For better or worse

Final words on the Seattle theater scene.

THIS IS MY LAST article as Seattle Weekly's theater critic. Burnout's an inevitable consequence of watching something like 180 shows a year, but characteristic of Seattle's current state of change, I'm leaving theater only to enter it more fully. I'll be concentrating on my own work as a playwright and director and, for the time being, I'll be working on it here. In Seattle. The theater town of which you can be sure of only one thing: Nothing stays the same. Ever.

Case in point: New artistic directors at Intiman and the 5th Avenue, Bartlett Sher and David Armstrong, respectively, are working to figure out their organizations while they oversee seasons chosen by their predecessors. The midsized venues that have survived the chaos of the last few years, namely the Empty Space and Taproot, have undergone some major staff changes. The Space is set to lose its artistic director next February and Taproot brought on new managing director M. Christopher Boyer earlier this year. At least both houses look financially stable, though. Among the myriad smaller companies, some are thriving (Theater Schmeater, Seattle Shakespeare, Book-It), some have faltered, and some, such as Open Circle (still looking for a new artistic director) and Annex (which has Bret Fetzer as its new head but still no word on a new space), are facing uncertain times.

At the same time, it's business as usual on our stages. A quick look at last week's Fall Arts Guide (you did hold onto it, didn't you?) shows that the most popular playwright in the region, from A Contemporary Theater to Riptide Deli, is Neil Simon. Our larger local theaters are still entirely in thrall to "classic" revivals and new plays dominated by off-Broadway and the usual wares of the regional circuit. The work of local playwrights is still almost entirely limited to that of Steven Dietz, who's been uncharacteristically quiet recently, and Pittsburgh-writer-in-residence August Wilson. (One very notable exception is Elizabeth Heffron, whose New Patagonia receives its world premiere this fall at the Rep; nice to know that its "plays-in-process" reading series has finally resulted in a Seattle playwright being premiered.) Meanwhile, the perennial complaint of local actors that they can't find work on an Equity stage has only grown quieter because many of them have given up and left town.

When I first began reviewing plays for this paper more than five years ago, it was a very different scene indeed. A middle tier of companies, including the Group, the Bathhouse, Alice B., and New City, offered a combination of Equity and non-Equity contracts. Under Daniel Sullivan at the Rep there was little in the way of local playwrights (Sullivan's penchant was for Broadway-bound commercial hits), but the vestiges of a repertory company of actors who managed two or three shows' work each season remained. Plans were underway for the glorious new home of ACT, whose three, count 'em three, performance spaces we could imagine would be filled with year-round theatrical events. And fringe theater venues sprouted like fungi in basements, parking garages, store- fronts, and other unused spaces, filled with actors so new to the area that they'd not yet tasted their first latte or bought their first REI backpack.

Some of this energy was sadly illusory. Most of the vanished middle-tier houses were financially strained to the point where one costly flop or a staff shakeup would tumble them right down. Real-estate mania took its toll on fringe venues, and the multitudes of artists, learning there was no living possible from their work, either left town or took up jobs that sucked any excess creativity right out of their lives.

BUT SEATTLE STILL has a lot left. Our great strength as a theater community has always been something that's perceived as a weakness: There's no discernable career path. Actors in New York battle to get a part in a Broadway show or a feature film, while in LA the vast theater scene is almost entirely a collection of vanity projects designed to promote the actors to prospective casting agents. But here, there's no reason to sell out as an artist, because there's nobody to sell out to. Artists, freed of the odd burden of "making it big," should be able to concentrate on experimentation, honing their craft, and testing the reactions of Seattle audiences.

Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the case. If there's a change I'd love to see in the way Seattle theater operates, it's in the implicit assumptions of its audiences and its artists. Seattle is a boomtown—prosperous, complacent, and fundamentally undemanding. With a wonderful symphony, vibrant club scene, lively literary readings, and an international film festival, theater is one of many entertainment options in a culture-rich city.

That's why theater in Seattle needs to be more than simply entertainment. The single greatest lack in our theater community is a belief in, and a demand for, the significance of theater to the lives of our audiences. By failing to support local playwrights and local plays, our larger institutions are also failing to promote a theater with specific relevance to Seattle. And by consistently tossing their patrons easy pitches in the plays they do choose, they may ensure that their subscription bases remain secure, but at the cost of failing to provoke their audiences to do more than sit back and be amused.

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