WHILE REPORTING this story about the small, scrappy, nearly 40-year-old theater company, the current leadership at Annex was kind (and trusting) enough to let me into their back offices on Capitol Hill to spend an afternoon rummaging around their ancient filing cabinets. They were stuffed: programs, scripts, snapshots, scribbled notes, press clippings, meeting agendas, an archived email spat from the early 2000s. In a document from the 1990s stratum of the files, Annex analyzed its audience demographics by age and income.

Jade Jones, co-artistic director of Annex Theatre on Capitol Hill, sits in the theater’s bar area. They take pride in Annex’s willingness to take risks, and are determined the scrappy Seattle theater won’t die on their watch. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
An inside look at the improbable longevity of Seattle’s scrappy Annex Theatre

The crowds were young (49% between 18-25 years old, 29% between 26-35) and not particularly wealthy: 37% reported $10,000 to $30,000 in annual income, or $17,202 to $51,605 in 2021 dollars, and only 22% reported earning more than that. For context, the federal poverty level for a single person in 1995 was $7,470.

This feels important. At the time, Annex knew it was taking risks and trusted its audience would come along for the ride. “People knew us as smart and occasionally inspired,” says early Annex company member Wier Harman, now executive director of Town Hall Seattle. “One in four things would be pretty great, but the three things in the middle might be insufferable.” The young, not-far-above-the-poverty-level crowd — the very crowd many arts organizations are wringing their hands about reaching today — was loyal and encouraging.

How encouraging? Not only did they keep coming back, but in a few instances they gave the theater extra money for not liking a play. SJ Chiro, Annex artistic director from 1998-2000, remembers a 1998 show that “didn’t find its audience,” as she tactfully puts it. After one performance, with maybe five people in attendance, Chiro says somebody mailed the company a substantial sum (for them — at least a couple hundred dollars, maybe a couple thousand) with a note saying something like: “Hi, we hated the show. But we believe in your right to do it, and we’re so happy you did it and took the risk, so here’s a check.”

But, as Harman says, Annex shows could also be smart and inspired. It’s fair to say “The Yellow Kid,” which I saw in 1995, heavily influenced my becoming a professional theater critic, along with two other non-Annex shows I saw around that time: “Letter to Axl” by David Schmader and “Custer” by Derek Horton. They all blew the doors off whatever lingering prejudices I had about theater being stuffy, rarefied and remote.

I found evidence of that in the Annex archive, too, in old reviews and interviews I’d written, mostly for The Stranger, where I was the theater critic for more than a decade. Some are a little embarrassing but I was like Annex — young, often fumbling, occasionally graceful, trying new things in public, where anyone could watch.