The name Town Hall suggests a come-one, come-all gathering place. And those who support the former church on First Hill like to use the...
The name Town Hall suggests a come-one, come-all gathering place.
And those who support the former church on First Hill like to use the word “diverse” when describing the abundance of classical concerts, literary events and political lectures that have filled the place since it opened in March 1999.
There’s no escaping, though, that oboes aren’t for everyone.
And some would consider it excruciating to have to listen to a Columbia University professor talk about string theory. Yet it was a thrill to plenty. Town Hall had to turn away people from physicist and best-selling author Brian Greene’s lecture last month when the crowd reached capacity at 900.
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With 300 events a year attended by 80,000 people, Town Hall offers a midsize performance hall for the arts while indulging Seattle’s bookish tendencies. The intersection of classical music, liberal politics and the literary world is helping broaden interest in each.
“The idea was always to create a gathering place for arts and ideas,” said Peter Donnelly, president and CEO of ArtsFund, which supports local arts groups.
For the past six years, Town Hall’s programming has reflected the tastes of executive director David Brewster, the former Seattle Weekly publisher who carried out his vision to create a cultural venue that would propel Seattle into elite-city status. Brewster has been the soul of Town Hall, and Town Hall has been the soul of Brewster, who at age 65 will step down in the fall to write a book about Seattle’s contemporary history.
His successor, who could be named by May, is likely to share Brewster’s mission for Town Hall.
The domed building’s aptly named Great Hall, which used to be the church sanctuary, is graced with vaulted ceilings, stained glass and burnished acoustics. Its utilitarian basement space provides casual comfort.
A local 36-piece chamber orchestra performed Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” last month. Tonight, the hero portrayed in the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” Paul Rusesabagina, speaks to a sold-out audience. The roster of those who have lectured at Town Hall in the past includes Jimmy Carter, Salman Rushdie, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut and Michael Moore.
“It’s feeding the hunger that Seattleites have for intellectual stimulation,” said David Yeaworth, executive director of Allied Arts, an arts-advocacy group with a mission to enhance Seattle’s cultural livability.
Brewster hatched the concept for Town Hall back in 1989 as a way to provide stable performance space for about 10 arts organizations that were booking their performances at various venues, testing the loyalty of their audiences and making their events difficult to promote.
“Our strategy was to give a home to the homeless,” Brewster said.
Brewster and a group of investors made six offers to buy the neoclassical Church of Christ, Scientist, at Eighth Avenue and Seneca Street — but church leaders turned down each one. Eventually, the church went on the market and 16 private investors, led by Brewster, bought it for $1.6 million in 1998.
Brewster acknowledges Town Hall’s niche nature but has tried to make the old church as welcoming as possible for those who might be intimidated by its offerings. Casual dress is not only acceptable, it’s preferred. The basement performance space, which holds 300 people and hosts everything from lectures to cabarets, is set up with portable chairs, and beer sometimes is sold in the back.
“People ask if they can bring the cup in during the performance, and we say of course you can,” Brewster said. “Too many performance spaces are created to say, ‘Watch out, you are going to make a social gaffe.’ People internalize that and stay away from those places, choosing to go to a movie instead.
“We wanted to create a comfortable environment that promotes table-hopping and closes the gap between the performer and the audience.”
The basement gives street credibility to the Great Hall while the upstairs lends legitimacy to the basement, Brewster said.
Town Hall’s approach to programming under Brewster’s directorship has been never to compromise standards.
“Don’t go pops on programming,” he said.
Town Hall opened in March 1999 with a poetry reading, without search lights or much media coverage.
Brewster said he patterned Town Hall after a similar venue in New York City but also looked toward Seattle’s Capitol Hill for inspiration. He draws parallels to the Harvard Exit movie theater, which preserved a gorgeous old building — a former women’s club — by converting it to a contemporary use. The project was driven by an artistic passion and subsists as an informal place to indulge that passion. Seattle embraced it.
On the other end of the spectrum is Experience Music Project, Brewster said. It hired a world-class architect and opened with a huge party that international media attended. Seattle remains skeptical.
Town Hall operates on an annual budget of $775,000, about half of which is earned through ticket sales and rentals. About 1,500 members donate at least $25 a year, and about $50,000 a year is raised through public grants, such as from the National Endowment for the Arts and King County’s 4Culture. The state, county and city also have funded some building improvements. Corporations and private foundations underwrite programs.
If Brewster is Town Hall’s impresario, then Spider Kedelsky is its maestro. He’s the director of community programs, and Town Hall reflects the tastes of Kedelsky as much as those of Brewster.
Kedelsky said he avoids rote and formula when programming Town Hall, asking local organizations what they want to present rather than imposing his own curatorial perspective. Kedelsky said the only rule he follows is to present variety and present it well.
“There’s a saying we have around here: ‘You never know what’s going to happen next,’ ” Kedelsky said.
Brewster interjects a different version: “Just one damn thing after another.”
Town Hall produces its own programming, such as Seattle Follies, a burlesque show featuring local political and media celebrities — a strategic attempt to reach a youthful audience. But its backbone is the local arts organizations that call it home, which include Early Music Guild, Lake Union Civic Orchestra and Northwest Sinfonietta.
People are learning about Early Music Guild events through Town Hall newsletters that are sent to those who have attended lectures or readings there, thus exposing new people to classical music, said Gus Denhard, executive director of Early Music Guild, which presents European touring groups that play instruments from the era the music was composed.
“People take a chance on our concerts because they realize that interesting things go on at Town Hall,” he said. “It’s helping people establish a habit of broadening their cultural experience. It’s really quite marvelous.”
Science lectures, too
Town Hall’s synergy also is helping expose more people to science, said Diane Carlson, vice president of public programs for Pacific Science Center, which is a partner in Town Hall’s science lecture series.
“A broader cross section of the community is being reached than if we presented this series alone,” she said.
The 900-seat capacity of the Great Hall also increases the potential to bring major speakers to town. Brewster said the idea for the science lectures came from a colleague at University Book Store, another partner in the series, who told him that science authors always read to overflow crowds.
Carlson said she doesn’t view Town Hall as competition for events but rather as another outlet for presenting cutting-edge science to the public, which helps the Science Center in the long run.
City Librarian Deborah Jacobs, who is on Town Hall’s board, said she admires Town Hall’s contribution to Seattle’s democratic spirit.
“I believe that having a place to exercise civic and civil discourse is very important,” she said.
A list of past Town Hall speakers, which includes Howard Dean, Ralph Nader, Barney Frank and Sherman Alexie, reflects a liberal political bent. Brewster said he would prefer a broader range of political discourse, but publishers tend not to send conservative authors to Seattle.
“Seattle is too much of a group-think city,” Brewster said.
Susan Trapnell, managing director of ACT Theatre and chair of the committee searching for Brewster’s successor, suspects Town Hall will stay the course.
“There is a level of quality, engagement and intelligence to what is presented at Town Hall,” she said.
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org