When Gus Menary signed on as the new artistic director of Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre, he never imagined he’d spend his first season at the storied theater company miles away from the stage.
Yet when the pandemic shut down live performances starting last spring, that’s exactly what happened. Just a week shy of announcing his first season of stage works with Book-It, Menary instead announced an entire season of audioplays, created without ever stepping foot on a stage; the first of those started in October with an adaptation of Octavia Butler’s “Childfinder.”
“It always feels like there’s a little bit of alchemy to it,” said Menary. “Because it’s all starting from your spot on the couch.”
Before Menary took over, Book-It founders Jane Jones and Myra Platt served as co-artistic directors for 30 years. So when the pandemic hit, the theater was already in the middle of an enormous change.
Several local theater companies — including Taproot Theatre, eSe Teatro and Washington Ensemble Theatre — were in a similar position: bidding farewell to long-standing artistic directors and welcoming new leadership in the midst of multiple crises.
While leadership transitions typically call for fond farewells and the excitement of welcoming a new vision for programming, the world-shaking events of 2020 upstaged the farewells and scrapped whatever new visions the incoming leaders had in their pockets, greeting them instead with furloughs and Zoom plays.
“It’s just a straight bummer time,” said Maggie L. Rogers, the new artistic director of Washington Ensemble Theater who took over in January 2020.
But as Julieta Vitullo, who is part of the new shared leadership team at eSe Teatro, says, “Theater is hard. It takes a lot of energy. It was hard before the pandemic.”
Banking on the resilience, community-building and versatility inherent in the industry, many of these new leaders have quickly adapted under the circumstances or even maneuvered to find opportunity in this era of Zoom theater experiments, social distance, and a reckoning with social inequality, all while honoring the legacies left by their predecessors.
Adapting to unexpected challenges
For 30 years, Jones and Platt have shared meals, ideas, stages and sometimes exhausting 11-hour days as the founders and co-artistic directors of Book-It Repertory Theatre.
Now, at home due to the pandemic, Jones and Platt only occasionally see each other on video calls.
Still, even in an hourlong video interview, it’s easy to see that Jones and Platt are more like family than friends, and that their efforts to grow a little artists’ collective for book lovers into a nationally recognized theatrical style, with over 100 world premieres, was a labor of love.
It’s also clear that they were ready to hand over those lovely labors to someone else.
“I don’t miss the stress of running an organization,” said Platt. “And I would’ve sucked at running it during a pandemic.”
Jones and Platt are impressed with how Menary and the Book-It team have been able to adapt to the unexpected challenges of the pandemic while maintaining Book-It’s legacy.
“My hope was that the Book-It style would be retained — inspiring people to read because they watched a book come to life onstage,” said Platt. “Book-It [was] started to counter all the screen time —”
“And here we are spending all of our time on screens!” Jones interjected. “What’s kind of cool about it is because Book-It cannot produce live theater right now, the emphasis is all on the words, the audioplays are all about the words on the page.”
Menary says that given the legacy Jones and Platt established, he couldn’t imagine not producing a season, and the legacy itself helped guide the decisions he and the staff made in adapting to the challenges of the pandemic.
“The mandate remained unchanged,” he said. “We wanted to continue to adapt great literature into amazing theater.” This moment, he says, reveals just how important literature is in a crisis.
Menary sees opportunities for change in this crisis as well. He says audio will likely continue to be a part of Book-It’s repertoire even after the pandemic subsides.
“There’s an opportunity to take stock and improve things,” he said. “It wasn’t going to happen when everyone was comfortable.”
A theater of hope
Taproot Theatre is no stranger to crisis. In the 45 years since the theater’s founding, it has weathered flood, fires, recessions and now a pandemic.
But for the first time, the company is enduring a crisis without co-founders Pam and Scott Nolte at the helm.
The Noltes have spent two-thirds of their lives running Taproot, and in December — just as the U.S. was seeing some of its deadliest days since the pandemic began, and about eight months after local theaters, including Taproot, were closed — they announced their retirement. But the plan to retire had been in motion since 2018.
“Seven years into Taproot, Scott and I were utterly exhausted and ready to quit,” said Pam Nolte. “We prayed for a week and realized we needed to stay with Taproot until it was healthy enough for us to leave.”
“Healthy” to the Noltes meant Taproot would have strong roots in the form of a team who had been with the theater for a long time and were dedicated to its mission.
That’s why Karen Lund, who has been with Taproot for 26 years, was the easy and natural choice to take over as producing artistic director. With the team they left in charge and Lund at the helm, the Noltes say they felt confident moving on.
There’s nothing easy about taking over in the middle of a pandemic. Taproot has had to furlough five staff members and has turned largely to streaming content.
But, for Lund, the answer was in Taproot’s mission.
“We call ourselves a theater of hope,” she said. “And, boy, has there ever been a more important time for hope.”
Although Lund didn’t imagine she’d be leading the theater in such difficult times, she says Taproot’s solid foundation and loyal community have helped it navigate the crisis. The theater shutdown has even presented some opportunities.
Taproot now offers closed captioning on all videos, making its content more accessible for nonhearing patrons, and its content is now reaching audience members from outside the state. The theater has even been able to recruit interns from all over the country.
Still, Lund says she has lots of ideas for Taproot’s future, and she’s not sure how long she’ll have to wait before she gets to try them out. For now, her priority is confronting inequity in American theater and at Taproot.
“There are a lot of other theaters whose mission is to point out where things are falling apart and we need those theaters and we need that work. But my job and the mission that we have is to say, ‘Yes, things are falling apart. That is true. Here’s where they’re coming together. Can we build on that?’”
“Be nimble and adaptive”
Unlike Taproot and Book-It, eSe Teatro is only 11 years young. But the company’s foundation is solid and its history is profound. As a Latinx theater company in Seattle, eSe Teatro holds a unique place in Seattle’s theater scene, where Latinx stories have long been marginalized.
Rose Cano, one of the founding members of eSe Teatro, says it’s always been her goal to make Seattle a place where Latinx theater artists can thrive, rather than moving away to places where they have more opportunities.
After seven years as artistic director, Cano stepped down in 2019 and the company began transitioning to a shared leadership model, splitting responsibilities across six members of the core company.
This new model was only just being solidified when the pandemic shut down live theater, but Cano says the timing was actually ideal, especially after the summer’s Black Lives Matter movement pushed Seattle’s theater community to face its racial inequities.
“People are currently rethinking leadership [and] who gets to make the decisions,” said Cano. “Once the BLM movement was in full force, it seemed like everything was possible. So it seemed like a good moment to make this change to shared leadership.”
“The way to go is to be nimble and adaptive,” said Cano.
With the shared leadership model, each of the six core company members has a say in what the company does and is equally responsible for keeping the company healthy and thriving. During the live performance shutdown and last summer’s protests, that meant tending to eSe Teatro’s website and joining in a citywide theater leaders’ effort to create a more inclusive theater community.
“The truth is we’re still trying to figure it all out,” said company member Maria-Tania Bandes-Becerra Weingarden. “This may not be how it stays.”
Throughout the past year, the company has produced an online reading, a livestreamed online play and, in partnership with ACT Theatre, a Latinas Playwright Roundtable.
“Because we are sharing [leadership], it almost feels like everything is possible,” said company member Vitullo. “When the pandemic is over, we’ll be unstoppable.”
“The new renaissance”
After both the managing director and artistic director of Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET) left at the same time in late 2019, the ensemble decided to split the two leadership positions into four and share more of the responsibilities of running the company. Maggie L. Rogers, who recently took over as artistic director, says it’s exactly what the company needed.
“We get to create the kind of company we need right now,” said Rogers. “Now we’re turning 18, we’ve had to look at what’s important and it’s each other.”
Rogers says being a young theater company is actually to WET’s advantage right now.
“‘This is how we’ve always done it’ is not a phrase we have to contend with,” she said. Still, with the “cultural revolution” that is bringing inequity in the theater community to the fore, WET, like almost every other theater in the community, has had to reexamine its priorities.
“This ensemble has been drawn to knowing that it is completely unacceptable to do all-white plays,” said Rogers. “‘Is this play responsible?’ [That question] has taken the front seat.”
Looking ahead, many of these new artistic leaders are hopeful that the theaters they run will not only emerge from this crisis intact, but better.
“People have been threatening the demise of theater for a long time. I think we’ll be talking about the new renaissance,” said Taproot’s Lund. “When I was watching [poet Amanda Gorman] at Inauguration, I thought, ‘This is it — the renaissance.’”