The challenge for the directors responsible for the future of Seattle theater is to connect with audiences while they keep an eye on the bottom line.
RECENTLY, A BOARD member of ACT Theatre, a humming drama hub in the heart of downtown Seattle, congratulated staffer John Langs on his promotion to artistic director and offered some friendly advice: “I really believe in you. I believe in your vision. Now don’t screw up.”
“I appreciated all three sentiments,” says the fair-haired, genial Langs, who assumes his post in January.
Langs’ laid-back informality belies his fierce artistic commitment and lofty ambitions for the 50-year-old theater and $6 million operation he is about to lead. Those are traits he shares with several other determined millennials and Gen-Xers, recently hired to run the show at the city’s most prominent playhouses.
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It’s a generational changing of the guard, one that could have big consequences for Seattle’s dynamic and challenged theater scene.
At ArtsWest Playhouse in West Seattle, you might not pick out Mathew Wright as the organization’s recently appointed artistic honcho. The slightly built, 31-year-old New Jersey native could easily pass for a teenager — the one wearing the hoodie or, on formal occasions, the skinny tie and sharp suit.
Spotted in the lobby of Seattle Repertory Theatre, the city’s longest-running and best-known resident drama establishment, the soft-spoken, unassuming Braden Abraham, 38, might be mistaken for a midlevel staffer or a grad student. Yet as the artistic director of the Rep, he and his vibrant 38-year-old associate director Marya Sea Kaminski are entering their second season guiding a multimillion-dollar arts institution that sells more than 100,000 tickets each year.
Meanwhile, no one works a room like Andrew Russell, the animated, laser-focused, 32-year-old producing artistic director of Intiman Theatre, another longtime Seattle stage company. In 2011, just a few years out of Carnegie Mellon University, Russell took the lead in boldly resuscitating and reinventing the long-running Intiman after a financial meltdown shuttered it earlier that year.
These emerging arts leaders (average age: 36) will have much to do with the fate of live theater in Seattle. None had ever run a sizable company before stepping into their top jobs. Some are much younger than their immediate predecessors. But each is a stage artist deeply invested in, and guardedly optimistic about, their institutions’ futures. And they are facing fresh challenges as front-line cultural figures in a city transforming before their eyes.
“We all knew at some point the baby-boomer generation leaders would retire,” says Randy Engstrom, thirty-something director of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture. “What’s amazing is how much leadership turnover there’s been in such a short time.”
SINCE SEATTLE REP’S founding in 1963, the Puget Sound region has gradually, steadily gained a national reputation as a major American theater center — one of the most prolific in the country. Today, valued professional, semipro and fringe companies present a movable feast of everything from comedy improv and experimental performances to Shakespeare and Broadway musicals to new and canonical dramas.
Ongoing Seattle-area theater outfits (there are roughly 50) produce original works that win national awards and move on to bigger audiences on Broadway and elsewhere. They’re grooming emerging local actors, designers and playwrights of note. Both Seattle Rep and Intiman have earned Tony Awards for regional theater excellence. A 2009 study of the economic impact of arts activity on King County, conducted by the Seattle advocacy and funding organization ArtsFund, found that local nonprofit theaters performed for more than 1.7 million patrons and employed more than 4,000 full-time and part-time workers. (A 2015 study by ArtsFund is under way.)
But can these companies stay solvent, inspired and relevant in a corporatized boomtown undergoing dizzying growth and change? Can they reach the droves of high-tech professionals relocating here — and get them to click off smartphones and widescreen TVs and venture out to old-school, live entertainment?
Youth is a positive factor in entering the cultural fray, suggests Wright, whose first season as artistic director at ArtsWest last year broke box-office records.
“There’s something really nice about being 31 in this city at this moment,” says Wright, a director-musician who moved from Philadelphia several years ago to work at the downtown show palace The 5th Avenue Theatre.
He believes his diverse cultural tastes are in line both with the “new” and “old” Seattle. “I grew up on classics and pop culture, loving the punk band Green Day as much as I loved Ibsen plays and French existential literature. They were all big influences on me.”
Intiman’s Russell also embraces the city’s rapidly shifting demographics and social climate. “It definitely feels like we’re at a tipping point,” declares the Indiana native, a former aide to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. “The city is really forward-thinking; it has momentum. It’s more exciting than it was five years ago, and we’re all tapped into that excitement.”
Harnessing the power of social media to attract bigger crowds is a given for this digitally savvy group. Another shared tactic to draw in younger and infrequent theatergoers is promoting ticket flexibility and variable pricing, says Langs, a 42-year-old North Carolina School of the Arts grad who honed his craft as a director on Los Angeles and Off Broadway stages, and at Wisconsin’s American Players Theatre.
Langs sees ACT’s five-stage venue, in the former Eagles Building, as a kind of live-action “cineplex, where you can walk off the street on the spur of the moment, with no preparation or reservations, and have lots of options. This building lets us do that.”
KEEPING THEIR FINGERS on the pulse of Seattle culture is another priority.
“We want to be a theater of national excellence that is regionally specific,” says Abraham, a Puget Sound native who has spent his entire career at the Rep, where he became acting artistic director in 2014 after the unexpected death of his 58-year-old mentor and predecessor, Jerry Manning. Without conducting the usual national search, the Rep board gave Abraham the permanent job in October.
“The city is changing so much,” Abraham says. “We need to give people here a feeling of ownership of our theater, through the kind of stories we’re presenting on stage. That’s how we’re going to get a meaningful, long-term investment from them in our work.”
His second-in-command, Kaminski, a veteran Seattle actor-writer, concurs. She’s heading up efforts to get more people directly involved with the Rep as the theater’s civic “ambassadors.”
“Part of our job is to entertain,” she says, “but we can also be on the leading edge of starting community conversations, and having what’s on stage reflect where we are.”
For decades, the Rep was known mainly as an arena for the latest Broadway hits and Broadway-bound dramas, and for theatrical classics. That’s still part of the company’s mission this season, which opened in October with a strong airing of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” and will next spring include the 2015 Broadway drama “Disgraced.”
But the Rep also is developing a new play about the collapse of local banking giant Washington Mutual (“The Lost Bank”) and presenting pop culture-savvy fare by emerging, offbeat Seattle artists. They include noted drag performer Jinkx Monsoon (who came up through the local club scene, and whose holiday show “Unwrapped” is at the Rep through Dec. 13) and Justin Huertas (whose gay-Filipino, comic-book, sci-fi musical “Lizard Boy” was a dark-horse 2015 hit).
Intiman also is mounting shows with Northwest hooks, recently one about a gay softball controversy (“John Baxter Is a Switch Hitter”), and the true-life saga of a transgender Oregon mayor (“Stu for Silverton”).
FOR RUSSELL, offering “adventurous, socially engaged programming” is the way to go and, like his peers, he’s eager to confront au courant issues. He fervently believes theater should engage in a social dialogue with its audience, and notes that Intiman’s most successful recent shows were ones drawing “the biggest LGBT audiences.” Despite a mixed critical and box-office response to Intiman’s 2015 roster, Russell is sticking to that mission.
In his own way, Wright is shaking things up at ArtsWest, with timely new dramas and a hit season-opener: an “immersive” (as in, the audience gets into the act) version of the rock musical “American Idiot,” scored by Green Day. He was drawn to the show’s popular tunes and its graphic tale of suburban teenagers struggling into adulthood.
Recognizing the pervasive impact of pop culture on his generation, ACT’s Langs recently staged “Mr. Burns,” an Anne Washburn play that heavily references TV’s “The Simpsons.” But Langs and his peers know that catering narrowly to a young adult demographic, at the expense of loyal older patrons who might be more receptive to classics, is risky business.
In wooing younger audiences, says Abraham, “You want to make sure you’re instilling the theater habit, so even if people don’t come regularly in their 20s, they’ll come back in their 40s.”
THE POST-RECESSION generation leaders know that, unlike the founders of their theaters, they can’t leave financial concerns mostly to the number-crunchers. Seattle has lost several high-profile theaters to money woes in the past 20 years. And like it or not, artistic directors are expected to help theaters design cost-cutting schemes and new marketing ploys that will make productions more accessible — without losing income.
Lately ACT has scored with a monthly pass that gets patrons into all shows in its multiple venues at a modest sum. Despite its popularity, Langs is vigilant about potential pitfalls.
“The ACTPass has grown to the point where it’s killing our single-ticket revenue,” he says. “So you create this innovative ticket model, but then you have to monitor its effects, and maybe rework it.”
Most theaters slash ticket prices for youths and are experimenting with pay-what-you-can concepts. But solvency is not just about putting more butts in the seats, as the old showbiz adage goes.
Nonprofit theaters are labor-intensive cultural amenities. To stay solvent, they must rely on charitable gifts for, on average, at least half their budgets to keep ticket prices reasonable. Yet federal arts funding has declined since 1995, and Washington ranks near the bottom nationally in state grants to the arts. (According to a recent survey, in 2016, Washington will allot a mere 16 cents per capita to the arts, compared to $1.98 in Florida and $6.29 in Minnesota.).
Corporate gifts to nonprofit arts groups have taken a hit since the 2008 recession. And theaters haven’t yet figured out how to crack Seattle’s prosperous new tech firms, which tend to give little or nothing to the arts — unlike established local funders such as The Boeing Company and Microsoft. All are trying to recruit more individual “angels” — small donors as well as fat cats. (Schmoozing for dollars is, Langs says, “part of my job.”)
Another fiscal challenge: Intiman, ACT and the Rep are burdened with large deficits, held over from previous regimes. Reluctantly, they’ve cut staff, squeezed expenses, eliminated programs — sometimes with blowback. In a reorganization move, Seattle Rep raised hackles this year by ending in-school drama programs that serve disadvantaged youths.
In the big picture it isn’t unusual, nor necessarily unmanageable, for theaters to fall a little short by a season’s end. Budget projections are not scientific: There’s no telling whether a show will be a smash, or a dud, in advance.
But fading is the time when major arts institutions could rack up piles of IOUs and hope to find benefactors to bail them out later. Cash-strapped and heavily indebted, Intiman left subscribers in the lurch by suspending production during its 2011 crisis. The company survived only after Russell and his board hatched a plan to streamline, surrender the full-time lease for the Intiman Playhouse and reorganize as a summer drama festival. As Intiman chips away at the debt, “It’s all about living within our means,” says Russell.
He’s not alone on that score. Seattle Rep has run in the red the past several years. And ACT has mounted a new campaign to get rid of its lingering $3 million debt.
Yet how to contain costs and address what Abraham calls “the national crisis in actor wages”? The Seattle area boasts hundreds of skilled, seasoned stage performers working on show-by-show contracts, with pay ranging from as much as $1,000 per week (for a sporadic union acting gig at the Rep) to as little as carfare (if that). The region’s skyrocketing cost of living is hitting low-income cultural workers hard, and scaring away valuable talent.
ON ANOTHER FRONT, theaters are getting lobbied hard to offer more plays reflecting ethnic, gender and cultural diversity. The issue has generated heated national discussions about white privilege, and a recent report showed that only 24 percent of plays produced by regional theaters were by women. Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture has launched an initiative to address racial inequality in local arts institutions.
Our new theater leaders are not blind to such concerns. In Intiman’s 2015 season, Russell noted, half the actors were people of color. The Rep is producing plays by female, Asian-American and Pakistani-American authors in the 2015-16 season.
But at the larger theaters, top staffers (including those represented in this story) still tend to be white and male. (Numerous Seattle companies, mostly with smaller budgets and fewer seats, are led by women.) “We’re taking small steps toward more equitable staffing, but still need to take others,” Abraham acknowledges.
When push comes to shove, what matters most is what happens onstage, and the audience response to it. Even the finest talent, best intentions, commitment to ethnic/racial diversity and a hefty budget can’t guarantee that elusive outcome of theatrical magic.
But the new local impresarios are giving it their all. This autumn, Wright stood in a lobby hallway at ArtsWest, greeting exhilarated patrons after a sold-out performance of “American Idiot.” The theater had been entirely transformed, for the first time, from a tidy little auditorium into an open, rollicking arena with actors and observers packed together and rocking out.
Relieved and grinning widely, Wright asked no one in particular, “Isn’t this cool?”
And yes, it was.