Going, Going ...

Two of the city's finest arts venues hit hard times.

Polestar sounds the death knell

Open just two and a half years, Polestar Music Gallery will close its doors under that name after the Sunday, Oct. 17, show. As a home for envelope-pushing sound art of all kinds—improv, free jazz, spoken word, electroacoustic music, traditional composed music—the venue's importance to Seattle's new-music scene in its brief heyday loomed large and out of all proportion to its intimate size.

Polestar ran on volunteer work— including the kajillion hours its managers Peggy Sartoris-Belaqua and Henry Hughes have put in—and on donations of everything from cash to equipment. (Their splendid grand piano, originally a gift from pianist Wayne Horvitz, came from the OK Hotel when that space had to close after the 2001 earthquake.) Four major anonymous donors paid most of the bills; when one had to back out last year, and another this fall, the writing was on the wall. On top of that, the space's rent was recently increased, up 20 percent to $12,000 a year. Yet paying performers was always a priority. Polestar took as little as possible from the door, never more than 25 percent, the rest going to the musicians themselves. The downside of that principled generosity was that Polestar never had much of an advertising budget; Sartoris-Belaqua and Hughes relied mainly on their 700-strong e-mail list and on free newspaper arts-calendar listings to get the word out.

The remodeled storefront, on 18th Avenue East just off East Union, is a 13-by-43-foot whitewashed room with 70 folding chairs, a few intriguing artworks on the walls, and a small raised stage. Sartoris-Belaqua and Hughes added a handsome pocket-size green room and a rest room with a small browsing library of relevant literature. Their booking philosophy, basically, has been to present musicians who don't have anywhere else to play. Hughes has used "creative music" as a controversial label for what interests him as a presenter: "Music that still has some chance in hell to be art rather than product—something to be grappled with rather than another commodity." Polestar has hosted the best of the regional music community, from Vancouver to Portland, plus musicians from all over the world who, Hughes says, "really appreciated the listening audience they found in Seattle."

The pros and cons of club-type venues vs. concert-hall-type venues has always been an issue in new music: they offer different atmospheres, acoustics, audiences, expectations. Some of Polestar's performers and listeners may have been more comfortable in a more casual, less spartan setting, and performances there were sometimes a harder sell without the added distraction (or attraction) of alcohol and during-the-music socializing. "The rap on Polestar is that it was too uptight," Hughes admits. Even the simple idea of leaving the space's front door open to encourage passersby to wander in was deemed to be acoustically unacceptable. But Hughes' goal from the start was to encourage focused listening to the sort of challenging music that really requires it, and which has very few other places to be heard to fullest advantage.

Their current Celebrating the Soloist festival (Thurs., Oct. 14–Sun., Oct. 17, 206-329-4224) has turned out to be a farewell bash, with a lot of Polestar regulars returning. Among them are a few of the younger group of musician/impresarios that are taking up the cause and initiating their own contemporary music series: Gust Burns, Adam Diller, Tom Swafford. Clarinetists Francois Houle and Jesse Canterbury will round things off with Sunday's show, featuring new works with electronics and solo and duo improvisations. There are plans afoot for reviving the Polestar space, perhaps as a combination rehearsal/performance venue administered by a musicians' collective of some kind.

Hughes, always quietly uncompromising about the music he believes in, isn't much for regrets. Despite its sudden passing, Polestar was nevertheless, he says, "more successful than anyone would have predicted."


The Empty Space empties out

In a turn of events that for fans of audacious theatricality is at least as catastrophic as ACT Theatre's precarious teeter on the edge of oblivion last year, the Empty Space Theatre in Fremont is some $300,000 dollars in the hole and postponing completion of its season lineup indefinitely. Once the Saturday, Oct. 16, curtain falls on Frankennochio, the mischievous adult puppet show currently supplying the company's specific brand of cracked whimsy, the venue will close its doors for an 11-week hiatus to rally its troops and will retain only three staff members, Interim Managing Director Steve Galatro explained by phone last Thursday, Oct. 7. (The Wallace Shawn play, The Designated Mourner, the next scheduled offering, will open instead at director John Kanzanjian's own New City Theater on Wed., Nov. 3.)

"The Board has recognized that we are in a financial crisis, and despite unfortunate timing, they have made a decision to suspend operations," said Galatro, sounding understandably strained. He, communications director Whitney Burdsall, and a bookkeeper will be the official trio holding down the fort once the puppets and their people pack it in. Artistic Director Allison Narver, already scheduled to direct Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates for the Seattle Rep in November, is also out the door but has, according to Galatro, generously volunteered time to fund-raising efforts toward getting her theater—and her job—back on its feet. The board will be working over the next couple of weeks to devise an emergency fund-raising effort similar to ACT's last year; if the predetermined goal isn't reached, all collected monies will be returned and the theater will close permanently.

That the company was having problems isn't a surprise. Narver's installation at the helm in 2001 was greeted with hurrahs from many quarters (ours very definitely included), but didn't immediately result in the theater financially building on its cult reputation. Recovering from a post–9/11 economy and an extensive post-earthquake remodel in 2001 hasn't been easy, the staff is an amalgam of sharp but not necessarily seasoned young professionals, and an almost defiantly hit-or-miss string of experiments beneath the proscenium arch couldn't have helped. "Experiments" mean considerable expenditures without the promise of success. To produce one-of-a-kind events like Narver and Chris Jeffries' compelling collaboration Vera Wilde, the musical union of Oscar Wilde and Russian anarchist Vera Zasulich, required a courage that perhaps did not keep too wise an eye on commerce. It's such bravery that may end up meaning the Space's demise; even something as unique and unignorable as last spring's Ubu, Ki Gottberg's estimably rowdy political burlesque featuring an eye-popping star turn from Sarah Rudinoff, couldn't find the kind of popular consensus that keeps crowds packing the house.

"It hasn't been a secret over here that we've been experiencing financial difficulties," Galatro admitted. "Ticket sales have been decent, but not enough for us to make a dent in our payables. Unfortunately, in the current environment, we've been unable to catch up. I do believe that this was the right decision on the part of the board, although a difficult one."

To see the theater go permanently dark would be even more difficult. Even when it missed the mark artistically, the place kept company with some of the city's most priceless performers (Rudinoff, Lauren Weedman, Nick Garrison, Shelley Reynolds, Burton Curtis, et al.) and the nation's most dazzlingly idiosyncratic intellects—playwrights like Glen Berger (Underneath the Lintel) and Amy Freed (The Psychic Life of Savages)—and has forged an identity out of its left-of-center ambitions that should be the envy of every Seattle theater still standing. Anyone seriously following local arts should have an affectionate, appreciative idea of what constitutes "an Empty Space show": attention to its aesthetic forebears like Charles Ludlam (Reverse Psychology); a willingness to kick up it heels with over-the-top originals (Wuthering! Heights! The! Musical!, In Flagrante Gothicto); anda determined exploration of the modes and meanings of camp ((L)Imitations of Life, Valley of the Dolls).If the Space truly does become empty, it will be a loss far greater than $300,000 can cover.


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