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 overtown are buzzing. Folks in wardrobe stitch up split seams from lastnight's duel. Stage managers check lights while actors sit atmirrors, applying makeup in the glare of 40-watt bulbs. Floraldeliveries 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 "AnotherOp'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, youaren't surprised, for Seattle has one of the hottest theater scenesin the country.

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

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

Freelance director and actor Olga Sanchez came here from NewYork 10 years ago. Bound for L.A., she detoured and, she says, fellin love with "this wonderful community of artists." Equity actorDennis 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. Onany given night from fall through spring, you can pretty much takeyour pick of plays classic or cutting edge. Perhaps the biggestname is the Seattle Repertory Theater (or just "the Rep"), housedat the Bagley Wright Theatre at Seattle Center. It has presentedworks from dramatists ranging from Molière toPulitzer-winner―and Seattle resident―August Wilson (see"Q&A August Wilson").

ACT Theatre has four stages and a seating capacity of 1,140; itproduces plays fresh from Broadway, like Dirty Blonde, thethree-actor wonder centered on the life of Mae West. ACT alsopremiered Philip Glass's In the Penal Colony, which went on tosolid reviews in New York. Still, it may be most famous for itsannual holiday production of A Christmas Carol, which has drawn600,000 playgoers since 1976.

Other theaters delight on a smaller scale. At Intiman, artisticdirector Bartlett Sher has tackled everything from Shakespeare'sTitus Andronicus to a theatrical version of journalist BarbaraEhrenreich's muckraking Nickel and Dimed. The Empty Space Theatre(EST) often stages works by new playwrights, such as Louis Broome'sTexarkana Waltz, which portrays a working-class family dealing withthe effects of a homicide. "I believe in the power of the Seattlearts community," says EST's artistic director, Allison Narver, wholeft New York and a dream job as resident director of JulieTaymor's production of The Lion King. "We are constantlychallenging ourselves to create big, difficult, and uncompromisingwork."

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. The5th Avenue, which opened two years earlier, essays eight or nineshows a year, about half of which are its own productions. Earlierthis year the theater premiered Hairspray (based on the John Watersfilm), which went on to a Broadway opening in August.

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

That includes young audiences too. Seattle Children's Theatrehas the second-largest budget and audience size of any children'stheater in the country. Productions here have ranged from HarrietTubman, which explored race relations in America, to a charmingversion of Winnie-the-Pooh.

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

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