This one goes to 12 | Seattle’s new 12 Ave Arts theatre transforms Capitol Hill neighborhood and local performance scene

When it comes to performance spaces, you know what’s missing from the typical theatre scene in US cities, right?

Hint # 1. It’s not the big industrial-sized space. Every town has a few of these. Typically cavernous and impersonal, the big elephants are over-outfitted, unionized out the wazoo and rent for way more than most companies can afford. Unless they’re carefully driven by world class arts organizations, these rusting downtown citadels are where yesterday’s theatre takes place – at a very high price. It is all but institutionally impossible to create exciting events in these monsters.

Hint # 2. And it’s not the small 50 seat basement, bar or gallery space. These off off off “stages” are everywhere and have nothing but character. That’s where a lot of ferment and exciting new stuff happens: the theatre of tomorrow.

Ta da. No, what’s usually missing is what’s in between the two ends of the spectrum – established (but still affordable) mid-sized spaces. The middle option is key to a city’s overall theatre ecosystem and the constant flow of new artists through the system. When an upstart company graduates from unforgettable shows in tiny locales and wants to expand their audience, what they typically find is very few venue options. They then either a) make do in a smaller than ideal spot or b) over reach in a too large venue that changes the fundamental experience that attracted an audience to them in the first place. Several Portland companies are up against this very challenge right now.

Like most cities, Seattle has been facing the double whammy of real estate boom and vanishing performance space. But unlike most cities, the Jet City has responded with a pretty dazzling example of vision to solve the problem. How does a new shared housing, office and performance space in the heart of urban life sound? While it isn’t rocket science, actually seeing a city execute on this idea feels pretty inspiring. It could work anywhere.

Introducing… 12 Ave Arts (pronounced “12th avenue arts”) in Seattle’s old school Capitol Hill neighborhood. The prominently featured 12 in the name was surely just a coincidence but no doubt speaks to a city obsessed with that number.

And it so happens this space goes to 12 – not just 11.

As a theatregoer, your mouth is going to water when you first enter 12 Ave Arts. Everything about the place is cool. And it looks good. Remember, if you’re in the business of art, art should talk to the audience through every aspect of their interaction with the live experience – including the space itself. It would make no sense to put on a beautiful work of art in an ugly space, right? A cool space helps reassure the audience they’re onto something good and won’t be disappointed. A cool space becomes not just a location to house shows people come to – it becomes a destination in its own right.

Outside on the street, the experience of Seattle’s new theatre begins with a sign you can’t miss. In a city of winter grays and blues, orange is the color. Inside you’ll find a large, high entrance lobbby with a bar. There are two theatres, a mainstage in the 200-250 seat range and a studio in the 80 seat range. Crucially, both theatres are completely configurable black boxes. Backstage there are ample dressing rooms and facilities. It’s non union, which is key for small scale, entrepreneurial innovation.

Anchor tenants to get this show rolling are Washington Ensemble Theatre, New Century Theatre Company and Strawberry Theatre Workshop. The space is also available to rent for one off shows. The first two productions to ever play at 12 Ave Arts are on now. And one of them just extended.

So it looks they’re off and running at Seattle’s newest theatre.

How about some color in your life?  Boom.  Say it loud.  Right in here - art.
How about some color in your life? Boom. Say it loud. Right in here – art.
Part of the reason this whole thing happened - there's housing above.
Part of the reason this whole thing happened – there’s housing above.
The universal sign of good design.  Someone is thinking about bikes.
The universal sign of good design. Someone is thinking about bikes.
Go by bike.  With Seattle traffic what it is - it's the only way to fly.
Go by bike. With Seattle traffic what it is – it’s the only way to fly.

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Remember the queen of hearts in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE?  Showing a big "12" to Seattleites makes them powerless to resist.
Remember the queen of hearts in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE? Showing a big “12” to Seattleites makes them powerless to resist. You shall watch theatre. “Yes, master.”
Come tonight - they'll be here.
On a Saturday night – they’ll be here.

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Room to roam and talk.
Room to roam and talk.
Offices upstairs.
Offices upstairs.
Lots of room backstage.
Lots of room backstage.
Not only is there a dressing room - there are several dressing rooms.
Not only is there a dressing room – there are several dressing rooms.

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The mainstage with the set for Strawberry Theatre Workshop's OUR TOWN.
The mainstage with the set for Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s OUR TOWN. The construction look is part of the design.
New Century Theatre Company's production of THE FLICK by Annie Baker will be in the mainstage in March.  Seating will be oriented across the short side looking toward the movie theatre seats on the other end.
New Century Theatre Company’s production of THE FLICK by Annie Baker will be in the mainstage in March. Seating will be oriented across the short side looking toward the movie theatre seats on the other end.

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The studio space with the set for Washington Ensemble Theatre's gloriously demented SPRAWL.
The studio space with the set for Washington Ensemble Theatre’s gloriously demented SPRAWL.

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All ready for 64 lucky audience members.
All ready for 64 lucky audience members.
As a prologue, the lobby is fabulous.
They’re heeeeeeere. The audience arrives.
People wander all over the space.  You can tell they like it.
People wander all over the space. As a prologue, the lobby is fabulous.
The show is always on. And it starts with your building.
Remember: The show is always on. And it starts with your building.

2 Plays in Seattle | March offers chance to catch world premiere of THE COMPARABLES and west coast premiere of THE FLICK

By now you know the 2 Days in Seattle campaign. Because of the 50 foot high signs.

So how about 2 plays in Seattle? Here goes.

In March you can catch two promising shows on the same weekend in the Jet City.

Here they are:

3.5 – 4.5 New Century Theatre Company – THE FLICK by Annie Baker
3.6-29 Seattle Rep – THE COMPARABLES by Laura Schellhardt

At New Century, it’s THE FLICK from Annie Baker. Though it won a Pulitzer, this show is going to prove much trickier than many prize winners to simply slam into a truck and ship off to every regional theatre in America (a la VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE). Baker’s show is long, sometimes slow and requires the right space. In short, it will defy easy adoption by the mainstream. That’s why some traditional subscribers at Playwrights Horizons revolted. It will take the right company and place to do it. And I’m betting that Seattle’s talented New Century Theatre Company is the crew to pull it off. Added bonus: the show is at their brand new home at 12th Avenue Arts.

At Seattle Rep, it’s the world premiere of THE COMPARABLES by Laura Schellhardt. Schellhardt scored a hit with THE K OF D at the New York fringe a while back, and the new play sounds strong. The Rep is coming off a wildly successful import of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s two LBJ plays by Robert Schenkkan, which set all time box office records – but they have had less luck originating their own premieres from scratch in recent years. Here’s hoping this one will knock it out of the park.

So hit the trail to Seattle in March and catch both in a weekend. Wondering what else is on in Seattle? Here’s a start.

It should look just like this all winter.
Seattle. It should look just like this all winter.

TEWS Alert! | Seattle’s New Century Theatre Company to produce west coast premiere of Annie Baker’s THE FLICK in March 2015

Well, who says our T.E.W.S. (Theatre Early Warning System) doesn’t work any more? It just jumped to full alert status with some big – nay giant – PNW news.

Seattle’s top notch New Century Theatre Company (kind of the Jet City equivalent of Third Rail, though smaller and more experimental) is the first theatre to bring Annie Baker’s THE FLICK (Pulitzer 2014) to the west coast. And they are doing it in the company’s brand new home, and Seattle’s brand new community arts center, 12 Ave Arts.

NCTC has been around for a while now and reliably cranks out the best possible small scale theatre. Last year their production of Enda Walsh’s challenging THE WALWORTH FARCE was every bit as good as the original Druid show. And that’s saying something.

In NCTC’s capable, wildly creative hands, Baker’s non-traditional, marathon play about three kids in a fading Northampton movie theatre is sure to be a season highlight.

The cast for New Century's WALWORTH.  Blake (Peter Dylan O’Connor (Blake), Sean (Darragh Kennan) and  Dinny (Peter Crook).
“Another day, another rubber chicken.” The cast for New Century’s unforgettable production of THE WALWORTH FARCE by Enda Walsh. Blake (Peter Dylan O’Connor (Blake), Sean (Darragh Kennan) and
Dinny (Peter Crook).

Theater Review | THE WALWORTH FARCE by Enda Walsh at New Century Theatre Company (Seattle)

The day the story changed. The best show in Seattle right now is an electrifying, must-see production of THE WALWORTH FARCE by Enda Walsh, a co-production between New City Theater and New Century Theatre Company.

4-stars

Just another day of drama in Cork City.
Just another day of drama in Cork City.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the original Druid Ireland production of Enda Walsh’s stunning play THE WALWORTH FARCE took the (English-speaking) world by storm. Starting in 2007, it won a coveted Fringe First at Edinburgh. Then in 2008 it toured to New York’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, where it received rave reviews. It moved from there to London’s National Theatre. And then in 2009 (with a change to two of the cast) it began a world tour with stops all over North America, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and Canada.

Anyone who saw the original cast of Denis Conway, Tadgh Murphy, and Garrett Lombard will not soon forget it. The show was directed and essentially co-created (because of its intense physical demands) by Mikel Murfi.

Druid's incredible double threat actor/director Mikel Murfi.
Druid’s incredible double threat actor/director Mikel Murfi.

If there’s a downside to catching a Druid world premiere, it’s knowing that you are likely witnessing the best version of the play you’ll ever see – the benchmark against which all future productions will be measured. Especially for Irish plays done outside Ireland, there are so many pitfalls (me Oirish accent!) that can bedevil an effective production. And so it can be a lot harder than it should be to see a top notch version of a contemporary Irish play in the US.

Knowing all this, having seen the original Druid show, and being unfamiliar with the two Seattle theatres involved (New Century Theatre Company and New City Theater), I took a flyer anyway on a production of this modern classic and found my way to a small storefront space on 18th Ave and E Union on a densely socked in October night.

And lo! It was one of those nights in the theatre that you dream about but so rarely find. Inside the 48 seat space on a dark street was a first rate production of this scary, off-putting and verbally magical show. The place was packed with excitement and energy. The actors were exceptional. Director John Kazanjian fully understood and transmitted the play to us. This is the kind of experience you can only get in the live theatre. And we got it.

The cast for New Century's WALWORTH.  Blake (Peter Dylan O’Connor (Blake), Sean (Darragh Kennan) and  Dinny (Peter Crook).
The cast for New Century’s WALWORTH. Blake (Peter Dylan O’Connor (Blake), Sean (Darragh Kennan) and
Dinny (Peter Crook).

In the first act of WALWORTH, we discover a family of three in a dilapidated London tower block flat. There’s the manic father Dinny (an outstanding Peter Crook), who sits in a chair waxing his wig, and his two sons Sean (the superb Darragh Kennan) and Blake (the excellent Peter Dylan O’Connor), who appear to be arranging costumes as the curtain rises. Not a whole lot makes sense, and as the action kicks in, we realize things are going to get less clear by the minute. The family is performing its own sad story as theatre to each other, as they do each day and have done presumably for years and will do forever, if left to their own devices.

As the tale goes on we realize that the facts of the story, which concerns the circumstances of why the family left Ireland for London and is heavily controlled by Dinny, are wrong. And yet the sons are unable to break out of this traumatic cycle. Once a day Sean leaves the flat to go to the local Tesco to buy food supplies needed to run the daily script (such as a large chicken to roast), and it is here that he meets a young black checkout girl named Hayley (the spot on Allison Strickland). In his flustered small talk with Hayley, who fancies him, Sean mistakenly leaves his bag of groceries and grabs another, and it is this wrench in the daily routine, and particularly Hayley’s surprise arrival at the door of the family’s nightmarish flat at the end of act 1, that propels the normal course of events off the tracks and toward a tragic conclusion.

In act 2, with Hayley now an unwilling participant in the dangerous performance, things start to veer out of control. Walsh brilliantly dramatizes how frightening it is when two characters fight physically to control their narratives. What happens when someone wants to step out of their story? Can one brother let another go?

The original WALWORTH dream team.  Garrett Lombard, Denis Conway, Tadgh Murphy.
Druid’s original WALWORTH dream team: Garrett Lombard, Denis Conway, Tadhg Murphy.

The Irish accents, so often a landmine for US actors, are perfect. Kennan is a first generation Irish American, so that probably helps. Instead of being put off at each awkward word in an Irish play performed in the US, which amazingly still happens at even the largest theatres in the land when it comes to Irish theatre, here you can focus in on the story itself. Beautiful. The actors are all excellent, but Peter Crook’s Dinny is truly a high water mark.

On paper, the odds against a night of exceptional theatre at a place like the tiny New City Theater are stacked high. It’s too small a space, it’s too unknown, the play is too hard, it requires foreign social context. But incredibly it all comes together in this unique, old school Seattle space and is thereby even more exciting than a great show at a big established theatre. Indeed, the outcome here is one that even many far larger theatres could not achieve no matter how large their budgets.

This show is absolutely worth traveling for, and has just been extended thru November 3. More info.

Want to find out what else is happening on the Seattle theatre scene? Here’s a quick guide.

From this tiny 99 seat theatre in Galway to Broadway, the West End, and beyond.  Druid's home theatre.
Galway makes, the world takes. Druid’s 99 seat home theatre. It all starts here – but it ends on Broadway, the West End, and beyond.