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Getting Here

It was with a healthy dose of trepidation that my wife, young daughter and I moved to Seattle in 2005. Actually it wasn’t a move, but a return: Northwest natives, we’d spent the previous four years breathing the heady air of the Playwrights' Center, where energized, gracious, and determined writers seemed to be tucked in every corner (what I really mean is, crowding the bar at Tracy’s).

The buzz about Seattle in those days was all bad, scary bad, the kind of bad that said Playwright, Stay Away. ACT was hanging by a thread (literally, with just a couple bucks in the bank account), the Group was long gone, bad rumblings sounded about the Empty Space (which folded abruptly in 2006), Seattle Rep was a turnstile of revolving artistic leadership.

So why come back? Honestly it was more about family than career—new parents, slightly scared, familiar home, the all-important grandparents demanding their share of the kid. A braver playwright would have packed the Civic with diapers, shoved the cat in the back, opened two new credit cards and headed east. We came home.

And today? How does Seattle theater look in Spring of 2012? Specifically for new plays, for playwrights, for directors and actors who live to make something new, for audiences that crave and honor new work?

Even more simply, is this a place for a playwright to live and work?

Surprisingly, I think we’re on our way to a yes. Not quickly, not without big challenges that are going to require new ways of thinking. But the landscape here has changed: that sense of inner dread that so many of us once felt—the feeling that the one thing Seattle playwrights could count on was enforced anonymity—that feeling has gone.

The skyline of Seattle, Washington.
The Seattle skyline. Photo by Wikipedia.

What’s Changed: Large Meets Small
First of all, there are people here who care. Sounds facile, but that isn’t true everywhere. In every one of the larger houses in Seattle (the Rep, ACT, the suddenly resurgent Intiman) there are people of good will who want to make new work. There isn’t always a budget, there isn’t always a clear way forward, but there is desire.

Examples abound, from the modest to the shockingly successful. A new black box space, West of Lenin, now sits in the Fremont neighborhood, a stone’s throw from the For Lease sign that marks the former Empty Space. Less than a year old, West of Lenin has managed to feature almost nothing but new work by almost nothing but local writers. The brainchild of producer and entrepreneur AJ Epstein, it seems determined to help fill a niche that companies like the Empty Space once managed so brilliantly: new plays, done with passion, by artists at the top of their game, who call this their home.

Seattle Rep has just started a residency program called the Writer’s Group (full disclosure, I’m one of hopefully many local writers who will be pass through its doors). For a term of two years, five local playwrights are funded to develop and explore their work, move it to workshop, and hopefully soon to full production.

Icicle Creek Theatre Festival has been around for a scant six years, and through its partnership with ACT, has already moved at least one local play to full production on ACT’s mainstage. That production, Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, just won the 2012 Steinberg New Play Award. (See the upcoming interview with the playwright, Yussef El Guindi later in the week).

And speaking of ACT, some smart innovation has led to both a new space, the Eulalie, dedicated to new plays, and a fascinating co-producing wing called the Central Heating Lab, where smaller companies partner with ACT to create and premiere work as part of ACT’s season. These are co-productions in the truest sense of the term: shared marketing, promotion as part of ACT’s season, with most of the artistic work done by the smaller company. New Century Theatre Company, UMO Ensemble, Balagan Theatre, the 14/48 Festival, and Washington Ensemble Theatre are just a few of the groups flourishing there.

Of all the developments, the new partnerships between the larger houses and smaller companies seem the most radical and promising to me. As far back as I can remember in this town (the 1980s, believe it or not), there has been a fortress mentality here. Not just a glass ceiling between “Professional” and “Fringe” but entire networks of walls, often erected by all parties, to maintain each in its own artistic fiefdom, regardless how small.

I remember well how proud some artists were to be making Absolutely No Money at their art, because their hole in the wall fringe company was Artistically Pure. And I well recall the puzzled look of some Professional Actors at the idea of working before an audience of fifteen, whose knees were more or less touching theirs.

But the issue for Seattle is not a bunch of whiny writers expecting grant money. It’s about community. Should we build one? Should we care about each other?

Looking back, I think that feudalistic mindset—that shared mentality of suspicion, caused by an artificial division—prevented the growth of exciting new plays here.

What Hasn’t: Where’s the Money?
Reading the above, it sounds like I should be urging playwrights to move here. Showing up at their Brooklyn apartments with loads of boxes and a creepy, glazed smile on my face. Offering to watch their pets (or sell them on the street), just to get my writer friends out here.

Wish I could do that. But there’s so much that still needs to happen here, and I for one can’t always see the way forward.

Where’s the funding? As I write this, Seattle Times has a front-page article about the philanthropic nonexistence of Amazon.

Yes, a Seattle company. Yes, multi billion dollars. And yes, no interest in funding the arts or artists.

It gets worse. Microsoft? Keep walking. Boeing? We just make planes. Starbucks? We let you plug in your laptop for free, what else do you want?

I’ve always been astounded—no, shocked—that the city of Gates, Ballmer, Allen, Bezos and McCaw has been so ridiculously bad at supporting its arts and artists. What sense does it make that Minneapolis, a much smaller metro, without our sudden shocking influx of wealth, is able to support writers with such panoply of grants? Some of those grants are literally life changing—and yes, I consider $16,000 for a Jerome fellowship to be life changing, for writers at certain stage of their career, and not just for the money. So much of the game for us is self-esteem, self-worth, learning to take seriously the talent in yourself. Why don’t we have those opportunities?

I’ve never believed in a sense of Playwright Entitlement. I understand how things work, I know we’re storytellers in a world oversaturated with them, I know that no one owes us anything (words I repeat to myself when frustration hits).

But the issue for Seattle is not a bunch of whiny writers expecting grant money. It’s about community. Should we build one? Should we care about each other? Should we decide that we, this town, have enough drive and talent right here, to make something original, something gorgeous, using the deepest pool of acting talent I’ve seen anywhere in the United States (sorry NY, come see how good they are, then you can talk).

That takes a commitment. It might mean Mr. Bezos peels off some small change from his wallet, and gives great writers the breathing space to become fantastic ones. It might mean a couple billionaires get a little more tax write off, and ten new playwrights find their voices. What would that mean to Seattle, a town that almost never gets mentioned in the national new work conversation?

Where’s the Community?
I’m constantly embarrassed by how often I stumble upon great writers here more or less by chance. We get introduced to each other in bars, at random, finally put faces to those names we often read about, chat about working together, then don’t find the means. Why not?

Where are we meeting, where are we planning our revolution, how do we find each other? Perhaps as a remnant of that 80s Seattle feudalism, writers here seem to get attached to a single company, and they never date outside of the marriage.

Writers like Emily Conbere, Stephanie Timm, Marya Sea Kaminski, Brendan Healy, Elizabeth Heffron, Scot Augustson, Paul Mullin, Keri Healey (the list goes on and on, please forgive omissions). Companies like Live Girls, Washington Ensemble Theatre, Sandbox Radio, Man Alone Productions, Pony World Theatre, ReAct, every one of them doing new work. Unique voices, with ambition, energy, talent, and above all the desire to create a theater for this town: multicultural, multistyled, urban and varied and somehow rough, frontier rough, with its roots in the kind of brash energy that started this town.

But what brings us together?

Many of my friends are surely tired of me mentioning the Playwrights' Center and how badly we need one, the way it brings artists together, so forget it, I won’t bring it up.

It really does seem odd: we have actors to die for, we have a dozen or more great directors who love new work, we have producers, we have artists of good will at the larger theaters, we have new spaces opening up.

So what’s the problem? Why is there no buzz about Seattle? Why aren’t we getting the calls from national media, from producers, why don’t we have a national festival here?

The last time we were known for new plays was circa 1992, when Annex, overloaded with talent, was exploding with large cast, company generated shows that oozed talent at every level. Perhaps that model was unsustainable: too many of those people were too talented to stay in one spot for long. But it showed what can happen here.

Ultimately the real issue is not about logistics, and it’s not complicated.

It’s self-esteem. How do we see ourselves, how do we value what we do?

Take the example of Seattle actors. For years and years the complaint here was “go to NYC if you want to be cast in Seattle,” and to a large extent that used to be true. So often the best actor was sitting in the house, watching a NYC or LA import with TV credits do a second rate job on our stages. And that better actor was local.

But it’s not true now: local actors rule the Equity stages here, and no one expects that to change. They’re just too good, and everyone knows it.

So, Playwrights?

Raising the profile of Seattle writing is really a matter of changing our own self-image. Yes it’s frustrating to see season selections that reflect some other city’s priorities (curse you, Wichita)—but what are we going to do about it? Sit and complain? Threaten to leave? Spend all our energies on angry blog posts?

I’m not entirely sure how Seattle actors effected their revolution. I’m not even sure they’ve stopped to think about what they’ve done, how profound it truly is. The paradigm has shifted so utterly that no one thinks much about ancient history.

That should be our model, as Seattle playwrights. We need a national festival, no question. It needs to focus primarily—but not exclusively—on Northwest talent. We need critics who don’t automatically discount a premiere’s worth because it originated here. We need deeper relationships with the regionals, who really do consider our shows for production when they workshop them. We need to forge links with the national community.

But what really matters, underneath it all, is simple: we need to change how we see ourselves.

It’s certainly unfair to expect Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World to accomplish all the above. I won’t do a disserve to Yussef’s brilliant play by talking about it as a seminal event, one which may well put Seattle firmly on the national map as an incubator for new work. Totally unfair, so I won’t do it.

What’s the buzz about new plays in Seattle? I’d say it’s about change. And what that really means is, we need to get to work.



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Thoughts from the curator

An overview of the theatre scene in Seattle.

Seattle, Washington


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P.S. Love Joshua Conkel's remark about writer's being invited to hang and write in London theatre lobby's during the day. A living, breathing theatrical sanctuary-- awesome! Would totally dispel the vampiric mythology that writers only emerge after dark.

I'm seconding (or thirding) some of skepticism here being expressed at the programs these theaters are running. It's a sign of how far Seattle still has to go that no one's complaining about NPD hell yet. The only thing I think is unequivocally a good sign is the willingness of ACT to partner with smaller, innovative companies--that's a big deal, an important LORT house opening its doors to others, recontextualizing the work. Intiman I know less about in its new incarnation, so I can't comment on whether it can still do things like that or if it's a glorified rental space.

Great piece, Vince. Thank you. I was so very fortunate to ride the wave of new work done in Seattle in the early 90's and beyond -- and it is my avid hope that ALL of you are given the chance to ride/make/bestir the next wave of new work in Seattle. Let me know how I can help.

Not that I'm not up for drinking beer and listening to our plays, but I agree with Keri and Paul's line of questioning.

I'd also venture to say that without original work being produced on some scale, we don't have a unique Seattle Theater scene. We just have the same theatre as everyone else and nothing to claim as our own. Which doesn't necessarily hurt actor careers, though it does stunt those of writers and directors and perpetuates everyone's obscurity.

Do we as writers have a bad self-image locally? I don't think so. I think the confidence problem is higher up the production chain. That said, the best we as artists can do to create a scene is create engaging, unique, provocative work and get it up however we can (Eclectic, West of Lenin, Fringe, self-production, etc.) ... and that said, the scene will remain pretty small without some serious institutional support and a belief among those in positions of influence that we have a scene worthy of discussion and capable of national relevance.

(Or else we go our own way and somehow manage to mercurially create underfunded groundbreaking never-before-seen shows that generate audience and create buzz a la Austin a few years back.)

Perhaps institutional support is improving; perhaps perception is increasing. There are lots of good intentions. There is certainly an abundance of under-utilized talent here in writing, directing, acting, designing, etc, but my outlook depends on my mood, how much sleep I've gotten, how much coffee I've drunk, how shiny is the sun ...

I should quantify that while ETC only has the venue to offer as a resource, as an Actor/Producer, I want to do more than readings. I actually want to do full productions of new plays. 5 week runs as a minimum. The two new plays we premiered last year were Equity Member Projects. Granted, there was no financial backing, but each of these resulted in an alright box office split (by fringe standards) to each of the participants.

Both plays each had a cast of 3, director, stage manager, and design team. Plus the Playwrights were involved as much as they were able to be.

Vincent wrote:

"I’m constantly embarrassed by how often I stumble upon great writers here more or less by chance. We get introduced to each other in bars, at random, finally put faces to those names we often read about, chat about working together, then don’t find the means. Why not?"

Vincent, I'll bet if you asked playwrights you meet if they would get together and work with you, they would say yes.

Joshua, thank you for clarifying.

Keri and Joshua, I agree with you that we need well-recognized places that provide publicized readings, and have the resources to get the word out and connections to recommend our plays to theaters that would like them.

I think ACT's program is the only one that does that in Seattle. That is, outside of academic institutions.

I second Keri's questions. It's tempting to get lost in a love fest for all that Seattle's Big Houses are doing to benefit local playwrights, but I think a hard look at outcomes would be most beneficial to folks following this discussion from both within and without Seattle.

Some of us don't need help making photocopies or organizing readings. Some of us are looking for bit more substantial, a bit more equitable collaboration.

Paul- I second you here on the value of quantifiable outcomes. It would be a great contribution to this whole Commons endeavor to be able to talk in terms of measurable impact. Even just to develop our habits and tools for that as a #newplay community. Any sense of how to go about that there? Any thoughts on how we can support you in that?

Thanks, David Dower,

(Sorry. I couldn't figure out how to reply directly to your reply.)

I believe a consensus is growing among veteran Seattle playwrights, not to mention experienced playwrights around the country, that the only viable models will have us serving as stakeholders in the development process: sharing the risks, the rewards and the decision-making. Throughout the history of our art form, playwrights have also been producers/stakeholders. The same is true of most mid-career playwrights who call Seattle home. If you consider myself or Scot Augustson or Keri Healey, just to name a few, you will note that we all have significant experience producing new plays, and not always just our own. Any model that simply treats us as guests at the table—even honored guests—misses the point, and wastes the opportunity to utilize all of our potential.

Note, however, that we are no longer asking “higher powers” to include us in the process. We ARE the process. It doesn’t happen without us. Whereas we can and will go it alone if we need to. If you were to run the numbers on the combined new play development experience of, say, the top ten Seattle playwrights versus say, the top ten artistic administrators currently involved in recently inaugurated Big House new play development programs in town, you would find that our collective experience exceeds theirs by at least an order of magnitude, if not more. Why on earth would we then “submit” our work to their half-measured programs? Programs, I would add, that always seem to get strangled when they become less than convenient or politically valuable.

Playwrights WILL be stakeholders. If one doesn’t want playwrights as stakeholders, then perhaps one should just admit one doesn’t understand the business of new plays, and step out of it gracefully so that others can maximize the resources.

I hope that helps answer your question, because I appreciate it greatly.

Paul Mullin

Can someone in-the-know provide us with a compare/contrast look at which services are provided through all the existing new play development programs in Seattle? What does "play development" mean to each of these programs -- and what are their goals with the plays/playwrights once the "development" portion of the program is over? Writers, are you getting your scripts produced at these theaters or getting help from them in securing productions at other theaters once you have gone through this process? I find that in Seattle, it's a fairly easy process to pull a few public readings of a new script together (gathering actors and a director and getting feedback). I've even found producing (at a small level) to be accessible to many folks. What is most difficult, for me, are those next steps...of getting the play beyond the public readings/first production stage and onto a broader platform. I'd love to hear about the other features that are available through the various programs, if any current/past participants can chime in on those.

We've recently begun commissioning new plays at Hugo House, starting with Matt Smith's "All My Children" in 2010, and then David Schmader's solo play and Marya Sea Kaminski's new immersive rock musical launching in June.

To answer your questions, Keri--When I talk to writers and as a writer myself, it seems the things we need the most are money, space, time and that all too hard to quantify sense of support, whether it's a pat on the back, a kick in the ass or something in between. So, that's what we're providing through the commissioning program: money, a space to write and rehearse, time to do it (here's where that money part is important...), and whatever support is needed, artistically, marketing, just someone to listen, etc. Our staff is there--I'm there.

Once the play has run, what matters most to me is that these precious beasts I've seen grow through rehearsals, staged readings and live performances go on to live great lives elsewhere at other theaters and in other states, and however we can help with that, we will. That's the ultimate goal for Hugo House--to know we've supported someone in creating new work and then seeing it be successful at the House and elsewhere.

Louise, the groups I mentioned are sponsored by theaters except for Groundbreakers, which is sponsored by a theater company. I belong to a writers' group started by playwrights, and I see huge value there, but at the end of the day there also need to be writers' groups started and sponsored by theaters with official, publicized readings, shows, events etc.

I worked in London recently and met with all the theaters there and I was amazed at how well they treated playwrights. Several theaters said, "If you need a place to write, come and hang out in our lobby or our cafe." I would never hear that in New York.

I guess all I'm saying is, you can't have a "writers' scene" without having a place for writers to 1. congregate and 2. get work seen. Writers groups are a pretty easy first step toward that.

Vince- you're totally right in that we've got to get to work- and I think it's by taking full advantage of the opportunities that are being offered. My experience here has been that if something feels lacking it seems to me that theaters here are open to hearing about it and/or there are places set up (like Sandbox) that offer support to grow (or ETC as written above) or create your own opportunities. Joshua Conkel is totally right- the more writers groups in this town, the better. Seattle Rep's writers’ group is super supportive of playwrights- and provides deadlines and artistic opportunities as well as connections to other writers. More groups supported by theaters equal more connections, more opportunities, and more of a writers’ community (that is being valued by producing theaters). ... it seems like these opportunities are growing (ie. 5th Ave's program) and that the more they grow, the more the writing community is created; thus, less isolation & more collaboration.

Vincent, this is a stimulating forum, thanks for stirring things up. As a now part-time Seattlite I can't speak with full awareness of the obstacles that keep this city in a lesser country on the cultural map. Certainly there is no dearth of talent! In my brief tenures at both Seattle Playwrights Alliance (along with August Wilson, no less!), and Seattle Dramatists, what I noted was a unifying lack of identity and identifiable outcomes for both the organizations and the artists. Part of this was simply the fact that very few new plays being introduced to Seattle were coming from these groups. Because not a lot of the more visible theatres were producing them. Has this changed? Good god I hope so. One positive fallout from the recent economic downturn has been that the larger theatres have been finacially forced to look in their own backyards, rather than import talent from other "proven" cities like NYC and Chicago. A city has no cultural identity unless it grows one. Maybe now Seattle can cultivate it's own.

Great article, Vincent, and I'm glad it's posted on a widely read bulletin board.

I also miss Seattle Dramatists. The obstacle they ran up against was losing their funding and not finding another source. (Or, at least, that was one of the obstacles.)

There's still the NPA, although they do some nonlocal plays as well as local plays.

Joshua, are those groups sponsored by theaters? Seattle has lots of playwrights' groups started by playwrights.

Totally agree with the sentiment and desire for organization, attention (from those folks in places with either the means to generate change, and/or the 'obligation' to encourage cultural growth through political and societal means).

Sustainability through arts funding and the activities of actual community development, which also requires funding but includes a certain critical mass of interested artists (which I think we can all agree we have), and the organizational experience and skills of management and coordination. Bringing together these groups and organizing the opportunities in which to invest funds, would seem to me the right equation to bring about some maintainable transformation.

There's also the need, once a new theater group emerges or venue opens, for consistent cooperation between collectives - safety in numbers, if the idea is keep groups around longer and raise the level of maturity of production companies.

Action comes from ideas, and ideas come from sharing thoughts and dreams....and beer and wine help too.

So are we looking for something like they have in Minneapolis or in New York City? Or are we looking for something different, and even-- dare I say it?--better? 'Cuz it seems to me that we're only going to truly add value to the overall scene if we add something unique and innovative.

It ain't like there ain't worlds of room for improvement, right?

I love that this conversation has been started on a more visible level! Thanks, Vince. Perhaps as it continues we might be able to discuss the obstacles that have been met by past efforts at a playwrights' "center" - such as Seattle Dramatists, which I personally miss very much.

I would also love to hear a discussion about how the various new play programs happening at theaters (both local and national) are actually supporting playwrights (in terms of real deliverables like funded time for writing and support beyond the first reading). I haven't worked within an institutional development program and would love to hear from playwrights who have. What was valuable, what worked, what was missing? Are they worth it?

Great article! I'm a Seattle native who has been living and writing in New York since graduating from Cornish in 2003. A thought:

You briefly mentioned the Seattle Rep Writers Group. It's great that they have that now, but Seattle needs way more writers' groups. Why doesn't ACT have one? Intiman? I can't imagine my life as a playwright without the support of writers groups.

In New York, we playwrights mostly all know each other and interact with one another because of the existence of writers groups: EST's Youngblood, Ars Nova's Playgroup, Soho Rep's Writer/Director Lab, Terra Nova Groundbreakers etc.

It would seem to me that if you want a healthier scene for playwrights in Seattle, that might be a good place to start. Playwriting is a lonely art. If you don't find a way of bringing playwrights together, you've got no scene.

Eclectic Theater Company would be happy to host a Playwright's Center at Odd Duck Studio. Even temporarily. Forgotten by some and overlooked by others, we have new work developing every week in our 49-seat black-box. I kicked off this company as Green Theatre Productions in 2000 to produce new works as well as contemporary and classic works. And since becoming Eclectic Theater Company in 2006 when we took over the Odd Duck Studio, we've maintained that balance, debuting several new plays over the years. Last year we premiered September Skies by Seattle Playwright Jim Moran.

Whether generated by ETC or presented by itinerant theatre companies, we literally have new plays, new screenplays, new stand-up and sketch comedy year-round. Let's talk.

Excellent article!
I might quibble with a detail or two, but the core message of Seattle Playwrights getting together is right on.
Meeting over beers is great (more than great, I love beer.)
But I think we would soon need a dedicated space. It can be modest, but some nook or cranny would be awesome.

Thanks for alerting me to your essay, Vince. It was very interesting to hear your thoughts about the scene from your particular perspective.
It has not escaped me, and actually some critics outside Seattle, that the playwriting wing is strengthening again. One telling sign is that Seattle resident Yussef El Guindi won the nationally prestigious Steinberg/ATCA prize for his beautiful script "Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World." (Full disclosure -- I was on the jury) -- a play developed and premiered locally by Icicle Creek new play fest and ACT Theatre....

I will take issue with one of your points, Vince. There is a huge amount of money supporting the arts in this town (and Starbucks and Microsoft give plenty of it, even Boeing although less than before). Much more than there "should" be based on our size. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe that we're the smallest city in the country that supports permanent, resident, professional ballet, opera, symphony and theatre companies.

It is true that very little of that money flows to new plays. I don't know why, but it is more to do with funder priorities than lack of funds. So please do talk about a playwrights center, and a festival, and any other ideas you have! If you can point to successful models to emulate, the folks with the big bucks will be more likely to take a chance.

The momentum does seem to be building. The 5th Ave just announced a well-funded new musical development program, ACT and Icicle Creek continue their successful partnership, the Rep is doing a new play festival next year (it remains to be seen how 'local' it is). Hopefully we can use some of that interest and energy to generate something big and wonderful.

Why not a playwrights center? Once there meetings to generate ideas including funding a festival. We have the talent we need organizers, a temporary space in which to begin. Beer, wine, pads of paper, brainstorming. I'll help...

Well said Vincent. I'm an actor, not a writer, so can't really speak to the writer's struggle in Seattle from personal experience but from what I DO know about it, I think you've captured the current environment pretty well. I do see good things happening and am optimistic about theater in Seattle. Perhaps as you say some of the walls have come down finally allowing both an element of working from within as well as a higher degree of openmindedness in the greater "established" theater community. Additionally, there are alot of people that have been here in Seattle since the 80''s & 90's that have simply kept at it and are just now breaking through to wider audiences. Here's hoping that such commendable perseverence can have an exponential effect.

A really fine article and all of your points are salient. Seattle playwrights need to remember that the work appearing on the stage never has a subtitle beneath the lip of the stage saying that it was written locally. All of the playwrights you've noted have had work produced in recent years and it has been well-received by, at least, the alternative media. I think the direction for nurturing Seattle playwrights is well in place, and I think the audiences would be happy to see more of their work. Really a nice job, Vincent.