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Friday, October 27, 2006

The Empty Space is Dead: The Update

posted by on October 27 at 18:11 PM

From the press release: “With deep regret, The Empty Space Board of Directors announced today that The Empty Space Theatre will cease operations effective immediately… The Empty Space does not have the financing needed to manage cash flow over the coming months.”

First it left its Fremont home, because it couldn’t afford the space. Seattle University coaxed it into the Lee Center for the Performing Arts on Capitol Hill, where it produced Bust (by Lauren Weedman) and Louis Slotin Sonanta
(by Paul Mullin), both of which were great productions.

Obviously, there are some questions that need asking: Wasn’t the SU home rent-free? Who are the debtors? Is SU pissed about it?

Damn. I really wanted to see Nick Garrison in I Am My Own Wife.

Update: I spoke with board president Erik Blachford who said the board had been seriously talking about shutting down for a week or so (though it had been in the backs of their minds for longer) and officially voted on it in the last day. It wasn’t the $75,000 debt that killed the theater as much as bad cash flow management. “In theater, there is more or less money coming in at different times of year,” he said. “Looking over the next several months, we saw a major deficit we couldn’t finance and thought it would be irresponsible to start spending money we didn’t have.”

Basically, the Empty Space was planning, in the next week, to start spending on marketing subscriptions for the next season and ramping up for their December production of Forbidden X-Mas. The theater couldn’t afford it, couldn’t get a line of credit to cover it, so had to close. Blachford said there was no specific grant that fell through, but there was, in his words “a smoking gun”: a too-small board.

“An organization the size of Empty Space should have around 20 people on its board,” he said, “and, as of yesterday, it only had eight.” That’s too small for the sustained fundraising that the Empty Space needed to stay afloat. “I haven’t been very effective in finding people to fill the board,” Blachford conceded.

And Seattle University? “They are very understanding about it,” he said. “They know that relationships with arts organizations involve risk.”

RSS icon Comments


Good questions to ask. What exactly needed financing?

Posted by Gomez | October 27, 2006 4:13 PM


Alison Navar directed a genius quality remake of 'Valley of the Dolls' a few years ago that starred Nick Garrison and made me laugh so hard that I cried.

Last year they produced 'Stupid Kids' directed by Adam Greenfield which was one the most entertaining theater evenings I've ever enjoyed.

This is a major disappointment, and I can only wish the best for all involved.

Posted by Andrew | October 27, 2006 4:21 PM

From the sounds of the PR (and with these things you always have to try to read between the lines) it sounds like some major donations or granting they anticipated didn't come through, and thus they were going to be cash-strapped for the remainder of the season.

Posted by COMTE | October 27, 2006 4:24 PM

No more life support for dying theaters. ES should have gone under 10 years ago. Creative destruction is important to arts scenes. Energy that could have gone into pulling together a new theater was dumped into propping up a dying one.

Posted by Dan Savage | October 27, 2006 4:33 PM

I just realized the irony, that their legacy now is... an empty space.

Posted by Gomez | October 27, 2006 4:45 PM

"Creative destruction" would be fine - all we're missing now is the 'creation' part.

Posted by John Galt | October 27, 2006 4:47 PM

Gosh Dan, that's the sort of supportive attitude that has endeared you, and The Stranger, to the wholel of Seattle's theatre community.

Hey everybody! Let's throw the Stranger a Rent Party!

Posted by John Longenbaugh | October 27, 2006 4:53 PM

Coming from someone whose work has done more to alienate potential theater audience members in Seattle than any other playwright in town*, John L., that means a lot.

*Perhaps not a large number. John can only alienate audience members fool enough to see his "work."

Posted by Dan Savage | October 27, 2006 4:57 PM

Oh Dan, there you go showing off your theatre studies again! You big kidder!

Dear readers: Dan's just trying to remind us all that he studied theatre in Germany, and so is an expert in the Brechtian technique called "alienation effect." I don't really understand it very well, but apparently it means that you make your audience aware that they're in a theatre watching a play.

I like Brecht okay, but I can't say his work has been a very big influence on my own writing. Still...thanks, Dan. That really does mean a lot, coming from you.

Posted by John Longenbaugh | October 27, 2006 5:15 PM

I didn't study theater in Germany. I sucked cock in Germany. Get your facts straight. I studied theater in downstate Illinois. And "creative destruction" is an economic theory, not a Brechtian thingamajob. Really!

Posted by Dan Savage | October 27, 2006 5:21 PM

Boys, BOYS! Get a room!

And Dan/Keenan, "Egguus" wasn't exactly the zenith of contemporary dramatic presentation, so really, glass houses and all.

Posted by COMTE | October 27, 2006 5:28 PM

"Propping up a dying theater" is generally far less expensive than creating a new one. Especially given property values in the neighborhoods where people actually go to see theater --holding on to an existing space is easier than finding a new one. One of the only successful upstart theaters I know of, WET, circumvented this by moving into the Little Theater Space directly on the heels of the departing NWFF, so there was an already existing theater space set up for them. When you add in the difficulty of getting granting if you're an organization with no track record, you can see why a lot of young, eager artists would welcome the opportunity to work with an established organization rather than starting their own from scratch.

And as for switching to "for-profit" models -- I'm not sure I see how theater can ever be profitable in today's environment. As far as I can tell, the for-profit places like CHAC and Re-Bar (I can't think of many other examples here) are just scraping by, subsidizing the theater portion of their operations with the marginally profitable bar (and in the case of CHAC, rental) business . Anybody who expects to make a profit creating theater is seriously delusional.

That doesn't mean it shouldn't get made and certainly isn't occasion for dancing on the grave of organizations who've made it work for decades against all odds and in spite of all the haters cheering on theater's demise.

And John and Dan: Seriously, can you guys just have a slap-fight and settle this once and for all? You could do it in public and charge admission -- maybe it could be a benefit for some struggling arts organization!

Posted by flamingbanjo | October 27, 2006 5:29 PM

Dan, just knowing that you sucked cock in Germany, means that anything you have to say about my writing means a lot. Really.

(though I'm still trying to figure out how Dan believes that my work is hugely influential, while at the same time believing that no one sees it.)

Hey--if I can interrupt this witty banter just long enough to say that I am really, really sad to hear about The Space. Whatever the circumstances are behind its closing it was an amazing company and responsible for some of the greatest theatre I've seen in Seattle in the last decade.

And to offer a different perspective than Dan's for a moment: when the Fringe Festival, Alice B., the Group, Zaslove's Bathhouse Theatre, the Union Garage, and all of the rest of what used to be an amazing collection of groups, organizations, and venues disappeared one by one in the last ten years, I heard Dan's argument made again and again: this would somehow clear the dead wood away and soon we'd have a whole new crop of artistic homes.

But it sure hasn't happened yet.

Posted by John Longenbaugh | October 27, 2006 5:29 PM


Gotta play Devil's Advocate here on that last statement. There HAVE been a fair number of new spaces open up recently. If you're going to go as far back as Alice B & The Batthouse for "recent" examples of theatres closing, then I would posit that new spaces like WET, Live Girls!, Annex's Stellner, Youngstown, the soon-to-open Arts on Beacon Hill (just the ones coming off the top of my head), not to mention revitalizations of spaces like Hugo House and Theatre Off Jackson, are helping to keep the scene vibrant, and no doubt will continue to do so in the future.

That being said, I simply do not agree with Dan's inference that the demise of The Empty Space is anything to celebrate. Yes, they've had their ups-and-downs; yes, they were pulled from the brink on several occasions, but in every case, I believe, they proved worthy of the faith, sweat and dollars reinvested in them: both "Bust" and "Slotin" were truly praise-worthy productions, ones that ANY theatre anywhere would have been proud to include in their body of work. They were on the brink of embarking on a great new adventure in their partnership with Seattle University; and they had the potencial to connect with an audience base in a new neighborhood that, given time and shows worthy of supporting, might have given them - what? a third chance on life? I personally don't think that would have been a bad thing. Unfortunately, now we'll never know.

I don't know if any of the EST staff or board, their audiences, their actors, their supporters are reading this, but I just want to say "thank you" to all of you for giving us such a terrific theatre for so many years, and for fighting to keep it around, even perhaps beyond the time when it rightly, as Dan suggests, should have been allowed to die quietly.

Fuck that. Die fighting to the last breath; that's the way to go.

I'm going to have another drink. The rest of you can continue your petty bickering.

Posted by COMTE | October 27, 2006 6:00 PM

I'm the first to admit that Eggus wasn't all that. A miss. So was Misanthrope, sadly. I'm proudest the Macbeth we did, and Mourning Becomes Electra. They all can't be homeruns.

But, hey, Johnny Kaufman in that chicken costume? Worth the price of admission.

And I didn't say it was anything to celebrate. I said it was a waste of time and energy to keep it on life support so long. It should have gone away like, oh, Greek Active, so that the energy flowing toward ES could have flowed to creating something new.

It's sad. I feel bad for Narver. But still.

Posted by Dan Savage | October 27, 2006 6:07 PM

If they'd closed ten years ago, I never would've seen Vera Wilde, which is one of the best things I've ever seen on stage. So I'm sad (but not surprised) to see them go.

Posted by flamingbanjo | October 27, 2006 6:48 PM

Isn't it funny that when someone dies, they become the greatest person on the planet?

Rest in peace, Emtpy Space. May your ashes bring forth a newer, stronger theatre; or similar to Dan's notion: speed the energy flow.

Posted by Carl | October 27, 2006 7:31 PM

20 board members? I think OTB's problem is that they got too big for their britches. Work within your means. Taking out $75K in loans is a massive red flag in itself.

Posted by Gomez | October 27, 2006 7:46 PM

(20 potential board members)

Posted by Gomez | October 27, 2006 7:48 PM

"Creative destruction is important to arts scenes."

I'm not sure that makes sense to me. Do you think that EST was creatively stale and deserved to go under?

I don't think that's the case. EST didn't die because it wasn't creative or relevant any more, it died because it couldn't manage itself. Look at the two other theaters about the same size as EST--Seattle Shakes and Book-It--and see if you honestly think the Space is the one of those three that deserved to die, creatively speaking.

Nobody is raking it in making theater in Seattle, good or bad. Nobody should be surprised if Intiman or ACT were to up and die, and I say that without even taking into consideration the complete slop that those two have put on stage here in the last couple of years.

Besides that we have one fewer theater doing consistently good work, the real tragedy is that there are now that many fewer paying acting, design, and production jobs for young, up-and-coming theater artists in Seattle. There's great talent here, (and The Stranger clearly knows this,) but that won't continue to be true if the only paying work in town is doing the gazillionth production of Macbeth for a bunch of bored school kids. The big 3 consistently seem to think, callously and incorrectly, that their best option is to bring in big-name out-of-towners at great expense, (and whom nobody here has ever heard of.) Then they don't understand why their tickets aren't selling. If all the smaller paying jobs dry up, soon enough they won't actually have any other options.

As a Seattleite and as somebody struggling to balance wanting to make important theater with needing to make money, I'd sleep a lot easier if I could believe that the death of the Empty Space meant there would be more opportunities for good theater artists elsewhere in town. I don't.

Posted by Matthew E | October 27, 2006 7:53 PM

I am quite sad that the Empty Space is gone. I agree with those who point out that creatively this theater was far from dead - I could certainly think of other theaters that could shut down without me missing them at all - but EST's inability to manage their cash flow has been a problem for many years. It's not just that there's not enough money in the arts - EST has not been successful at managing what they have. The fact that this closure comes on the heels of EST getting the lifeline of moving to SU (i.e. the well-publicized free rent) is particularly confounding.

RIP Empty Space.

I hope that Seattle University is willing to take a chance on another perorming group in the city that will be able to make a go of it in that space.

Posted by genevieve | October 27, 2006 8:07 PM

What the hell ?!
I don't get to see "Forbidden Xmas ?!!!"


I've enjoyed reading the bickering and the theories.
I agree that this doesn't mean more work for seattle artists. It means, more seattle artists moving away. Also... it is important to note that the current trend in seattle is small theatres with no spaces.
It is the most viable way to do work at this time.
I'll miss the Empty Space. But I also agree with the destruction leading to reconstruction statements.
Theatre isn't viable the way it's currently set up. It's not. Let's face it.

Posted by freedom spice | October 27, 2006 8:09 PM

Matthew E really nailed it in #20.

Posted by Gomez | October 27, 2006 8:35 PM

Glibness. Glibness. Easily wrought. Easily forgoten.

So much columnizing.

But what the Space did matters, mattered, will matter.

We'll all survive.
Narver will survive and thrive.
But you have to ask yourself, is Seattle itself toast? Have we indulged our self-critical, hipper-than-thou "see-how-smart-and-well-read-I-am?" knee-jerk urge to such a raw mastaburtory extent that no one, no other city and no citizen of this will ever take it seriously again as a place to do art.

The Stranger is more than most culpable for this. But alas, "culpable" doesn't appear in their dictionary.

So congratulations. You're rich. You're successful. You can regurgitate 19th century cant about survival of the fittest. No go fuck yourself and die as artist while others move on.


Posted by Paul Mullin | October 27, 2006 8:55 PM

Sad. When a good group grows beyond its means. I remeber the old space across from the Comet back in the day. I saw Woyzyck, Tartuff (with Kyle McClaughlin), Menssch Meier and Bent which was all controversial at the time. The last one I remeber in that space was "The Actor's Nightmare".
Simple Theatre should remain so as it was in Athens and the Globe.

Pretentious enough?

Posted by Zander | October 27, 2006 9:58 PM

This is terribly sad. With Re-bar on the block and Empty Space gone, opportunities for local theater artists dwindle precipitously. I don't doubt there's plenty of good theater still to be made in Seattle, but Empty Space is a major passing. (And Nick Garrison in "I Am My Own Wife" should immediately be taken up by some non-dead theater. ACT? On the Boards?)

Posted by David Schmader | October 27, 2006 10:34 PM

I don't follow the whole Savage v. Longenbaugh debate.
But thank you Kiley for posting the news.

Posted by Josh Feit | October 28, 2006 2:10 AM

How incredibly sad this news makes me.

When I was a kid my dad took me to see Fefu and her Friends at ESpace in 1982. I fell in love with black box theater. It was one of the most defining moments of my life.

Saluting all those years of theater making - and so much bravery.

Not a whole lot of bravery left.


It was important.

Posted by Aimee B | October 28, 2006 10:08 AM

Erik Blachford, not Erik Blanchford. He's the former V.P of Marketing and later C.E.O. of Expedia.

Posted by Philip Weiss | October 28, 2006 1:50 PM

Fixed it. Thanks, Philip.

Posted by Brendan Kiley | October 28, 2006 1:58 PM

I never saw a play at ES and now I never will. I'm sorry to hear it's gone. RIP.

Posted by yo | October 28, 2006 5:57 PM

Empty space is actually alive & well. Right here.

Posted by Walking the Existential Void | October 30, 2006 9:48 AM

Dan, you're wrong--I loved Egguus.

Posted by PSchaffer | October 31, 2006 10:42 PM

well, being the self serving monster that i am-i cried when i got the news like someone had died. or someone who had supported my work for years had died.

and just like with my grandma-i'll blame somebody-(like my grandma's neighbor who didn't drive her fast enough to the emergency room-or the head of the board who didn't get the board together after starting a new season) but ultimately i understand-she//it needed to go.

as a performer-i fucking loved performing there-it was a freedom and a support like i've never gotten from any other theatre.

from nervously being in a hot tub with Eddie and Joy during my men with fanny packs and thinning hair forced into pony tails dissecting my work to my face, for a good hour this past summer...i will miss it. very much.

Posted by Lauren Weedman | November 1, 2006 10:31 PM

We can all talk about the great artists who were nurtured by the Space - Mamet, Richard Nelson (whose play"The Return of Pinochio" was my first encounter there), Kurt Beattie, John Aylward etc. etc. but what can never be conveyed is just how much sheer bloody fun it was to work there. I did everything - house manager, book keeper, box office manager, script reader, sound operator, actor, writer - and I will never laugh so hard in a place of employment as I did there, regardless of the physical space it occupied. I wept today at the Space's passing. Mr. Savage, you're a funny man but you are full of shit. Only people who cannot sustain their art over a long period say such infantile things. The Space did something we should all do - it grew up but it never lost its sesne of fun. I shall laugh into my beer tonight.

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