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NEW YORK CITY Young Seattle actors used to seriously discuss getting new cell phones with New York area codes just so regional-theater casting directors would call them back. That’s not the case anymore.
Fifteen years ago, people in Seattle theater used to tell a joke that went like this: "An actor new to town is checking out the local theaters. He stops an old-timer for directions. 'What's the fastest way to get from Annex to ACT?' the newcomer asks. The older actor pauses for a moment and says: 'New York.'"
That wasn't just idle bitching. At the time, young Seattle actors seriously discussed getting new cell phones with New York area codes just so regional-theater casting directors would call them back. Jerry Manning, now the artistic director at Seattle Rep, said when he first came to town in 2001, "This city was hemorrhaging its best and brightest. I came when the idea among artistic directors was 'god forbid you hire a Seattle actor.'" As a result, talented artists were fleeing the city—artists who loved the town and loved their cohort but had hit a glass ceiling, since the regional theaters (ACT, Seattle Repertory Theater, Intiman) didn't usually hire even the biggest fringe stars, and big donors tended to support those flagship institutions instead of energetic young companies such as Printer's Devil and Annex. So many actors were fleeing the city that newspapers published alarmist articles about it. Meanwhile, artists had their own hand-wringing conversations in bars and at parties wondering whether getting work, making rent, and staying in Seattle were mutually exclusive propositions.
There was, in fact, a small coterie of Seattle actors—R. Hamilton Wright, Marianne Owen, Laurence Ballard, and others—who regularly worked at the regional theaters, but pretty much everyone else felt shut out. Heidi Schreck of Printer's Devil Theater (who left in 2003 and has since won an Obie Award, acted alongside Edie Falco, and now writes for the Falco-starring show Nurse Jackie) said that nothing got the attention of Seattle's regional theaters back then like her move to New York. "My agent," she said, "would call and say, 'Do you want to do this thing at Yale Rep or this thing at Seattle Rep?' Suddenly, those auditions were available to me."