It was with a healthy dose of trepidation that my wife, young daughter and I moved to Seattle in 2005. Actually it wasn’t a move, but a return: Northwest natives, we’d spent the previous four years breathing the heady air of the Playwrights' Center, where energized, gracious, and determined writers seemed to be tucked in every corner (what I really mean is, crowding the bar at Tracy’s).
The buzz about Seattle in those days was all bad, scary bad, the kind of bad that said Playwright, Stay Away. ACT was hanging by a thread (literally, with just a couple bucks in the bank account), the Group was long gone, bad rumblings sounded about the Empty Space (which folded abruptly in 2006), Seattle Rep was a turnstile of revolving artistic leadership.
So why come back? Honestly it was more about family than career—new parents, slightly scared, familiar home, the all-important grandparents demanding their share of the kid. A braver playwright would have packed the Civic with diapers, shoved the cat in the back, opened two new credit cards and headed east. We came home.
And today? How does Seattle theater look in Spring of 2012? Specifically for new plays, for playwrights, for directors and actors who live to make something new, for audiences that crave and honor new work?
Even more simply, is this a place for a playwright to live and work?
Surprisingly, I think we’re on our way to a yes. Not quickly, not without big challenges that are going to require new ways of thinking. But the landscape here has changed: that sense of inner dread that so many of us once felt—the feeling that the one thing Seattle playwrights could count on was enforced anonymity—that feeling has gone.
What’s Changed: Large Meets Small
First of all, there are people here who care. Sounds facile, but that isn’t true everywhere. In every one of the larger houses in Seattle (the Rep, ACT, the suddenly resurgent Intiman) there are people of good will who want to make new work. There isn’t always a budget, there isn’t always a clear way forward, but there is desire.
Examples abound, from the modest to the shockingly successful. A new black box space, West of Lenin, now sits in the Fremont neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the For Lease sign that marks the former Empty Space. Less than a year old, West of Lenin has managed to feature almost nothing but new work by almost nothing but local writers. The brainchild of producer and entrepreneur AJ Epstein, it seems determined to help fill a niche that companies like the Empty Space once managed so brilliantly: new plays, done with passion, by artists at the top of their game, who call this their home.
Seattle Rep has just started a residency program called the Writer’s Group (full disclosure, I’m one of hopefully many local writers who will be pass through its doors). For a term of two years, five local playwrights are funded to develop and explore their work, move it to workshop, and hopefully soon to full production.
Icicle Creek Theatre Festival has been around for a scant six years, and through its partnership with ACT, has already moved at least one local play to full production on ACT’s mainstage. That production, Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, just won the 2012 Steinberg New Play Award. (See the upcoming interview with the playwright, Yussef El Guindi later in the week).
And speaking of ACT, some smart innovation has led to both a new space, the Eulalie, dedicated to new plays, and a fascinating co-producing wing called the Central Heating Lab, where smaller companies partner with ACT to create and premiere work as part of ACT’s season. These are co-productions in the truest sense of the term: shared marketing, promotion as part of ACT’s season, with most of the artistic work done by the smaller company. New Century Theatre Company, UMO Ensemble, Balagan Theatre, the 14/48 Festival, and Washington Ensemble Theatre are just a few of the groups flourishing there.
Of all the developments, the new partnerships between the larger houses and smaller companies seem the most radical and promising to me. As far back as I can remember in this town (the 1980s, believe it or not), there has been a fortress mentality here. Not just a glass ceiling between “Professional” and “Fringe” but entire networks of walls, often erected by all parties, to maintain each in its own artistic fiefdom, regardless how small.
I remember well how proud some artists were to be making Absolutely No Money at their art, because their hole in the wall fringe company was Artistically Pure. And I well recall the puzzled look of some Professional Actors at the idea of working before an audience of fifteen, whose knees were more or less touching theirs.
Looking back, I think that feudalistic mindset—that shared mentality of suspicion, caused by an artificial division—prevented the growth of exciting new plays here.
What Hasn’t: Where’s the Money?
Reading the above, it sounds like I should be urging playwrights to move here. Showing up at their Brooklyn apartments with loads of boxes and a creepy, glazed smile on my face. Offering to watch their pets (or sell them on the street), just to get my writer friends out here.
Wish I could do that. But there’s so much that still needs to happen here, and I for one can’t always see the way forward.
Where’s the funding? As I write this, Seattle Times has a front-page article about the philanthropic nonexistence of Amazon.
Yes, a Seattle company. Yes, multi billion dollars. And yes, no interest in funding the arts or artists.
It gets worse. Microsoft? Keep walking. Boeing? We just make planes. Starbucks? We let you plug in your laptop for free, what else do you want?
I’ve always been astounded—no, shocked—that the city of Gates, Ballmer, Allen, Bezos and McCaw has been so ridiculously bad at supporting its arts and artists. What sense does it make that Minneapolis, a much smaller metro, without our sudden shocking influx of wealth, is able to support writers with such panoply of grants? Some of those grants are literally life changing—and yes, I consider $16,000 for a Jerome fellowship to be life changing, for writers at certain stage of their career, and not just for the money. So much of the game for us is self-esteem, self-worth, learning to take seriously the talent in yourself. Why don’t we have those opportunities?
I’ve never believed in a sense of Playwright Entitlement. I understand how things work, I know we’re storytellers in a world oversaturated with them, I know that no one owes us anything (words I repeat to myself when frustration hits).
But the issue for Seattle is not a bunch of whiny writers expecting grant money. It’s about community. Should we build one? Should we care about each other? Should we decide that we, this town, have enough drive and talent right here, to make something original, something gorgeous, using the deepest pool of acting talent I’ve seen anywhere in the United States (sorry NY, come see how good they are, then you can talk).
That takes a commitment. It might mean Mr. Bezos peels off some small change from his wallet, and gives great writers the breathing space to become fantastic ones. It might mean a couple billionaires get a little more tax write off, and ten new playwrights find their voices. What would that mean to Seattle, a town that almost never gets mentioned in the national new work conversation?
Where’s the Community?
I’m constantly embarrassed by how often I stumble upon great writers here more or less by chance. We get introduced to each other in bars, at random, finally put faces to those names we often read about, chat about working together, then don’t find the means. Why not?
Where are we meeting, where are we planning our revolution, how do we find each other? Perhaps as a remnant of that 80s Seattle feudalism, writers here seem to get attached to a single company, and they never date outside of the marriage.
Writers like Emily Conbere, Stephanie Timm, Marya Sea Kaminski, Brendan Healy, Elizabeth Heffron, Scot Augustson, Paul Mullin, Keri Healey (the list goes on and on, please forgive omissions). Companies like Live Girls, Washington Ensemble Theatre, Sandbox Radio, Man Alone Productions, Pony World Theatre, ReAct, every one of them doing new work. Unique voices, with ambition, energy, talent, and above all the desire to create a theater for this town: multicultural, multistyled, urban and varied and somehow rough, frontier rough, with its roots in the kind of brash energy that started this town.
But what brings us together?
Many of my friends are surely tired of me mentioning the Playwrights' Center and how badly we need one, the way it brings artists together, so forget it, I won’t bring it up.
It really does seem odd: we have actors to die for, we have a dozen or more great directors who love new work, we have producers, we have artists of good will at the larger theaters, we have new spaces opening up.
So what’s the problem? Why is there no buzz about Seattle? Why aren’t we getting the calls from national media, from producers, why don’t we have a national festival here?
The last time we were known for new plays was circa 1992, when Annex, overloaded with talent, was exploding with large cast, company generated shows that oozed talent at every level. Perhaps that model was unsustainable: too many of those people were too talented to stay in one spot for long. But it showed what can happen here.
Ultimately the real issue is not about logistics, and it’s not complicated.
It’s self-esteem. How do we see ourselves, how do we value what we do?
Take the example of Seattle actors. For years and years the complaint here was “go to NYC if you want to be cast in Seattle,” and to a large extent that used to be true. So often the best actor was sitting in the house, watching a NYC or LA import with TV credits do a second rate job on our stages. And that better actor was local.
But it’s not true now: local actors rule the Equity stages here, and no one expects that to change. They’re just too good, and everyone knows it.
Raising the profile of Seattle writing is really a matter of changing our own self-image. Yes it’s frustrating to see season selections that reflect some other city’s priorities (curse you, Wichita)—but what are we going to do about it? Sit and complain? Threaten to leave? Spend all our energies on angry blog posts?
I’m not entirely sure how Seattle actors effected their revolution. I’m not even sure they’ve stopped to think about what they’ve done, how profound it truly is. The paradigm has shifted so utterly that no one thinks much about ancient history.
That should be our model, as Seattle playwrights. We need a national festival, no question. It needs to focus primarily—but not exclusively—on Northwest talent. We need critics who don’t automatically discount a premiere’s worth because it originated here. We need deeper relationships with the regionals, who really do consider our shows for production when they workshop them. We need to forge links with the national community.
But what really matters, underneath it all, is simple: we need to change how we see ourselves.
It’s certainly unfair to expect Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World to accomplish all the above. I won’t do a disserve to Yussef’s brilliant play by talking about it as a seminal event, one which may well put Seattle firmly on the national map as an incubator for new work. Totally unfair, so I won’t do it.
What’s the buzz about new plays in Seattle? I’d say it’s about change. And what that really means is, we need to get to work.