleans love their reputation for being ahead of the intellectual pack, while Seattleites are well known to cringe at flaunting anything, particularly brains.

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After a long series of Rep seasons in which artistic effort had centered on developing light comedies for Broadway consumption, there were additional reasons for Ott to tread carefully developing a playbill that could satisfy both her own artistic ambitions and the Rep's supposedly challenge-challenged subscribers.

In retrospect, the nervousness seems misplaced. Subscription attendance, stuck for years at a little more than 100,000 annually, jumped 8 percent last year to more than 114,000. Single tickets, boosted by 7,500 $10-day-of-show sales to those under 25, rose more than 70 percent, with total attendance topping 1997's by nearly 25 percent.

This record is all the more impressive because the lineup Ott chose for her debut season was less cautious than canny, with a number of works testing the audience's tolerance for novelty while inviting it to join in the unfamiliar fun.

Opening with a three-hour, over-the-top 19th-century melodrama (played straight!) is hardly a sure formula for success, but The Shagraun did very nicely, thank you. Even Le Cirque Invisible, too, tested both taste and patience: a full evening of silent solo mime and transformational movement on the mainstage? Hmmm.... And Stephen Wadsworth's revival of Wilde's little-known problem play An Ideal Husband was hardly a safe bet. How long has it been since a Rep audience has been expected to sit down, shut up, and listen—listen hard—to three long acts of high rhetorical style and glittering paradox? Yet all three shows prospered, despite mixed reviews.

The most satisfying success for Ott (because it seemed most hazardous before the fact) was Mary Zimmerman's fanciful musings on anatomy, perspective, and the nature of genius, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. The first piece of flat-out "performance art" to be presented at the Rep since Martha Clarke's notorious subscriber enrager The Garden of Earthly Delights back in 1987, Leonardo sold more single tickets on its own than most previous full seasons in the Rep's second house.

"I really wonder whether this all doesn't show that we've been seriously underestimating our audience," Ott said last week, shortly after announcing most of her 1998-99 Rep lineup. And indeed, Ott's biggest hurdle in shaping a second season to her satisfaction seems not to have been box office calculations but backstage economics. "Our first draft came in $1,600,000 over budget and some things just had to go"—most notably Bertolt Brecht's sprawling chronicle-play Galileo.

One of Ott's stipulations in taking the Rep job was more rehearsal weeks for shows that need it, most notably classics. With salaries by far the biggest cost factor in theater today, one week of rehearsing a huge-cast show like Galileo can cost as much as two full runs of smaller shows.

The newly chosen season opener Play On!, Sheldon Epps and Cheryl West's marriage of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night to Duke Ellington music, is no cheaper than Galileo to rehearse or perform, but its production costs are being shared by the Goodman Theater of Chicago, where the show will travel after Seattle. "These days co-production isn't just desirable," Ott says almost grimly. "Without it, there are a lot of shows we simply can't do."

Even after early rounds of trimming and tucking, the 1998-99 budget ($7.7 million, up nearly $750,000 over 1997-98) remains a couple of hundred thousand out of balance, but it's close enough for confidence that most if not all of the lineup announced May 1 will survive the final cut—particularly since Ott and her budgeters are projecting very modest, even pessimistic increases in ticket sales.

Just as importantly, each work has been selected with goals beyond immediate box office results. This applies even to the apparently odd pairing in a single season of two shows by Noël Coward. On its own, a revival of the quarter-century-old collage of songs and sketches representative of some of Sir Noël's most relentlessly frivolous work Oh Coward! would be hard to justify. Paired with Coward's 1933 comedy Design for Living, the musical revue takes on greater significance.

Design, on its surface a datedly "daring" piece of fluff about a bohemian ménage à trois, roils beneath its polished surface with what we call today issues of gender, identity, and relationship. Written as a star vehicle for (closeted homosexual) Coward and his married (closeted homosexual and lesbian) friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Design skated near the edge of the acceptable in its own day. Directed for the Rep by associate artist Stephen Wadsworth, a master of bringing out the deeper feelings and psychic ambiguities in the most artificial material, Design may well change the way we respond to his debonair pop and patter songs as well.

Hardly an automatic crowd pleaser for a mainstream audience is Russell Lees' dark comedy Nixon's Nixon, an imaginary docudrama about what might have transpired on Tricky's last night in the White House. The Rep is importing the show from the San Jose Rep, where perennial Seattle supporting actor David Pichette got the reviews of a career from his performance as Nixon.

Even more edgy, particularly since it's slotted for the Rep mainstage, is Margaret Edson's Wit, a mordant solo show about a woman's coping with her own body's rebellion. "It's a challenging piece," says Ott, "not just in subject matter, rigorous." Hardly in the same category is Fool Moon, Seattle favorite Bill Irwin's collaboration with fellow mime-comic David Shiner, which had a successful Broadway run two seasons back. But even Moon plays its envelope-testing role: Will the Rep audience stand for being forced to head downtown to the 5th Avenue to see a subscription show?

Pygmalion might seem the safest choice of all the shows in Ott's season. We all know and love George Bernard Shaw's comedy about the cockney flower girl and the professor of phonetics, don't we? But do we? In fact what we know is Lerner and Loewe's brilliant musical adaptation My Fair Lady, or, more likely, the rather more saccharine film adaptation of same starring a dubbed Audrey Hepburn.

"I've loved the play from the time I read it years and years ago," says Ott, "but the last time I actually saw it was in a not very enlightened production at the Royal National Theatre. I only got really interested in doing it myself when I was living in Oakland my last year at the Berkeley Rep, when the big debate about 'Ebonics' broke out there. Shaw's play is profoundly rooted in its own place and time [imperial London, 1913] but the issues driving it, the questions of class and how culture and class are transmitted, are just as much part of American society now and England's then. In fact I think our political struggles today have more to do with class and economics than race, but because we're Americans we don't want to talk about that. Shaw covers these issues in the play better than anyone else ever has and from all sides of the question."

Play On, which had its premiere at San Diego's Old Globe before its unsuccessful assault on Broadway last season, also has its special subtext for Ott. "Even though the Rep has done a lot of shows with African American themes and casts, I don't feel we've yet really established a connection with the African American community here. I feel we did a good job with [August Wilson's drama] Seven Guitars last year, but we failed to tap into the community here because our focus wasn't on how to make this show an event. I think we can do a lot better. We have to do a lot better."

Is reviving a musical that failed to take Broadway by storm the best way to do it? Ott's answer comes with the chilly clarity of ice cubes dropping one by one into a crystal goblet. "It's not an issue. New York is just another town. Success or failure in New York is not a factor in anything we do here. In other words: Who. Cares."

Related Links:

Interview with Ott—links to bio page

Noel Coward info.

Pygmalion online

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