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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Gone Are the Days of 27 Plays

posted by on October 7 at 13:28 PM

ACT and Theater Schmeater have announced their new seasons. Schmeater’s looks more exciting overall (including a new play by Tim Crouch, who just performed has haunting England at the Henry Art Gallery a few weeks ago) but ACT is staging Rock ‘n’ Roll, Tom Stoppard’s epic about Prague Spring, a Marxist professor in England, Syd Barrett, the Plastic People of the Universe, Vaclav Havel, the Rolling Stones, and 1968 in general. That sounds exciting. Kurt Beattie will direct.

Also up: something to be announced, the break/s (a sort of dance/hiphop/video solo show by Marc Bamuthi Joseph), Das Barbecü (a Wagner parody ACT trots out whenever Seattle Opera performs the Ring cycle), Runt of the Litter (the season’s second solo show—I can haz budget crunch?—this one by Houston Oiler Bo Eason), and an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

At Schmeater: Act a Lady (by native playwright Jordan Harrison, whose Museum Play at WET was a dreamy, Sarah Ruhl-esque success), When the Messenger Is Hot (based on short stories by Elizabeth Crane), An Oak Tree (by the aforementioned Tim Crouch, Maria/Stuart (a Suburban Gothic), The Creation of the World an Other Business (Arthur Miller’s satire of the Book of Genesis), and At Home at the Zoo (Albee’s first play, Zoo Story, and the new prequel).

Hey theaters: Recall that 20 years ago, in 1988, Annex Theater produced 27 plays, 16 of them world premieres—and hang your heads in shame. This season, Annex will produce 10 plays, four of them world premieres, which is still pretty good. Washington Ensemble Theatre will only produce three plays, one of them a world premiere. (A kinda, sorta world premiere: It’s a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.)

What else happened in 1988? Nirvana started recording Bleach—and played a concert at Annex Theater. By the next year, Nirvana was on their first world tour.

The lesson: Produce enough new plays and Kurt Cobain will come back from the grave and play your house.

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My group performed at The Annex recently. World tour here we come!

Posted by Sir Learnsalot | October 7, 2008 1:44 PM

As Managing Director of Annex, I would point out that those oft-storied years of frantic production came at great cost to the artists involved and the cohesion of the Annex Company. While you can get caught up and surrender yourself to that sort of brutal excess, it is much more difficult to ask people to do it - to plan and budget around it (if you're not Derek Horton that is).

And as for comparing production schedules, half our our coming season is late-nights - a production slot that I don't believe is even possible at WET. And knowing Tery Lazzara of the Schmee - I'm confident that they're putting up as much as they can.

I have been told that Seattle is different in that most of our spaces are controlled by producing Companies. The schedules of Town Hall and Theatre Off Jackson are AMAZING - but you don't have the performers also running the space and keeping the books.

My favorite artistic experiences have sprung from reckless carnage - but it seems that the only way we can have a place to perform is to maintain it ourselves. And to do that, we need to take care of our production staff, keep the books and get grants; all the fussy, boring, below-the-waterline stuff. Perhaps if the market keeps falling, Seattle will again have a surfeit of abandoned spaces and we can again enjoy more anarchistic producing companies.

PS - Brendan, how could you have left off Spin the Bottle? "The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players", "Miss Mamie Lavonia, the Exotic Mulatta and her White-Boy Band" and "Awesome" play(ed) there quite often.

Posted by Stephen McCandless | October 7, 2008 2:24 PM

Dang, now I have to follow an erudite comment by Mr. McCandless.

Thanks for the shout-out Brendan, but I would respectfully point out that technically at least, we have FIVE previously unproduced pieces on our schedule (I'm presuming you didn't include "The Kitty Poole Show", since it's not listed as a World Premiere, but it is, nevertheless, an original work).

So, yeah, five out of ten isn't a bad mix. And I would also point out that, although the "Monolodge Late Night" format has been produced elsewhere, the pieces in this iteration will all be new. Also, "Eating Round The Bruise" and "Love's Tangled Web" have each only been previously produced once before (the former premiered at Montana Rep in 2005, while the latter has not been produced, so far as we can determine, since Mr. Ludlam's original production in 1981).

So, while not technically "showroom new", they are certainly ones with which theatre audiences will not be familiar, and so come as close to "world premieres" as they can without actually being so.

And though I am loathe to correct anything in Mr. McCandless' post above, I would also add "The Half Brothers" to the list of up-and-coming local music acts that have played in our spaces over the years.

Posted by COMTE | October 7, 2008 2:57 PM

"I can haz budget crunch?"

You should be shot in your fucking face.
Shades of Ricky Gervais' The Office boss shoehorning "Shagadelic, baby!" into a conversation. Painfully, brutally lame.

Posted by Dead Serious | October 7, 2008 3:05 PM

Oh, and I suppose it's belaboring the point to note that we were all in our mid-20's in 1988, and while that same spirit of unbridled youthful energy is still maintained at Annex due to a regular infusion of healthy young blood into our company, SOME of us are now pushing 50; and frankly, the idea of even attempting to produce that much work makes me a little sick to my stomach.

Then again, it could be just the oatmeal I had for breakfast...

Posted by COMTE | October 7, 2008 3:15 PM

Sorry, Dead Serious—that was a shitty inside joke for Jen Graves. Don't take it too seriously.

The rest of you: you might be getting creaky, but where are your young'uns, who should be fighting, fucking, and producing their way into middle age?

Posted by Brendan Kiley | October 7, 2008 5:21 PM

In that case, I forgive you.

Posted by Dead Serious | October 7, 2008 7:45 PM

I would also add that since its inception in 2004, Washington Ensemble Theatre has in fact staged 17 World and Regional Premieres. This season we will actually be producing 4 plays - including one West Coast Premiere (GOD'S EAR), one Regional Premiere (THE MISTAKES MADELINE MADE) and one world premiere new work created with local LGBT teens (QTET) ... in addition to our new adaptation of TITUS. I tend to agree very much with Stephen from Annex, that regard for the sustainability of the artists and the organization should be held in high esteem. I think the health of the theatre community on the whole can only stand to benefit from artists and theatres choosing and producing seasons that they know they can do deeply and do well ...

Posted by Katjana Vadeboncoeur | October 8, 2008 1:43 AM

Well, having worked with Annex during the aforementioned glory days, and worked with WET just this spring, I can say that I see glory in both approaches, but sadly only one approach seems to be in play these zero years in Seattle. There's definitely something to be said for the gargantuan fervor that accompanied Annex in the day. Literally hundreds of artists were climbing those stairs every week, and later crossing the street to the 1911 to swill beer, smoke and shoot shit with the likes of Sylvain, Giamatti, Armenante, etc. There's something to be said for throwing gobs of color at the wall and not expecting it all to stick. There's also something a little precious about how we're going about things these days. Especially the young 'uns. No organization, not even the vaunted Annex, should put its survival before the work. Here's a new mantra to consider: risk breaking your theater to make great theatre.

Posted by Mullin | October 8, 2008 10:58 AM

With all due respect Paul, if we "break our theatre" to the point it can't be repaired, then we have to stop doing plays - which means one less potential venue for your work to appear.

Posted by COMTE | October 8, 2008 4:14 PM

That mantra strikes me as a really easy thing for a recently honored and institutionally unaffiliated playwright to chant, Mr. Mullin.

And if I'm not mistaken, sir, it was an (admittedly) "great" production of your Slotin Sonata that ended up "breaking" the much-missed Empty Space. Hope it was worth it!

Posted by BardoWheel | October 8, 2008 4:43 PM

Oh, Mullin. There's still plenty of drinking going on--but now you don't even have to cross the street because we have a bar.

Survival isn't put before the work: it is the foundation of the work itself. Without it, all you have are ideas.

Annex has increased its number of yearly productions since leaving 4th Ave AND increased its ability to support the health (both artistic and literal) of its artists.

In 22 years we've gotten smarter about what we can put up well and what we can put up with. The olden days of 27 plays included as much shit as art (and vice versa) and everyone was burned out--those were also the days of the phrase "when the hate comes upon you."

The risk to be broken happens in each moment of any production: imagining, writing, casting, producing, rehearsing, designing, arguing, performing, watching, striking, celebrating. Breaking the theatre is not the same as breaking artists: risk is more sustainable when it is supported.

Posted by Gillian Jorgensen | October 8, 2008 5:08 PM

Uh, big ditto. Survival always comes first. Everything else second. Not just theatre.

(I think the last time many of us put art or work completely before survival, we likely ended up with mono or pneumonia or in the hospital. Ah, those were the halcyon days of being a young 'un. Boy, do I miss 'em! ;-) )

Posted by JenMoon | October 8, 2008 5:12 PM

1) "Creaky" - that's funny.

1A) The longevity of Annex is an abiding, constant concern. As an itinerant theatre Annex was producing quite successfully. The driving concern that led us to establish a permanent space was the desire to offer more opportunities to produce and attract new members to our company. Many, if not a majority, of the volunteers who keep our theatre running smoothly are ambitious, driven twenty-somethings. But maintaining a space makes large and ever-increasing demands on our volunteer Company and as a non-negotiable fixed cost, our lease is a dreadful burden.

2) Mullin - what ... the ... FUCK!? After ten years of fringe theatre production, it does not surprise me that a playwright thinks I should destroy my theatre for the honor of birthing their artistic vision. I do however, feel free to fucking ignore such self-serving, petty attitudes.

But to have the author of American Book of the Dead, the Game Show! take me to task for being "precious" - for being risk-adverse! - well that's fucking rich! Should I produce the P/L detailing the $9K loss that we ate on that show? Do you need pictures to remind you of the cast, the costumes, the set-pieces, the 80'x7' rolling scrim, the three race-lit, welded-steel prosceniums that we fashioned for that show? That show was a fucking meat-grinder - and this is the the churlish thanks you offer my Company?

How about this for a "mantra:" I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very artistic freedom that I help provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you sign a lease, and open a theatre. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

Posted by Stephen McCandless | October 8, 2008 5:42 PM

big fat W00T @14

As long as he doesn't wink and say "you betcha" I think you make a great point!

Posted by uhYAH | October 8, 2008 5:53 PM

Brendan, I am extremely surprised to hear you praise quantity over quality, considering the criticism you have heaped on less-than professional fringe theatre over the years, particulary the old Seattle Fringe Festival. Even our friends at Annex who were actually there admit that half of those 27 plays were crap. As we all know, if you are putting your whole self into a production because you care about it being absolutely perfect at the expense of eating, sleeping, and having clean underwear, while also running a theatre and working a full-time job,then you can't really do that 27 times a year. But if your priority is to give local playwrights like Paul Mullin, Stephanie Timm and Jordan Harrison the most professional, fully realized, workshopped, and fully designed world premieres possible? Then your thanks is to be compared to another theatre's prolific but messy 1988(!) season. Dude, I love ya, but you're way off base this week. BTW, not everyone should get an MFA, but without graduate programs, there would be no Washington Ensemble Theatre.

Posted by Heidi Ganser | October 8, 2008 9:02 PM

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