Fringe’s Patron Saint

Who knew “meowing” could balance the budget?

One of the reasons so many fringe theaters die is that there aren't more Teri Lazzaras to save them. (When I mentioned to a playwright friend I was going to interview her, he said, "You mean the saint of Seattle fringe theater?") Case in point: One day last year when she was at Theater Schmeater, the fringe company where she works as managing director, she was visited by a representative of the IRS. The company had accumulated thousands of dollars in unpaid state and federal taxes, and the agent announced that he'd come to look over their assets. Her reaction was swift, decisive, and effective: She burst into tears. "I took him back into the dressing room, and started pointing around, saying, 'You want those costumes? Just take them! You want those lights? Great! Try selling them on eBay!'" Chagrined, he apologized and said he'd work out a payment plan with her. Great, she told him. They'd be happy to pay what they owed. Only they weren't going to pay a penalty. Small, blond (this week anyway), and pretty, Lazzara seems to draw her astonishing energy from some mysterious other place. Her speech is peppered with an odd personal vocabulary—making someone comfortable is to make them "hoppish," and she uses "meow" (a greeting with a flirt and a kiss or two thrown in) as a verb, as in, "I just had to go up and meow him." As an actor, she's worked with a whole host of smaller theater companies, often to great acclaim—her turn as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, which ran at Theatre Babylon in 2003, was a haunting portrayal of how illusions fill in the cracks of a broken person. (I served as Babylon's artistic director the following year, and Lazzara was on the Babylon board for part of that time.) She's been on hiatus from acting this past year, thanks to her decision to work at the Schmee. "David [Gassner, Schmeater's new artistic director] called me to ask if I'd consider the job of managing director. I'd avoided this sort of job before, but now was just the right time." She was told the unpaid gig would be about 10 hours a week, "and they lied!" she guffaws. Instead, for the past year she's worked more like 40 hours a week, disentangling the theater's near-disastrous finances and re-establishing its donor and audience bases. That's quite a commitment for a woman who also holds down a full-time (paying) job as an executive assistant, but the results have been spectacular: a $35,000 debt retired (including those back taxes), an 85 percent increase in donated income from 2006 to 2007, and most astonishing, a 23 percent box-office increase in the same period.Granted, Lazzara doesn't expect to see similar increases this year: "I just think there was some neglect in '06, and if we give it another push in '08, our increases will be 'normal.'" One difficult choice Lazzara and Gassner had to make was to suspend late-night programming for a year—a radical change considering that previous shows like the Twilight Zones, Money and Run, and Crescendo Falls had been cash cows. "No one's coming to shows at 11 o'clock at night right now. So we're going to take a break and figure all that out." But audiences have been strong for the earlier shows, particularly Adventures in Dating, a "Choose Your Own Adventure" version of a romantic evening where the audience determines the directions of the plot. They'll be reviving the show this summer. In April, the theater will present the West Coast premiere of The American Pilot, about an airman who bails out into a Third World village. On a recent tour of the Schmee, I'm again impressed with just how far a fringe company can stretch a dime. A recent grant of $10,000 from the Seattle Foundation, which might buy cleaning supplies for the Rep, supplied new black curtains for the stage, a new grid framework for the lights, and a new sound system. The renovated lobby and the newly organized backstage derive from volunteer labor (including Lazzara's own), as does the creation of Lazzara's new pride and joy, an actual office, for which she is already planning the final decorations. "I'm thinking a large nude portrait of myself over that mantelpiece," she says—and I don't think she's entirely joking. After all, this is a woman who swears like a sailor, knows every movie Charles Bronson ever made (go ahead, test her), and has a framed portrait of herself with Rod Stewart—what you see with Lazzara is, quite thankfully, what you get. Now that systems are in place, Lazzara thinks she might actually be able to work for something like a dozen hours a week, and though she'd originally planned on exiting early this year, the fact that she's had such successes in the past 12 months has made her reconsider. "This is the fun time now," she says. "I like doing the numbers, making up pie charts, talking to the board." Then she gives another lusty guffaw. "Before I felt like I couldn't leave, and now I don't want to."

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