The new arts space West of Lenin is bringing live theater back to the Fremont neighborhood — and hosting cinema, music and other artsy ventures, too.
The place does not look like much from the outside. In fact, it looks like a modest, nondescript, two-story construction zone.
But the large crowd gathered on the sidewalk is eager to get inside. And when a tall, jeans-clad man with a frizzy blond ponytail announces, “The house is open!” he’s beaming.
That was Seattle theater artist and entrepreneur A.J. Epstein. And he beamed with pride and relief earlier this week at the “soft opening” of West of Lenin, a new performance space in the Fremont district.
The 88-space venue, in a building that will also house several office suites and Epstein’s studio, filled up quickly with local theater folk and supporters. The occasion was a bill of short plays of local authors by Sandbox Radio Live!, being taped for a future podcast by the local Sandbox Artists Collective.
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“We’re bringing live theater back to Fremont!” announced Epstein to cheers, before the show began.
“It’s great having another space like this in town,” enthused Leslie Law, the director of the event, “and especially in Fremont.
Explaining his decision to buy the former home of the machine-assembly firm Warden Fluid Dynamics, and renovate it into a multiuse space and cultural hub, Epstein said he did so originally as a financial investment. He gave up his former studio in South Lake Union “to start building equity and not throwing it away to a landlord.”
But in addition to having a venue and workshop for his own film and theatrical projects, Epstein became jazzed about housing other arts fare in a hip, idiosyncratic neighborhood that hasn’t had a well-equipped live-drama haven since the Empty Space Theatre departed Fremont in 2005.
“It was a realization that, y’know, I’m going to be doing shows of my own and making the place available to friends. So why not take the extra step, and make something others can use it, too?”
Epstein’s vision for West of Lenin (so named because it’s a five-minute walk from Fremont’s famous epic statue of Vladimir Lenin) is that of an “open canvas.”
He explained, “The seats are stackable movable chairs, and there are risers that can be used as stage or seating platforms. It takes four people five hours to completely break down and reconfigure the room.
“So you can remove the chairs to have a big dance party. It can be a micro-cinema, and I’m talking to a collective of Super 8 filmmakers about doing an event here soon. Or you can set it up in the round or as a more traditional theater space.”
The latter arrangement was employed for the Sand Box show. And despite dust and plastic sheeting in the entryway, in that configuration West of Lenin already appealed as a cozy, inviting “black-box” theater, with good sightlines, high ceilings, rigging for many lighting instruments (among other things, Epstein is a lighting designer) and decent acoustics.
Epstein envisions a formal public opening in July, with “a movie day, a bands night and some theater or storytelling offerings.” Though the theater is largely ready to roll, the office spaces Epstein plans to rent out to partially subsidize the venture are still under construction.
Embarking on this in a risky economic climate hasn’t put off Epstein, a Los Angeles-bred gadfly, a doer and shaker based in Seattle for 13 years (and shuttling between here and New York City for the past eight).
A trustee of the state agency Humanities Washington, Epstein is a high-tech veteran who has produced or directed lots of offbeat theater (the Brothers Karamazov’s “Catch!”; Mike Daisey’s “How Theatre Failed America”), some films and other projects under the umbrella of his company, Ethereal Mutt Ltd.
He feels ready to consolidate his operation in Fremont now. “It’s traditionally a home for artists,” noted Epstein, “and I’m getting a lot of excitement from the community, from businesses and people who are really glad we’re here.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org