While theaters around the country are scrambling to get new audiences through their doors, especially young people of color, one 25-year-old director has figured out how: staging new, professionally produced plays in a vacant storefront in Kent.
For the past few years, theaters across Seattle — and across the country — have been gripped by an existential crisis.
What does theater mean if its audience is mostly white, older, wealthy and will be dead in a decade or two? How do theaters get more young people, and more people of color, through their doors? How can they lower ticket prices and become more accessible without going broke?
A 25-year-old director named Logan Ellis may have found the answer — in a vacant storefront in Kent.
‘Hooded or Being Black for Dummies’
by Tearrance Chisholm. 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. through Sept. 17 at Theatre Battery at Kent Station, 438 Ramsay Way, Kent; pay what you can (firstname.lastname@example.org or theatrebattery.org).
His production of “Hooded or Being Black for Dummies,” a new play by Washington, D.C., writer Tearrance Chisholm, is staged in an empty space donated by the Kent Station shopping center and seems to be galvanizing the rapidly changing community.
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“The first few shows were insane,” Ellis said, with a very mixed-race crowd, including local officials from the mayor to school-board members to the chief of police. Ellis spends most of the year in San Francisco (where he’s about to become producer-in-residence at the prestigious Magic Theatre), but his local company, Theatre Battery, has been staging summer productions of contemporary and experimental plays in Kent since 2011. “Hooded,” he said, feels like the moment when Theatre Battery is hitting its stride — and reaching the kinds of people other theaters are wringing their hands about.
Theatre Battery has found its audience by talking about its work with community leaders (school-board members, government officials, community activists, pastors) and using a “radical hospitality” ticketing system, which encourages people to pay when they can, but lets anyone through the door for free. (Half the seats on any given evening are available for reservation at theatrebattery.org. The other half are reserved for walk-up.)
“I want to remove the thought of money from the experience of seeing theater,” Ellis said. “I want to remove that barrier for people who are already thinking: ‘Is theater for me? Do I have a right to theater? I’m not a theater person.’ ”
“Hooded,” which will have its official world premiere at the Mosaic Theatre in D.C., focuses on two young, black men, Marquis and Tru, who meet in a police holding cell. Marquis is a Republican prep-school student and Tru is a 14-year-old rapper from inner-city Baltimore who accuses Marquis of losing his “blackness.” It begins with a curtain speech by a black police officer who encourages audience members to take out their cellphones and, instead of turning them off, turn their ringers up as loudly as possible. If they get a call, he orders, “answer it.” He tells the audience to take photos, text, tweet, check Facebook. “This story,” he says, “is unimportant.” Then there’s the laugh light. “It instructs you when to laugh,” he says. “Laughing when the light is off makes you a racist.”
But playwright Chisholm has intentionally made the laugh light unreliable (it goes on, for example, after one character receives some tragic news) and is, he said, intended to “make people think about what they find funny, so you’ll actually be engaged with the play — it’s not just a sit-back experience.”
Chisholm said he wrote “Hooded” after a “breakdown” in graduate school at Catholic University in D.C., when he realized his playwriting ambitions were that “a bunch of white people would see the play and like it — and that was weird to me, that the final goal was that people not like me would like the play.”
This play, he said, was the first after his breakdown, written in what he laughingly called his “Tearrance 2.0” phase.
The thematic tensions in “Hooded” are all too familiar, said Wade Barringer, principal of Kent-Meridian High School. Well over half of Barringer’s 2,100 students are in free or reduced-price lunch programs; most of them are students of color; and, because Kent has become a hub of relocation for refugee families, more than 70 languages are spoken at his school.
The McDonald’s across the street from the high school has decided to close between 2 and 4 p.m. each day because of fights, drug dealing and gang activity. (Barringer pointed out that McDonald’s is at a nexus of bus routes, which attracts young people from all around the county.)
“ ‘Hooded,’ ” Barringer said, “is a production that will draw in different cultural groups. Everything that is going on in society right now, from Black Lives Matter to the presidential election — this is a production that will let people think about that.”
Ellis, who is white, is the fifth generation of his family to grow up in Kent and is a K-M graduate — so was his grandfather. His interest in theater grew out of his participation in K-M’s drama program.
Theatre Battery started off as a bunch of friends idly visiting home after a year at college. The conversation, Ellis said, started with: “What are we doing this summer? Nothing. OK, let’s make a play!” Ellis hit the pavement, chatted up people with vacant real-estate space, and found places to stage new plays he liked: “Chatroom” by Enda Walsh, “Milk Like Sugar” by Kirsten Greenidge, “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom” by Jennifer Haley. (Theatre Battery was one of the first companies in the country to produce “Milk Like Sugar,” which has gone on to be a huge success. Ellis said that when his company did the play, the literary manager of Samuel French — the most prominent play-publishing company in the English-speaking world — called to thank him for doing it.)
Making guerrilla theater in Kent, Ellis said, has been one of the most rewarding experiences of his young career — and the first time he’s ever been at performances where there were no other white people in the audience.
He says he’s profoundly grateful to Kent Station and the whole community for donating space, tools, props, lumber for sets and other things that let him give most of the grant money he receives to his artists. Ellis was able to fly the playwright out for opening weekend and pay his actors; the entire budget for “Hooded” is around $20,000. “We can bring playwrights out here,” Ellis said, “to come and experience an audience they’re not going to see anywhere else.”
Still, Theatre Battery has trouble attracting attention from mainstream media. Ellis said he spent years writing to newspaper critics who either wouldn’t respond or said they wouldn’t go to Kent to watch a play. Ellis has gotten that reaction from a lot of people. “I’d hear a lot of: ‘There’s a theater in Kent? Really? Of all places, Kent?’ in exactly that inflection,” he said.
Nevertheless, this year, “Hooded,” which was scheduled to close Sept. 10, has been extended through Sept. 17.
“People walk in with low expectations and I enjoy blowing them away,” he said, “and surprise you with something that is not only competent and professionally produced, but is going to make you think about your prejudices and your life.”