Boom or bus?

Surveying Seattle theater, after the latest gold rush

This year there's no question that Change, the kind with a capital "C," is in the air for Seattle's theater scene. Several established companies (most notably Mercer Island's Center Stage and the Group) are going or gone; several others (the Compound and New City) are homeless; and others (GreekActive) have gone into extended hibernation, perhaps never to return. At the same time, new fringe theaters are popping up all the time, including AXM, the ArtsWest Theater Company, the Core, Grex, Planet Earth, Riptide, Stickfigure, and RedCard Productions. There's even a major new venue on the Eastside, the Kirkland Performance Center.

So what's it all mean? Seattle's theater scene has been extraordinarily mutable in the last few years, due to government and foundation funding cuts, private individuals stepping in as part of the city's booming economy, and theater artists charging in and out of town on their way to one coast or another. A recent article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer claimed to show massive growth in the budgets of most major Seattle theaters in the last eight years, including almost 100 percent growth for Intiman, 116 percent for ACT, and 150 percent for the Seattle Children's Theater.

At the same time, the failure of such medium-sized companies as the Group and Center Stage points to some ongoing difficulties. Both theaters specialized in doing scripts with a cultural emphasis outside the mainstream, the Group focusing on "multicultural" plays, and Center Stage operating as part of the Stroum Jewish Community Center's cultural outreach program. But while these sorts of plays may have been ignored by the larger theaters in the past, nowadays "multiculturalism" is a grant-writing staple.

"The larger theaters have started to include a lot of non-white work in their repertoire, which is undeniably a good thing," says ACT's artistic director, Gordon Edelstein. "But it would be very sad if that were to mean the end of the smaller multicultural theaters." During the first weeks of September audiences can choose between ACT's Summer Moon, Intiman's Red by Chay Yew, and Printer's Devil's production of Naomi Iizuka's Skin. Such a lineup, however laudable, undoubtedly affects the audiences (and funding) for a group like the Northwest Asian American Theater.

For Steve Alter, the artistic director of Center Stage, there simply wasn't the financial or audience support to make the struggle worthwhile. "This theater could continue to limp along at the level that it has, but no one saw a light at the end of the tunnel." Alter has a final show planned for this winter, Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing.

A key issue seems to be that, when it comes to getting a slice of the art-funding pie, midsized theaters have neither the audience capacity nor the political clout of the major houses. Not to say that the majors can afford to be complacent. "I worry how much theater Seattle can take," says Edelstein. "The theater-going habit of this audience is extraordinary. But how much theater can you see and still go to work, take care of your children, and get some exercise once in a while?"

The disappearance of a number of fringe theater companies, venues, and artists is also worrying, as these are the folks who routinely push the experimental edge further than the established theaters. Partly it's the natural attrition of a too-crowded field. "There are so many groups vying for so little money," says Doug Staley of the now-defunct Windowlight Theater Company.

A few years ago artists were arriving here by the busload. But as some have moved on and the rest consider their options, the theater scene here faces one of two likely futures. The first is a bust, where high rents, drifting audiences, and a boomtown obsession with personal finance fuel complacency and a lack of interest in artistic achievement. In such a climate it's possible that the stream of artists leaving for LA and New York will become a flood, leaving only a select number of the larger theaters, along with community groups in the suburbs and nearby towns.

The second is a maturation, where artists who've stayed here continue to learn their craft, and audiences continue to educate themselves toward fare a bit more challenging than Andrew Lloyd Webber and sit-comish scripts. If both performers and patrons seek out a community that supports the goals of each, and new writing by local playwrights is encouraged to flourish, we'd have the foundation of a stable Seattle theater scene, one not dependent on Seattle's "most livable city" status or the vagaries of arts funding.

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