As the dust settles on the Empty Space Theatre's decision to shut down after 36 years and hundreds of productions, questions abound. One wonders how a...

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As the dust settles on the Empty Space Theatre’s decision to shut down after 36 years and hundreds of productions, questions abound.


One wonders how a vital company went from announcing a next season one day, to closing up shop a couple weeks later. And why the recent emergency-funding drive didn’t save it.


So who blew it? Was the board of directors too small, and not committed enough to the theater’s survival? Was the staff asleep at the wheel or guilty of too many miscalculations and missteps? Was the Empty Space’s move from Fremont to the Seattle University campus too taxing?


Playing the blame game is tempting, but ignores one salient fact. Midsize arts groups like the Empty Space are in an increasingly perilous position. And if the cultural climate doesn’t change in the next few years, few will survive into the next decade.


Before we get to that, let’s toast a theater that gave this community so much stageworthy talent, intellectual stimulation and delicious fun.


In 1970, when director M. Burke Walker pitched his theatrical tent in a small space at Pike Place Market, Seattle already had two strong resident playhouses: ACT Theatre, and Seattle Repertory Theatre.


Moving its frisky operation to a walk-up venue on Capitol Hill, Empty Space carved out its own popular niche, as a prime local outlet for more off-beat, far-flung works by modern American and European scribes.



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Early on, the fledgling troupe staged audacious scripts by such theatrical mavericks as Sam Shepard and Rosalyn Drexler, Peter Handke and David Mamet. The eclectic fare also boasted works by Shakespeare, Molière and other old masters and zany, original park shows — like “Ronnie B’wana, Jungle Guide.”


Yet no good theater is judged solely by the plays it mounts. Identity also comes down to attitude. And the Empty Space had attitude aplenty.


The youthful group’s brash, go-for-it brio was a good match for a Northwest city with spunk and spark. And the Empty Space gang had an ensemble ethos: They worked wonders as a cool and impudent, yet good-hearted team.


Word of the Space’s flair (and Seattle’s rising theatrical savvy) found its way to San Francisco, where I reviewed drama for a weekly paper. In the 1980s, on a Seattle visit, I saw a bang-up production of the flamboyantly clever Henry Kondoleon play, “The Vampires,” at Empty Space.


I recall that show well — not just because it was about (literally) blood-sucking theater critics, but also because it really rocked the (full) house.


Since I began writing about Seattle theater in 1991, I’ve learned how many of this city’s best actors and directors cut their creative teeth with the Empty Space — R. Hamilton Wright, John Procaccino, Lori Larsen, Jeff Steitzer, Linda Hartzell, among many.


Walker’s artistic-director successors at the Space — Kurt Beattie, Eddie Levi Lee and Allison Narver — groomed new waves of local actors for prime time — including Lauren Weedman, Burton Curtis, Sarah Rudinoff.


But let’s face it: Empty Space was also disaster-prone. It made two ill-fated moves to two terrible Pioneer Square locations. And in Fremont, the company paid a high rent for an old building, part of which collapsed and required lengthy, pricey repairs.


Artistically, Empty Space had slack seasons and better seasons. Ironically, in 2006 it was getting back in the groove, with two terrific productions (of Weedman’s “Bust” and Paul Mullin’s “Louis Slotin Sonata”). The projected 2007 lineup looked enticing too.


Yet despite its gift for tumbling out of high windows and landing on its feet, the odds against Empty Space surviving another 35 years — or even another 10 — were not good.


Here’s where the “midsize theater” problem kicks in.


Do the math. Any art-driven troupe in this town with fewer than 300 or so seats to sell per night, and a professional payroll to meet, cannot rely on ticket sales alone.


Civic funding (the kind European countries dole out routinely to their best troupes) and other grants are essential for survival. Moreover, theaters should be viewed as cultural amenities worth supporting, if they enrich this community and serve as its cultural ambassadors.


It’s a cliché and true: Our society places less and less value on providing literate, thoughtful alternatives to the 24/7 barrage of canned, empty-calorie commercial entertainment.


We expect nonprofit arts groups to be “business-like.” That doesn’t just mean being sensible about money. But also, implicitly, picking material that guarantees an audience (anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber, for instance), and taking few of the aesthetic risks Empty Space was founded to take.


The roll call of midsize theaters Seattle has lost since the mid-1990s is a grim one, headed by the Group Theatre, the Alice B. Theatre, the Bathhouse Theatre company. And it’s no accident that these organizations folded as Seattle boomed and shed some of its own unique civic character.


Some midsize companies (Book-It Repertory Theatre, Taproot Theatre, et al) are hanging in there, along with the bigger theaters and an evolving array of fringe troupes funded largely by free labor.


Yes, in the big picture, theaters come and theaters go, and that’s the way of the world. But the Empty Space’s demise is a hard loss to swallow. Its spirit was so bound up with Seattle’s spirit. And seeing it go belly up is like losing an unruly, unpredictable but valued friend.



mberson@seattletimes.com