Friday, March 1, 2013

Changes at Balagan and an Exit Interview With Artistic Director Shawn Belyea

Posted by on Fri, Mar 1, 2013 at 1:39 PM

This week's Loose Lips column has a short item about the Balagan theater company, which may be leaving its home at the Erickson Theater and is definitely getting a new artistic director:

The company signed a two-year management contract with Seattle Central Community College and moved into the Erickson in the summer of 2011. Since then, Balagan has produced a string of musicals including Avenue Q, Next to Normal, and Spring Awakening. (They also performed Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Moore Theater.) "Given that we're already selling out the Erickson on a regular basis," said marketing director Christine Bateman, "our board of directors has formed an exploratory committee to research larger venues." She also said that SCCC hasn't committed to renewing the contract. This week, Balagan also announced that artistic director Shawn Belyea will be replaced by Louis Hobson, who has appeared in several Broadway musicals and originated the role of the doctor in Next to Normal.

Since it first formed in 2006, Balagan has undergone a series of identity shifts as people have rotated in and out (though Jake Groshong has been the company's steady leaders) and the company has moved to different venues: the basement at CHAC, a little concrete bunker beneath Boom Noodle, the Erickson, occasional shows at ACT and the Moore, etc.

A few days ago, outgoing artistic director Shawn Belyea and I had an exit interview, of sorts (the interview has been condensed).

Shawn Belyea stares into the future.
  • Omar Willey
  • Shawn Belyea stares into the future.

How long have you been the artistic director at Balagan?

About four years. I was asked to be co-artistic director with Lisa Confehr—she and Jake were both co-executive directors, doing both managing and artistic, and the board wanted more clarity about that. Lisa left the company—she's a teacher, does a lot of traveling, and it was never in her long-term plan to be an artistic director—and then it was just me.

But it's Jake's baby—it's been his vision and he's the driving force.

How has the company changed since you took over?

A few things—the challenging part is how to maintain the structure of a company and do the kinds of things we were doing. I was working from a real volunteer, ensemble-based, theater-in-a-basement kind of thing. But the rent in the basement was outrageous, the bills were crushing, and we were busting our ass to keep that space afloat, doing show after show after show, 10-play seasons.

The workload was insanity at times, but the good part was that everyone got their own pet project.

Now, at the Erickson, we can only do four shows per season, so everyone doesn't get their pet project anymore. Ultimately, the decisions are Jake's. A lot of my position today is more like consulting than what Jerry Manning at the Rep does. Jake's role is more like Matt Richter's role at ConWorks—an executive director who has influence in artistic.

And when we took over the Erickson, we transitioned from an all-volunteer artistic ensemble to one with a paid staff: executive director, development director, marketing, artistic director... Once we had paid staff, the volunteer artistic company was somewhat afloat, and people were saying “I’m not sure what my relationship is to the company.” There was lots of discussion about that.

It seems like Balagan has transferred from that more eclectic, 10-show season with all kinds of stuff to a mostly musical-driven company.

Balgan always did musicals—The Spinning, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, The Full Monty. I always liked that it was a fringe company that wasn't afraid to do musicals. Think of the landscape—there's Strawberry Theater Workshop, WET, Theater Schmeater, New Century Theater Company, a lot of companies doing interesting plays.

What you don't have in Seattle—well, you have the two big musical houses, but part of their mission is being family-friendly. They're not a Broadway house that will do a big, crazy musical like Book of Mormon or Spring Awakening. So here's this whole set of musicals that don't really get done by anyone local, and definitely not by anyone in the city that makes them affordable and accessible.

You're directing August: Osage County for Balagan now.

August: Osage kind of has the best of everything—it's a huge play, an amazing piece of theater, that hasn't had a fully local production yet. In terms of trying to step up and make a splash with our season, which was the goal, and given what we had to work with, it was a great way to go.

Mission-wise, we're trying to get new people into the theater, train and bring in the next generation of theater artists. And if that's your mission, you’d better have some material that has some accessibility.

Unlike a space like the Rep or even the Public, where they have an established routine and rhythm, we’re coming up with a new routine every year—the space is different, the needs are different, the opportunities are different.

It's similar to 14/48 [the world's quickest theater festival]—I don’t think all theater should be made that way, but I think some compelling theater comes out of that process.

And that's true of Balagan—Trout Stanley [a Balagan show from 2010] was an interesting play, and people did amazing work in it, but looking at the space we're in now and who we want to attract and what we want to accomplish, three-person experimental dramas aren’t high on the list.

How do you guys afford to do these big musicals? It seems like it would be tough just to get the rights.

Ah, rights! Here's the deal: You have to have an agent and you have to know when the rights are coming up to being available. You have to have relationships with people at Samuel French and other agencies and they'll say "I know you've been asking about this show and it's coming up to be available on this day at 9 am." And then you be sure to be on the phone on that day at 9 am.

Rights can also vary depending on the size of the house, the number of equity contracts. It really varies. There’s a whole wealth of material for smaller companies to do that the bigger houses are not going to do—August has a three-story set, a huge meal with 10 people sitting around a table... it would cost Jerry Manning [at the Seattle Repertory Theater] 150 times what it would cost me to do that show. I’ve got this great cast of people doing this great piece of literature because, strangely, we’re smaller.

Why is SCCC considering not renewing Balagan's contract to manage the Erickson?

SCCC, educationally, has some major priorities—the way the space is being used now, performance is number one, education is number two, and I think they want it to be the other way around. But we have priority booking, so Erickson is definitely on the table for doing a good chunk of next year's season. And we have some fairly significant offers from people to do our shows in a couple of different places. We're in a great spot. We have a lot of options and can custom the shows to fit the space.

For people who've become Balagan fans in the past year—and they're definitely out there—will the next season have continuity with what they've seen this year, in terms of the musicals?

Oh, definitely. For that audience, Louis [Hobson, the new artistic director] is a very strong choice—I’m not hooked into the newest hot musicals coming out of New York but Louis, coming from New York, is. There’s a certain kind of material that’s in the Balagan wheelhouse and we want to work to define that and make it consistent—to the point where we’re can say “does that feel like a Balagan show?”

So why are you leaving?

I am leaving because I'm forming a brand-new nonprofit organization and shifting my focus to 14/48. This new organization will produce 14/48, Theater Anonymous, and 14/48-style events. And we have a big mandate to develop 14/48 nationally and internationally—Austin, England, Pittsburgh, I'm going to New York and Philadelphia later this year, and we'll continue trying to branch out.

In order to do that, I have to fundraise. I’m an actor, a teacher, a director, there's Balagan, there's 14/48. I do everything part-time. And I need an opportunity to not do that—I need to do one thing full-time for awhile.

Theater Anonymous has a new show—Once in a Lifetime by Kaufman and Hart—coming up on March 9. August: Osage County opens on April 5.

 

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