IN THEORY, ANNEX THEATRE should be dead by now. It’s a small-budget, nearly 40-year-old performing arts organization born in a city it shouldn’t be able to afford anymore, especially when it’s taking weird artistic risks that are sometimes exquisite, soul-shifting alchemy and sometimes dreary failures. In this economic climate, erratic freedom on a shoestring should not be tolerated.

But, somehow, it is.

Annex has survived ancillary perils like riots and earthquakes, as well as deadlier hazards for small theaters: economic crashes, cataclysmic internecine politics, periods of homelessness and a real estate market with the temperament of a serial small-business strangler, plus a mass culture that seems more and more attracted to screens and less and less attracted to one of the world’s most archaic — and inconvenient — art forms.

In 1995, Seanjohn Walsh, left, starred as the mischievous cartoon character of the title in Annex Theatre’s “The Yellow Kid.” The musical, based on the 1895 newspaper cartoon that spawned the term “yellow journalism,” also featured Adrian LaTourelle (seated) and Elizabeth Gordon. (Debra LaCoppola / Courtesy Annex Theatre)
Annex Theatre’s model proves that art — even bad art — is for all of us

If that’s not enough to kill a theater, it should at least reduce it to something meek, brittle and risk-averse, a dusty museum for safe chestnuts: Sam Shepard, David Mamet, early Tom Stoppard.

Not Annex. Instead, the little theater has put a thumb on the scales for newer work and fresh-off-the-printer world premieres, sometimes mounting 20-play seasons, many of them heavy on spectacle.

My introduction to Annex was “The Yellow Kid” in 1995, when I was basically still a kid myself — a fin de siècle carnival/phantasmagoria about the Gilded Age, tenement poverty, America’s newspaper wars (Pulitzer vs. Hearst) and soured innocence. The show began in a sketchy Belltown alley behind the theater and starred 27 people, two dogs, one cat and a goat. It might sound hyperbolic, but “The Yellow Kid” was an overwhelming, life-changing experience: better than movies, better than “Hamilton,” better than some sunsets. I didn’t know theater could do that.

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Annex Theatre’s 1995 production of “The Yellow Kid” featured Seanjohn Walsh, right, as the Kid and Adrian LaTourelle as artist Richard F. Outcault. (Debra LaCoppola / Courtesy Annex Theatre)

And somehow, despite the decades, Annex is forever young: a squirming, odd, sometimes transcendent, sometimes awkward, very-much-alive organism.

YOU CAN SENSE the Annex ethos by talking to its members — those who were young and full of fire in 1988 and those who are young and full of fire right now. When they talk about Annex, they talk about grit.

A sampling of quotes, from interviews with more than two dozen Annex members across the age spectrum: “Our motto is ‘big, cheap theater.’ ” “I’d rather make a glorious failure than an apologetic win.” “We’re the cockroach of the arts — we may be ugly, but we’re really hard to kill.”

This language about meagerness and failure seems to have an inoculating effect. Despite the odds, Annex has survived big changes (in the city, in itself) that have killed many others: Empty Space, Open Circle, Theater Schmeater, AHA!, Alice B., New Century Theatre Company, and on and on.

Jade Jones, who took over as co-artistic director of Annex (with Hannah Ferguson) in late January 2020, two months before the pandemic hit, keeps the “dare to fail” torch burning.

Jade Jones, left, the co-artistic director of Annex Theatre on Capitol Hill, checks out a scrapbook filled with memories of the theater with bartender, house manager and actor Alexei Cifrese in the main hallway at the theater. The theater, nearly four decades old, is guided by a democratic, risk-taking ethos developed long ago. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

“There are so many shows so many people wouldn’t have done, but Annex will,” Jones says. “You’re writing a ridiculous show based on ‘Cheers,’ but where all the people in the bar are animals? I’m here for it. It’s so important to keep that energy alive for theater.” That show, “Deers,” was a 2017 project that expanded Jones’ notion of theater the same way “The Yellow Kid” expanded mine 22 year earlier. “Every second, you’re like: ‘What is happening?’ ” Jones says. “I thought: ‘Oh, that can be theater, too.’ ”

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DESPITE ITS SMALLNESS, Annex has brushed up against — and produced — big-shots.

Fugazi played one of its fundraisers and, in the late 1980s, the theater hosted post-play concerts with Nirvana and other soon-to-be-too-big-for-Annex acts. “Sometimes, to see the bands, people had to buy tickets and sit through the show,” says Allison Narver, Annex’s artistic director from 1989 to 1995. “That’s how we were — always trying to trick people to come see the play.”

Celebrities (Joan Jett, Neil Patrick Harris, Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller) came to watch performances. Annex company members later spun off to their own showbiz successes: actors Jillian Armenante and Paul Giamatti; writers Peter Buchman (“Jurassic Park III,” “Che” with Steven Soderbergh), Karl Gajdusek (“Stranger Things,” “Last Resort”) and Glen Berger (“Underneath the Lintel,” “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”); directors Narver (Empty Space Theatre, “The Lion King” on Broadway) and Dan Fields (executive creative director for live shows at Disney theme parks around the world).

But even those who have left for brighter spotlights describe their Annex days as foundational.

Annex Theatre helped launched the career of Golden Globe and Emmy winner Paul Giamatti. In 1990, Patrick Lacey and Giamatti, right, performed in “This End Up” at Annex. (Courtesy Annex Theatre)

“I wouldn’t be an actor if it hadn’t been for that place — I wouldn’t have felt that joy,” says Giamatti. “We could do whatever the hell we wanted. The joy of the place led to huge latitudes and breadth: weird, grotesque comedies; a crazy-ass experimental musical; medieval mystery plays. I’ve never seen anyone do a mystery play again. Annex exists almost as a dream place that is gone but always present to me. It gave me some discipline — as fun as it was, we buckled down — but it’s always remained an ideal in my head, a place I still kind of look for.”

How did Annex pull all that off? And how has it managed to survive?

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DEPENDING ON HOW you count it, Annex was born in 1982, 1986 or 1987, meaning it’s been around for 34, 35 or 39 years. Whatever number you choose, it’s old.

In 1982, a few high-school boys on Bainbridge Island decided to stage a play (“Lone Star” by James McLure, about a reckoning between two brothers behind a Texas bar) at the local grange hall. When they couldn’t find rehearsal space, original member Garrett Bennett says, they broke into the dance hall of an abandoned military installation and worked there. It was the first taste of that “kids-in-a-barn-puttin’-on-a-show!” pluck that persists today. Their drama teacher called them “Annex Theatre.”

In 1986, Annex staged summer shows in Seattle at New City Theater (housed in a former mortuary) and The Vogue (a Capitol Hill bar catering to a goth/fetish/burlesque clientele). That year, Annex formally registered as a nonprofit.

By the next year, the Bainbridge boys did something remarkable. Four years earlier, as high-school seniors, they’d made a plan: Head off to various colleges — Yale University, Western Washington University, others — and bring back Annex recruits. Somehow, between the ages of 18 and 21, they stuck to it.

The boys returned in 1987 with various people in tow or on the way (Giamatti, John Sylvain, Chris Jeffries, Chris Comte, Andrea Allen, others) and found a home — a large, multiroom, second-floor space in grimy Belltown that had been a Fred Astaire Dance Studio. For the first year, Annex rented it for $1 a month.

Now they had a clubhouse. That was key.

“The space was a magnet,” says playwright and director Bret Fetzer, who was Annex’s artistic director from 2001-04 and again from 2006-09. Artists were streaming into Seattle at the time — the living was cheap, and allegations were floating around about Seattle being a theater-loving town. “People were looking for a place to land,” Fetzer says. “That hub is crucial to the Annex model. In later years, when we were homeless, it was a period of company attrition.”

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People kept walking up the Annex stairs that first decade, wanting to pitch in. In 1988, Annex mounted 27 productions, 16 of them world premieres. Those that weren’t premieres were still young plays — not a chestnut in the bunch.

Annex Theatre members meet in 1988, just after they had moved into their Belltown space. The women, from left: Michelle Dunn, Sheryl Lee (who played Laura Palmer in “Twin Peaks”), Jennifer Ferguson, Jenny Schmidt. The men, clockwise from the bottom: Micha Rice, Brent Fraser, Brian T. Finney, Garrett Bennett, Mike Shapiro, John Lawler, Dave Skubinna, John Sylvain. Rice, Bennett, Lawler and Skubinna were founding members of the theater. (Courtesy Annex Theatre)

Their set budgets were sometimes in the tens of dollars, and they treated money communally. At the end of a run, they’d split the box office, and every person who worked on the show got the same amount, whether $50 or $2.50 (usually closer to the latter).

That communal vibe infused the theater. If you weren’t cast in a show, you were running the sound board; if you weren’t doing that, you were hanging lights; if not that, you were painting the set. A few Annex members told the story of an early company member who saw gum in a urinal. First he thought: “This place is gross.” Then, later: “They should do something about that.” Then: “We should do something about that.” Finally: “I should do something about that.”

He cleaned the urinal. Annex was home.

ALONG WITH THE clubhouse, Seattle economics of those days was another key to the theater’s success. People worked flexible jobs — at popcorn stands, in restaurants, as sales clerks, as aerobics instructors — with enough leftover time to make 27 plays.

“I could work a couple hours a day and afford to work at Annex, and pay rent and eat, and even have a car,” says filmmaker SJ Chiro, artistic director from 1998-2000. “That is not possible in this city now, and that is chilling to me. It’s hard to have a robust artistic community when you’re forcing artists out of the city — and an artistic community is essential for a city.”

Even then, Chiro says, members were aware that volunteering so much time to a theater was a privilege — and that privilege showed.

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“It was a predominantly white company,” she says. “We were looking around, saying: ‘Hey, it’s pretty white in here. Our door is open. Why aren’t more people coming in?’ But not everybody felt like they could take those menial jobs, then devote themselves to Annex. It was something we thought about but didn’t know how to solve.”

Those who could afford to be there remember those days like Giamatti does: powerful, intense and intoxicating.

“We didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and we didn’t know what we couldn’t do,” says Armenante, now an established screen actor (TV shows like “Fresh Off the Boat,” movies like “Hail, Caesar!”) and producer living in Los Angeles. “Pretty quickly, we’d be naked onstage with flashlights and goats. Annex was us — our voice, our sensibility, a sense of infinite possibility.”

With a $100 budget and a little stage magic, they crash-landed an airplane on top of a shopping mall. They had casts of dozens because they could. When they needed a wall to fall toward the audience, they used old vending machines left over from the dance-studio days as a counterbalance. They made surreal, disturbing musicals like Jeffries’ “The Fatty Arbuckle Spook House Revue” — and people lined up around the block.

A fire-eater performs at Annex Theatre’s production of “The Fatty Arbuckle Spook House Revue” in 1992. (Courtesy Annex Theatre)

They were bamboozlers, sometimes tricking people into having a good time. One routine involved telling folks in line that the show was sold out, then having company members carry in “extra” chairs at the last minute so people felt lucky to get in.

Sometimes they stole. Armenante recalls having a small part at Seattle Repertory Theatre and standing offstage with a prop suitcase, ready to enter, when she saw a bunch of BTL bulbs (for stage lights) on a rail. “I said, ‘Oh ho,’ stuffed them in my suitcase, walked onstage, performed and then scooted them straight back to Annex,” she says. “We were absolute rats.”

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Meanwhile, Annex was getting on people’s radars.

“It went from being a place people thought was kind of cool to being packed, even dangerously packed,” Giamatti says. “It just skyrocketed in a wonderful way.”

BESIDES THE CLUBHOUSE and cheap living, there was a third (and more enduring) key to Annex’s resilience: democracy.

“The idea was to give a sense of ownership to anyone who wanted to take a sense of ownership,” says Sylvain, an early company member who went on to found Sacred Fools Theater Company in Los Angeles. “If you think you’re a member of Annex, you are.”

Former Annex Theatre technical director Xris Nil, left, speaks with bartender, house manager and actor Alexei Cifrese, center, and Jade Jones, the theater’s co-artistic director. Nearly four decades after its start, the theater continues to embrace its democratic ethos. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Most theaters, he explains, start one of two ways. First way: Business leaders want a theater in their town, then hire people to run it. Second way: A clutch of artists (often in grad school) fall in love with each other and decide to start a theater. Annex chose a third way: If you showed up and were willing to work, especially if it wasn’t your pet project, you were in.

“What that creates,” Sylvain says, “is an idea that transcends personal issues and individual people.”

During her tenure as artistic director, Chiro cemented that democratic tendency with a new rule: The season would not be chosen by the artistic director or a small cabal. Every company member, even if there were 100 (and sometimes there were), got a vote.

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Chiro grew up on California communes that, remarkably, are still functioning — but she watched several others collapse. The difference, she says, is that the communes of her childhood were not based on charismatic individuals, but systems of rights and responsibilities that survived the ebb and flow of people.

“Annex is an organism that keeps on morphing,” she says. “That makes it flexible, resilient, able to change with the times — whoever’s there really matters.”

That model continues to this day. “It’s everybody’s season,” says Jones, the current co-artistic director, echoing old Annex members Jones has never even met. “We go to somebody’s house and talk about every damned play everybody submitted for four days, and somebody always cries, and it’s usually me — then we vote and have a season.”

The organism kept on morphing. In 2001, Annex left its Belltown home of 14 years (it became clear the building was a teardown) and scuttled around for six itinerant years, producing where it could. In 2007, it found another home on 11th Avenue, just off the Pike/Pine bar corridor on Capitol Hill, and it has been there ever since.

In 2001, Annex Theatre moved out of its Belltown space, which was soon torn down. The theater moved around for six years, producing plays where it could, before finding its current space on Capitol Hill. (Jim Bates / The Seattle Times, 2001)

In more recent years, the old guard began facing another, heartbreaking chapter of the story. In the fall of 2012, two early company members — Heather Hughes and Andrea Allen — died from cancer, just weeks apart. Over the next few years, many others would be diagnosed, all roughly between the ages of 44 and 52. Some have survived. Nine have died.

Several Annex members suspect their old Belltown space has something to do with it. The building was full of asbestos — where the company drilled holes, hung lights and generally kicked up dust — while the site next door had been a gas station from 1925 to 1950. Overwhelming odors from a 2007 excavation of its polluted soil triggered an investigation by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

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Armenante has been doing the research: digging up old permits, documenting the contamination and asking every company member diagnosed with cancer to provide details of their illnesses. None of her other friend groups from New Jersey or Los Angeles are getting terminally ill at such rates.

“The players we’re talking about were the deep, old-school, 16-hours-a-day players,” she says. “A bunch of 47-year-olds dying of cancer who all played infield on the same team is just too suspicious. As much as I talk about Annex love and passion and living in the moment, there’s an opposite side to the sword.”

STILL, ANNEX PERSISTS.

A poster from Annex Theatre’s production of “Is She Dead Yet?” in 2015, which playwright Brandon J. Simmons called a “white comedy.” (Courtesy Annex Theatre)

Guided by its new, young membership, the theater has begun producing wildly imaginative sci-fi and fantasy-oriented plays and becoming a home base for more writers, directors and other artists of color. The older Annex types talk about “Fatty Arbuckle” as a watershed production; younger ones cite “Is She Dead Yet?” The bracing 2015 play by Brandon J. Simmons concerns the death of the last Black woman on Earth, which sends the white world into a spiral of tragicomic confusion. (Who are they when there’s no Other to define themselves against?) Simmons finished it during the upheaval in Ferguson, Missouri, after police killed Michael Brown. It opened two weeks after the death of Sandra Bland. Simmons calls it “a white comedy.”

Pamala Mijatov, who was artistic director of Annex at the time (2009-16) and now sits on the theater’s board, remembers one performance of the show in particular. The house lights went down after the final, rattling scene — and a man in the audience howled into the dark.

“I’d never heard that in a theater before,” she says. “That changes you. I’ve made a lot of irrelevant theater in my life — but knowing we had the ability to produce art that spoke to people in that way made it hard not to feel a responsibility to keep producing art like that.”

Annex has motored on during the pandemic, producing three online plays: two radio-style dramas (a wry, hard-boiled detective story, and a post-apocalyptic drama) and one choose-your-own-adventure experiment. It also served as an aid station for demonstrators during the 2020 summer protests and after it found itself inside the borders of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP).

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The current leadership is confident Annex will survive COVID-19, even though the days of ample spare time are gone.

“People are exhausted, people are burned out, everybody has a full-time job or two to three part-time jobs,” Mijatov says. “There is not the space for people to work on art and survive in Seattle.”

Jade Jones, co-artistic director of Annex Theatre, is reflected in a mirror as they go through costumes that have just been laundered. The room serves as Jones’ office as well as the dressing room for the scrappy Seattle theater. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Jones remains undaunted.

“I need to make sure Annex thrives so you have a place to fail,” they say. “This is about chill, fun, experimental, rock ’n’ roll theater. As long as we continue to say, ‘Bring me your damned, your hungry and your one-acts,’ we will survive. None of us are going to let Annex die.”