Last Friday’s inaugural bash at Theater Schmeater on Third Avenue was an especially festive celebration for a throng of volunteers, board members, stage artists and other supporters. They turned out for a rare event: the opening of a new playhouse in Belltown.
As they sipped drinks from the pocket-size bar, and explored the wraparound lobby, with its plum- and lime-colored walls, picture windows and art displays, Schmeater artistic director Doug Staley looked on with pride, and relief.
“It’s been so much work, with so many people helping,” he said, beaming. “We weren’t sure we could get it all done in time. But here we are.”
Theater Schmeater’s move to the attractive, cozy (roughly 47-seat) digs, on the street level of the Simons Senior Apartments building at 2125 Third Ave. (owned by Plymouth Housing Group), is noteworthy on several counts.
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This is the first new theater space to open in Belltown in a long time.
And according to Matthew Richter, cultural-space liaison for the Mayor’s Office for Arts and Culture, the occasion presages a new “arts mini-wave” in the high-density downtown district.
Back in the mid-1990s, in a scruffier Belltown, the neighborhood was a hive of theatrical activity in such vital fringe venues as Aha! Theatre, Belltown Theatre Center, Annex Theatre and the Speakeasy.
But by the early 2000s, property values were exploding. The once marginal area, thanks to a condo-construction boom, was transforming into a trendy address. Priced out, or in buildings soon to be replaced by new structures, most Belltown stage troupes either disbanded or had to relocate.
Jim Kelly, executive director of the King County cultural-services organization 4Culture, which contributed $30,000 to Schmeater’s $155,000 construction costs, sees such shifts as economic-based and cyclical. “It’s all driven by the real-estate market, the bottom line,” says Kelly. “As property values rise, the artists who helped give a community its character and made it attractive to people are driven out.”
That happened earlier in Pioneer Square, he notes. Now there’s similar flux on Capitol Hill — where Annex Theatre relocated, but it is now struggling with staggering rent hikes.
The migratory trend, suggests Richter, may be reversing. Theater Schmeater had been quartered in the basement of a Pike Street clothing shop since the 1990s. The building recently changed hands, and the noise from a planned bar and restaurant there would have interfered with performances.
Prospects for another modestly priced rental in Capitol Hill were dim, Staley says. But, significantly, it was a nonprofit organization seeking a cultural tenant that made the Belltown move possible for Schmeater, a respected but low-budget, all-volunteer company.
It’s not the first creative partnership here between affordable-housing agencies and nonprofit theater groups: ACT Theatre’s shares the Eagles Building with a Bellweather housing residence, and Capitol Hill Housing’s new 12th Avenue Arts complex will shelter three stage companies.
Says Kelly, such organizations “realize you can’t just create housing, without some amenities for people who live there.”
For the Simons Building, says Plymouth Group staffer Marlys Erickson, the agency sought a tenant “that would mix well” with the 92 senior residents. “Restaurants and bars are noisy late at night — not quite the right mix for a … population that tends to go to sleep early.”
And Schmeater will offer “deeply discounted” tickets to residents, notes Staley.
While Kelly doubts many commercial high-rise developments will sacrifice lucrative real-estate space for low-rent arts tenants, Richter sees a boomlet of nonprofit and for-profit cultural outposts opening in Belltown soon.
A Holocaust museum will open at Second Avenue and Lenora Street. Crybaby Studios, a Capitol Hill music facility, along with restaurateur Mike McConnell, is opening an all-ages nightclub and eatery in another Second Avenue building, with music-rehearsal studios on upper floors.
Wood Partners’ Dimension by Alta apartment high-rise (opening in 2015 on Cedar Street) is designed so that stages, sets and art galleries can pop up in various configurations, and a rooftop space can host concerts.
“Arts and culture facilities promote walkability, viability and vitality, engagement and street vibrancy, and that all adds to property value, and a neighborhood’s livability,” Richter claims.
Securing space in Belltown was a godsend for Schmeater. But will its Capitol Hill audience flock down to the new address? The company’s first season in its new digs is kicking off with “Gala Schmala,” a bill of one-acts which plays through this Saturday, June 14.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org