The New Middle
Balagan's breakout production of Spring Awakening signals new life for Seattle theatre.
Inside the Erickson Theatre, the cast of Spring Awakening is about to launch into a big musical number. Brian Earp is playing the male lead, a German teen named Melchior Gabor who’s written a provocative essay about sexuality. He’s seated in a wooden chair, his teacher and schoolmaster both looming over him.
“Did you write this?” asks the schoolmaster, jabbing a sheet of paper in his face. The question hangs in the air as an electric guitar strum fills the theatre, then stops. “Did you write this?” echoes the teacher. Another strum, then the lights go blue and a spotlight shines on Melchior, who raises his microphone to sing: “There’s a moment you know, you’re fucked.”
“Totally Fucked” is the centerpiece of Spring Awakening, a tale of sexually repressed school kids adapted from a 19th-century German play. It’s the kind of strange, risqué material one would expect to stumble upon in the world of fringe theatre—but this is a hit Broadway musical, featuring music by pop star Duncan Sheik and boasting a 2007 Tony for Best Musical.
As the song continues, the audience of 180 watches a flurry of 20 bodies enter the stage from all directions, dancing, writhing and thrusting their fists in the air. At the end, Melchior screams “Yesssssss!” and jumps from his chair into the arms of his classmates, crowd surfing through the song’s climax. It is vibrant full-scale musical theatre, playing to a sold-out house, produced by Balagan Theatre—a company that just one year prior was putting on shows in a tiny basement beneath a Capitol Hill noodle shop.
The song ends and the audience explodes with applause. For 30 seconds, the performers hold their pose, frozen in time, while the room calms. These young Seattle actors are at the dawn of their growing careers. In a few weeks, Kirsten DeLohr Helland (the woman playing the role of Ilse) will be on a much larger stage at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Oklahoma! In late summer she’ll appear in the 5th’s production of Rent, as will the actor playing Moritz, Seattle drag luminary Jerick Hoffer, aka Jinkx Monsoon.
But before then, Helland and Hoffer will return to the Erickson Theatre for two more weeks of Spring Awakening in April, a delayed extension of the company’s sold-out January run. In the world of fringe theatre, an extension is unlikely. Reopening a show three months after it closes is unheard of. But the demand is there. Those lucky enough to score tickets will be witness to the bleeding edge of Seattle theatre’s future.
After some tough years, spirited growth has overtaken the fringe. The result is a developing infrastructure of companies and venues that are giving burgeoning artists a more predictable—and sometimes profitable—place to play.
One year ago, a collection of Seattle theatre heavyweights took the stage for a discussion at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It was a somber time. One of Seattle’s four big houses, Intiman Theatre, had recently gone public about the financial mismanagement that led it to drain its endowment and wind up $1 million in the hole. Intiman, which won the Tony for Best Regional Theatre in 2006, then cancelled half its season and teetered on the brink of oblivion before re-emerging in a much more modest form early this year. Was theatre in Seattle broken?
That’s the question monologist and emeritus Seattle theatre member Mike Daisey asked the actors, artistic directors and playwrights assembled at the Rep that night. An expert sensationalist in his monologue work, Daisey was in Doomsday mode while moderating. But the members of the theatre community were largely unfazed. Optimistic, even.
“How are people feeling about the state of Seattle theatre right now?” Daisey asked. “Intiman’s had this disruption and, depending on where you sit in the ecosystem, that is a huge disruption or a small one, but it can’t be denied. Is this a time of opportunity or should we be retrenching?”
“I don’t think it can help but be a time of opportunity,” answered former Empty Space artistic director Allison Narver. “It has to be. It’s in our hands.”
4Culture program director Charlie Rathbun offered this prescription: “There has to be a continuum of opportunity. You can’t have all this little, grassroots fringe stuff and then two big theatres with nothing in between.”
For 37 years, Fremont’s Empty Space Theater was that in-between. Founded in 1969, Empty Space provided young and adventurous artists a space to create quality work for young and adventurous audiences. It existed in the shadows of the city’s big theatres—Seattle Rep, ACT Theatre, Intiman and the 5th Avenue—and its productions stood between the makeshift stages of the garage theatre scene and imposing proscenia of those institutional houses. Empty Space took chances; Seattle theatregoers and artists reaped rewards. Its closure in 2006 sent a shockwave through the community. The fringe went further underground and the big houses lost their lifeline to the local community.
Since then, Seattle theatre has searched for a new middle. Standout fringe companies like Washington Ensemble Theatre, Strawberry Theatre Workshop, New Century Theatre and Balagan Theatre stepped in with a bevy of high-octane productions. ACT started the Central Heating Lab, a program that hosts fringe productions in their space. This summer, Intiman will stage four productions in repertory featuring actors and designers that are regulars of the local fringe scene. Shedding the usual trappings of a big, regional theatre in favor of a much smaller operation, Intiman itself has drifted toward the middle.
“Theatre is always dying and theatre is always being born,” says Balagan artistic director Shawn Belyea, sitting in the lobby of the Erickson in mid-March. Today the theatre’s state-of-the-art black box space is configured to seat 130 for a string of performances by local comedy troupe Le Frenchword. The set for Spring Awakening is piled in pieces in the workshop behind the stage.
“There’s a psychological aspect of theatre that makes the brain work,” Belyea says. “That’s why great theatre is so amazing, and it’s also why bad theatre is so incredibly bad. Movies are easier on the brain. No one ever walks away from a bad movie going, ‘I am never going to the movies again,’ but people do say that after a bad theatre experience. That’s what makes it so turbulent.”
Another, more tangible source of theatre turbulence is space—a precious, fraught necessity. A space can make or break a company. Regional theatres often have too much and fringe companies are left fighting for what remains.
Six months ago, the Erickson space became a flashpoint of controversy. Connected to the Seattle Central Community College Fine Arts building, the much-coveted Erickson facility rivals the city’s big theatres. Its amenities include a large black box theatre, dressing rooms equipped with showers, a large set-building shop, a green room and a dance studio with a sprung floor. It was meant to house the school’s drama program but was converted to rental space run by the Broadway Management Group after SCCC shut the program down for budgetary reasons. In the last four years, a number of nomadic production companies regularly produced shows there, including New Century Theatre Company and Strawberry Theatre Workshop.
Last year, SCCC went looking for new management, issuing a formal request for proposals. Neither Strawberry Theatre Workshop nor New Century Theatre were informed about the request, but Balagan executive director Jake Groshong managed to put a bid together in time. Groshong won the contract and, in September, Balagan got the keys to the Erickson.
The community was suspicious. “Seattle’s best, most professional, most affordable theatre for small dance companies might be going bye-bye,” crowed a writer at Seattle Dance Blog.
Annex Theatre staffer Chris Comte, speaking of his own accord on local news blog The SunBreak, raised “concerns regarding the method and manner in which an all-volunteer theatrical producing organization with no professional facilities management experience has been able to outbid at least two other companies to win a contract from a state-financed public institution to manage this facility.”
Addressing those concerns, Gorshong points to his MFA in Arts Leadership from Seattle University and his experience with Balagan, which he started five years ago.
Like many small theatre companies in Seattle, Balagan asks a lot of its actors and crew but pays them little. It stays afloat by focusing on in-demand musical productions geared toward younger audiences. Its most expensive production (Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog) cost around $10,000 and brought in about $15,000, while its least successful production (Master of Discipline or Road Movie) in the old basement space below Capitol Hill’s Boom Noodle lost roughly $5,000.
Last October, Balagan opened the Erickson to other local theatre and dance groups that have since staged productions there. The idea, says Groshong, is not to hog the theatre. Rather, non-Balagan productions help pay the lease and, in exchange, Balagan provides tech support, designers, board operators, box office staffing, marketing support, and access to the costume and scene shops, rehearsal space, prop room and costume storage—the kinds of things small companies often struggle with. The results have been positive.
“Strawberry Theatre Workshop did The Bells,” says Belyea. “That’s a crazy, dark story by Theresa Rebeck that takes place in Alaska. It’s a tense, dramatic piece, but they still did very well here. They met their five-week goal in four weeks of their run—and then they generously gave up a week so we could do two weeks of Spring Awakening.”
The Balagan team knew it had a hit on its hands before it even built the set for Spring Awakening. With the Erickson’s wealth of space to work with, director Eric Ankrim cast an extra eight ensemble members, ballooning the cast to 21, and brought in a seven-piece band. By the time the curtain went up on the late-January production, tickets were flying. By the end of a two-week run, Balagan had recouped its $30,000 production costs and generated enough profit to keep the Erickson going strong.
“Unfortunately we can’t always have a show like Spring Awakening running,” Groshong says. “We need to have these big shows making us a profit for our budgeting model to succeed.”
Balagan is attracting a new type of theatregoer with lower ticket prices, around $30 for each performance. It’s also programming hits. Next season it will stage the regional premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama August: Osage County as well as cult favorite Hedwig and the Angry Inch, starring Jerick Hoffer.
“A lot of the smaller theatres are doing material that’s more for them than the audience,” Groshong says. “We’re really conscious of what people want to see from us. How can we give them that while still getting our artistic message across?”
Spring Awakening fits that bill. It’s a musical, an audience favorite, it’s edgy. Balagan’s approach is not only attracting audiences, but young audiences. Eighty percent of ticket buyers are under the age of 40, also unheard of in the theatre world. Balagan is carving out a new middle—and filling it with young fans.
Pictured above: Jerick Hoffer, Justin Huertas and Kirsten DeLohr Helland (left to right) on stage at Erickson Theatre. Photography by Michael Clinard.