Local arts: A personal year in review

At the close of the year, I was asked to look over the last 12 months and think about the best of what I'd seen during 2003.

For me, the best is always the chance to talk to the directors, the designers, the performers and the artists about why they work in the arts. (That's why I write twice as many feature articles as reviews.) The passion behind the projects remains as exciting as any opening night.

Tough times for the arts continued in 2003, but people kept pouring their hearts, souls and spare change into new ventures. As a friend in the grant-writing business said to me, "The 1990s are over, and they're not coming back." No software boom or dot-com money waltzed around town to make life a little easier for those in the nonprofit world.

At the beginning of the year, all the buzz was about the potential closure of ACT Theatre. But enough people cared about ACT to help this venerable theater make it through 2003. It now looks as if a slimmer, trimmer ACT will continue to create great drama downtown for years to come.

Fringe in peril

But even as the ACT Theatre headlines trumpeted good news in December, the Seattle Fringe Theatre Festival put out their own cry for help. Andrew Haines, director of Seattle Fringe Theatre Productions, announced on Dec. 22 that the festival might have had its last run unless it can raise $120,000 by Jan. 15.

In January, the SFTP board will decide whether or not they can turn the 13-year-old festival into a self-sustaining production. Major reasons behind the festival's financial crisis, announced earlier in the fall, were increased operating costs such as insurance for the venues and the continuing decrease of government grants and corporate support for the theater. More information about the Festival's current financial plight and how to help can be found on their Web site: www.seattle fringe.org.

If the Fringe ends, it will drain away much creative energy from the scene. It's been the launching pad for a number of new actors, directors and playwrights over the years. People come to Seattle just to be in the festival, and then stay to brighten up our stages. The children of the festival, those mini-fests like the Mae West Fest, add zest to the creative scene. You have to wonder how long those mini-festivals and new start-ups will last if the 800-lb. gorilla of Fringe leaves Capitol Hill forever.

At the beginning of 2003, Theater Schmeater's artistic director Rob West discussed the shrinking budget for the arts in Seattle. The fact that Theater Schmeater always operated on the proverbial shoestring budget made the worsening economic scene seem a bit like more of the same for them.

"I think it is all pretty proportional: if you have a budget of $10, the loss of $1 seems great," West said in January, just before the opening of Neal Bell's adaptation of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."

"But, at the same time with our smaller budget, shocks to our economic system are also proportionally smaller, and are not immediately devastating," he said. "We have a devoted audience, and some fantastic donors, but as belts tighten everywhere, theater slides more and more into a luxury category, and that we most certainly feel."

But without the Schmee or Theatre Babylon or Open Circle or the host of other small companies on the Hill, artists can't experiment and, hopefully, blossom into the larger houses.

Director Heather Newman adapted Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "Yellow Wallpaper" this spring following a request from Theater Schmeater.

"Basically, they asked me what I always wanted to do," she said during the run of the show. "Ever since I read the story as a freshman in college, I thought it would make great theater. It's so great to have a place like Theater Schmeater that creates a safe haven for new works to germinate."

A healthy environment?

That kind of haven for the arts keeps creative people coming to Capitol Hill and keeps them working in Seattle - to say nothing of boosting coffee consumption to stay awake through late- night shows (why do you think there's espresso every 10 feet on Broadway?).

When Capitol Hill comedienne Peggy Platt and local actor Nick Garrison got together at the Broadway Grill to discuss their upcoming roles in the 5th Avenue's "Rocky Horror Show," the conversation eventually wandered into the synergy of Seattle arts scene.

Platt launched her successful duo act with Lisa Koch through connections made at the now-defunct Alice B. Theatre. Garrison's career in Seattle developed in such shows as "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at the Re-bar, and he drew inspiration from performers like Platt.

"I remember doing an acting program at the Northwest Actors Studio when I was 16, and Peggy came in and spoke to us about being a working actor. It was really inspiring and very cool," said Garrison, who is now 29. "That's what I love about Seattle theater. There's this great legacy of people who've worked here and keep coming back to Seattle."

I'm hoping 2004 will bring me another bumper crop of creative people, both old hands and newcomers, to discuss all their ventures, including the next edition of the Seattle Fringe Theatre Festival. That really would be the best for me.

Rosemary Jones has covered the arts on Capitol Hill for a decade and a bit. She can be reached at healingpgs@aol.com.

[[In-content Ad]]