Despite debt of around $800K, Seattle Rep is plunging full steam ahead into a big expensive season that, if all goes according to plan, will land the company another $800K deeper in debt. Huh? The thinking seems to be, something will happen in the future to turn the ship around. But what would that be?
The company’s situation seems to be even worse than the debt number indicates, for it has been spending on average 8% of its endowment annually since 2008 to help keep the lights on.
The main problem here that shows little sign of changing – one that all the outreach, marketing, and audience building in the world won’t fix – is that Seattle Rep is not exciting. It’s a rusting institution trapped inside a Kennedy era arts ghetto that needs serious work. Like a lot of regional theatres, the Rep simply carts in the latest slate of prefab offerings every other theatre in America is doing. But there’s precious little new or original. There’s very little local about doing the nine zillionth regional production of DISGRACED. Meanwhile glittering new Seattle is soaring sky – er – cloudwards on all sides around the theatre. If something doesn’t change, the Rep’s relevance and era may be done.
Paradoxically, the big hit Seattle Rep has had in recent years, last year’s imported OSF production of Robert Schenkkan’s double header on LBJ (ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY), was with new work – not the trucked in ham. This clearly ilustrates that Seattle audience members want to experience original and exciting new plays and will line up down the block for them. They’re not afraid of new plays – that’s what they want. Seattleites don’t want to be the last people in the country to see plays that have already been on everywhere else in America. They want to be on the other end of the curve. They want to be the FIRST to see new work made in Seattle that is headed to the rest of the country – for Broadway and beyond. Seattle makes – the world takes. That’s the way it should be.
But while OSF has created a new play machine that is turning out exciting works by top tier writers, left to their own devices the Rep limps along with world premieres by decidedly less skilled playwrights. The audience isn’t dumb. Your average Seattle theatregoer is only going to throw herself on pleasureless grenades like THE COMPARABLES or BO-NITA so many times before she comes to her senses and opts out. Or gets on a plane for New York, London, or Ashland. Life is way too short for bad theatre.
Seattle Rep has the physical plant of a Lincoln Center, a National Theatre or a Steppenwolf. But unfortunately the stuff on the inside doesn’t come close in quality to what the world’s biggest theatres can do. What’s the solution? Take a page from OSF and start creating brand new world class work. Start a new company ensemble a la Steppenwolf, hire some real writers, and start creating new plays that will make Seattleites wait on line in the hopes of maybe getting a standing room ticket (as they did for ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY).
This shouldn’t be that hard to do. Pony up, call Sarah Treem, John Pollono, Craig Wright, Simon Stephens, Johnna Adams, Kenneth Lonergan, and Leslye Headland and say: “People. We need you to help us out here and be part of revitalizing a theatre power in America’s greatest city of the moment. Will you give us a play?”
What playwright – of any stature – wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Of course you have to pay them.
Go big or go home indeed.