As COVID-19 upended theaters across the country in 2020, Corey McDaniel thought it was curtains for Theatre22, the Seattle-based company he founded in 2013.
“When the pandemic hit, we thought that we were done,” he said. “We thought that there was no way we could survive it.”
But thanks to donor support, government grants and insurance, Theatre22 held on, staging an outdoor production of “Alice in Wonderland” in 2021 and returning to indoor performance with two shows in 2022. But just weeks before the Sept. 9 opening of the second show, “Nonsense and Beauty,” producing artistic director McDaniel announced it would be the company’s final production.
In an email announcing the decision, McDaniel pointed to a lack of a sustainable venue space as the primary factor.
McDaniel said the organization has no debt and no outstanding financial commitments beyond this year. Theatre22’s 2020 IRS Form 990, the most recent available, lists its net assets as $48,771.
Theatre22, known for producing contemporary plays, often with an LGBTQ+ focus, never had its own venue. After initially being approached by Seattle Public Theater in late 2018 with an offer to rent the space, Theatre22 entered into an agreement in 2020 to rent SPT’s Green Lake facilities for two shows. The contract also guaranteed two rental periods each for 2021 and 2022, as long as SPT retained the lease to the space.
After the pandemic wiped out the 2020 and 2021 seasons, Theatre22 and SPT signed a new contract in early 2022 that superseded the previous one, SPT managing director Charlotte Tiencken said in an email. The one-year contract outlined two performance slots for 2022 and did not reference future rentals. SPT hosted Theatre22’s “Or,” in April and May, and will host “Nonsense and Beauty” next month.
McDaniel said he assumed that because the first two years of the initial agreement were affected by the pandemic, SPT would be amenable to including an additional two years after 2022. During the pandemic, he was assured by SPT leadership that nothing from the original plan was changing, he said.
“I will take some of the credit there for not having done my due diligence and saying, ‘Great, put that on paper,’ ” McDaniel said.
In May, SPT informed Theatre22 it could only offer one performance slot for a coproduction for 2023. Theatre22 declined, saying one coproduction would not be financially sufficient to sustain the company.
“They knew that we were moving in for that to be our home for a minimum of three years so we could test the relationship out,” McDaniel said. “Had they brought this potential up to us during the pandemic, we could have possibly worked something out sooner — found other venue space or chosen to shut the doors during the pandemic instead of struggling to survive all of those difficult years.”
Tiencken said that “Seattle Public Theater is saddened to hear that Theatre22 has chosen to shut down as they have been a vibrant and powerful part of our theater community. The lack of viable space and other producing challenges exacerbated by COVID-19 is an ongoing issue for many, many theaters in town including SPT. We stand by our desire to spread the opportunity to share our space with a variety of theaters, in order to introduce our audiences to their work.”
When Theatre22 made the move to SPT, it gave up priority scheduling status as resident renters at 12th Avenue Arts, the Capitol Hill venue where it had consistently produced since 2015. Now, a lack of enough open performance slots would prevent the company from returning to 12th Ave for several years, McDaniel said. A search for an alternative affordable and suitable space was not successful, he said.
For now, McDaniel is turning his attention to directing “Nonsense and Beauty,” playwright Scott C. Sickles’ take on the real-life story of a love triangle involving author E.M. Forster, his younger lover Bob Buckingham and Buckingham’s wife, May.
The play has taken a winding path, from Sickles’ discovery of the story in the book “The Gay Fireside Companion” in the ’90s to early drafts — “They’re on floppy disks on such old versions of Microsoft Word that I would need Russian cyberhackers to open them,” Sickles said — to an eventual world premiere at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in 2019.
For the New York-based Sickles, who’s written more than a dozen plays and has hundreds of daytime television writing credits, “Nonsense and Beauty” is special.
“[It’s] very dear to me,” he said. “This was the one play where I thought, ‘If this gets [only] a tiny little showcase production and that’s the end of it, I will kill myself.’ ”
McDaniel originally programmed “Nonsense and Beauty” for the 2020 season, and he was convinced it was the right choice after he read it with a group of artists, and everyone was in tears by the end.
“Each generation has had a totally different experience of what it means to be a gay man and what oppression looks like,” McDaniel said. “So we were specifically hoping for [a play] to address that. This is a great story that really reflects beautifully on love and forgiveness through deep human pain and turmoil and struggle that lasts decades.”
“Nonsense and Beauty” will cap a run of 16 mainstage productions from a company that never pigeonholed itself. Shows with LGBTQ+ themes were frequent, including Terrence McNally’s “The Lisbon Traviata,” in which brainy discussions about opera in Act 1 escalate to actual opera in Act 2, and Alexi Kaye Campbell’s “The Pride,” in which two gay love stories unfold side-by-side, 50 years apart.
Works by local playwrights were also chosen, like a remount of Wayne Rawley’s convenience-store fantasia “Live! From the Last Night of My Life,” first produced by Theater Schmeater in 2011. That was the company’s most successful show ever, McDaniel said.
Theatre22 was as likely to produce a relative obscurity as it was a lauded play, like Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer-winning “Water by the Spoonful,” an empathetic portrait of addicts’ path to recovery. Either way, the plays generally had substantial, attractive roles for actors, and they featured some of the city’s finest talents, including the late G. Valmont Thomas in “Water,” Shermona Mitchell in James Ijames’ “White” and Tim Gouran in Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This.”
Wilson was an important figure for the company, whose inaugural production was “The 5th of July,” his work about post-Vietnam disillusionment, directed by frequent collaborator Julie Beckman.
“He portrayed gay characters without the story actually having to be about being gay,” McDaniel said. “It was representation as normality. [Wilson’s plays] absolutely saved my life.”
As the clock winds down on Theatre22’s life span, McDaniel says he’s at peace with the decision and is feeling grateful for a decade of support from the community. But that doesn’t make his next chapter any clearer.
“Theatre22 is the culmination of a 30-year career,” he said. “This was always my goal. And I certainly did not expect it to end abruptly. So I don’t know what’s next. I have no clue. And that’s the hardest part.”
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