Showtime in Seattle

Applause, please, for one of the best theater towns in the world
Steven R. Lorton

It's 7 p.m., an hour before curtain, and theaters all over town are buzzing. Folks in wardrobe stitch up split seams from last night's duel. Stage managers check lights while actors sit at mirrors, applying makeup in the glare of 40-watt bulbs. Floral deliveries come through the stage door, headed for dressing rooms. And you can almost bet the band that somewhere along the way, someone will be whistling Cole Porter's classic tune "Another Op'nin', Another Show."

Are we on Broadway? Nope, off-Broadway―way off-Broadway. This is Seattle. If you live in the world of performing arts, you aren't surprised, for Seattle has one of the hottest theater scenes in the country.

How did this come to be? John Holly, Western regional director of Actors' Equity Association, offers these reasons: "Seattle has spirit. It's an exciting cultural environment. The people appreciate good-quality performing arts, and they gobble them up. And the city has become a performing-arts melting pot. Talented people are there from all over, because they can enjoy a high quality of life while they pursue a theatrical career."

Stand at the stage door after any performance, or visit a theater hangout like McHugh's, and you'll see that Holly is right. When you ask theater people where they're from and why they're here, you will hear passionate testimonies to Seattle.

Freelance director and actor Olga Sanchez came here from New York 10 years ago. Bound for L.A., she detoured and, she says, fell in love with "this wonderful community of artists." Equity actor Dennis Kleinsmith chose Seattle over New York. "I wanted to work, to be in the middle of it all, not be just a number," he says. "Seattle makes that possible."

Shakespeare and Dirty Blondes

The number of theaters in the city is almost overwhelming. On any given night from fall through spring, you can pretty much take your pick of plays classic or cutting edge. Perhaps the biggest name is the Seattle Repertory Theater (or just "the Rep"), housed at the Bagley Wright Theatre at Seattle Center. It has presented works from dramatists ranging from Molière to Pulitzer-winner―and Seattle resident―August Wilson (see "Q&A August Wilson").

ACT Theatre has four stages and a seating capacity of 1,140; it produces plays fresh from Broadway, like Dirty Blonde, the three-actor wonder centered on the life of Mae West. ACT also premiered Philip Glass's In the Penal Colony, which went on to solid reviews in New York. Still, it may be most famous for its annual holiday production of A Christmas Carol, which has drawn 600,000 playgoers since 1976.

Other theaters delight on a smaller scale. At Intiman, artistic director Bartlett Sher has tackled everything from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus to a theatrical version of journalist Barbara Ehrenreich's muckraking Nickel and Dimed. The Empty Space Theatre (EST) often stages works by new playwrights, such as Louis Broome's Texarkana Waltz, which portrays a working-class family dealing with the effects of a homicide. "I believe in the power of the Seattle arts community," says EST's artistic director, Allison Narver, who left New York and a dream job as resident director of Julie Taymor's production of The Lion King. "We are constantly challenging ourselves to create big, difficult, and uncompromising work."

A tryout city

Two historic theaters, the Paramount and the 5th Avenue Theatre, focus on big, glitzy musicals. The Paramount, which opened in 1928, has an interior that could double for the Palace of Versailles. The 5th Avenue, which opened two years earlier, essays eight or nine shows a year, about half of which are its own productions. Earlier this year the theater premiered Hairspray (based on the John Waters film), which went on to a Broadway opening in August.

David Armstrong, 5th Avenue's artistic director, believes that productions like Hairspray have helped nurture Seattle's growing reputation as a tryout city. "Chicago, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Seattle are the big four now, replacing Philadelphia, New Haven, and Baltimore. Producers are looking for sophisticated, theater-savvy audiences who will help them sculpt and fine-tune the show."

That includes young audiences too. Seattle Children's Theatre has the second-largest budget and audience size of any children's theater in the country. Productions here have ranged from Harriet Tubman, which explored race relations in America, to a charming version of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Whatever theatrical experience you're after, you'll likely encounter a local tradition: the Seattle Standing Ovation. At the end of almost any performance, Seattleites jump to their feet, clapping wildly. Where does the habit originate? David Armstrong says, "It's part of the casual exuberance that this city is so loved for."