Seattle's professional actors feeling squeezed off local stages
Compared to the last two years, pickings are dramatically slimmer for even the most-established members of Seattle's esteemed professional acting pool.
Seattle Times theater critic
Many Seattle theater fans have been regaled, moved and amused by Hana Lass in the past year.
The gifted young actress played an ardent Juliet in Wooden O's "Romeo and Juliet." She also covered several roles in "Crime and Punishment" at Intiman Theatre. She was a blue-nosed gamin and a witch in two Seattle Children's Theatre shows. And her sprightly Ariel graced Seattle Shakespeare Company's "The Tempest."
So what parts will Lass tackle in the coming season?
As of today: none.
"It looks like I'm probably not going to be working for at least a year," says Lass. "It's just a tough time. The crazy thing is, there isn't even much to audition for."
Lass knows what a precarious career she's chosen. And she keeps an office job "in my back pocket" for lean periods.
But compared to the last two years, pickings are dramatically slimmer for even the most-established members of the city's esteemed professional acting pool.
Our region's two dozen or so professionally oriented theaters are presenting about the same number of shows. And most local troupes are eager to employ our best, brightest thespians.
But wages for Lass and the 400 or so other local members of the Actors' Equity Association union can range from only about $150 to $1,000 per week. (The area has at least as many non-union actors, most of whom receive lower pay.) And some of the theaters that pay well — Seattle Repertory Theatre, ACT Theatre, Intiman Theatre — are hiring less here.
Seattle's theater scene is busy with talk about the work drop-off. Though no one expects every role to be filled here, most are stunned that their own work options went south so quickly.
Paul Morgan Stetler has often appeared on local stages since moving here in 1992 because, for actors, "Seattle was considered one of the hottest theater towns in the country. [But] that is not our reputation these days. There's been a constant stream of bad news in our community."
Every actor contacted for this story concurred. None are giving up. But with other theater hands, some are seeking solutions to help Seattle keep, and more fully utilize, its wealth of highly trained, talented and versatile players.
Recession plays a part
The national economic recession is one obvious reason the employment picture is grim.
Large theaters saw their invested endowment funds tank. Donations to arts groups from individuals, corporations and government agencies are taking a hit.
By most estimates, live theater attendance has not gone in the Dumpster. But it's accelerated the trend of patrons buying fewer multiple-show subscriptions and more pay-as-you-go single tickets.
To reduce costs, ACT Theatre (usually a bastion for local actors) slotted two solo plays into its 2009 season — both with performers from out of town.
Seattle Rep went further, slashing its 2009-2010 budget by a third — a drastic but essential measure, says Rep producing artistic director Jerry Manning, adding the Rep also trimmed office and production staff.
But this season the Rep will offer locals only 20 roles (compared to 40 last season), and some shorter gigs for play readings. "I fought for every acting contract, but the numbers are gruesome," says an apologetic Manning. "But it becomes an institutional question: do you make Draconian cuts and just shut down for a third of your calendar? Or cut corners, but still offer patrons ... a full banquet of plays?"
The actors get it, but also wonder if the right corners are being cut.
They point to the Rep's cancellation of Noel Coward's "Hay Fever," mainly cast here, and its replacement by a touring comedy ("The Thirty-Nine Steps," a riff on a Hitchcock thriller) with cast attached. The Rep will also import outside actors for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of "Equivocation," a play by Bill Cain about Shakespeare's life and art.
These shows are co-productions with other theaters, so the Rep will share costs and save money. And Seattle actors will not get any roles. "When the recession hit, some theaters threw up a wall instead of opening their arms," contends veteran actor Bradford Farwell. "For us, that hurts. Couldn't they bring us in and say, 'Let's find a creative solution to this together as Seattleites,' instead of, 'Go away until we get our money back'? "
Another blow came when Intiman artistic honcho Bartlett Sher had to drop out of directing Shakespeare's "Othello" with some local thesps. Instead, Intiman brought in a well-received Off Broadway "Othello" with a New York cast.
"I understand you have to cut costs where you can and be efficient," says Greg Carter, director of the Strawberry Theatre Workshop and an advocate for local talent. "But working with out-of-towners seems to me like a luxury."
If not a luxury, it can be costly. Notes Jim Jewell, a spokesman for Seattle Children's Theatre (which casts almost entirely from the Seattle ranks), it can add "between $5,000 and $7,000 extra for housing and travel" to SCT's cost when actors are jobbed in from elsewhere.
"Amazing acting pool"
Changes in artistic leadership can also affect hiring patterns. The Seattle Rep just mounted a search to replace artistic director David Esbjornson, who left in 2008. And Intiman recently named rising New York director Kate Whoriskey to succeed Sher in 2010.
Traditionally, artistic directors are free to cast whomever they like, from wherever they want, within budget restraints. And Whoriskey recently told The Seattle Times that she just wanted the best actor for each role — which didn't offer local actors much comfort.
Intiman's new managing director, Brian Colburn, didn't know casting was a burning issue here when he relocated from California last year. "Kate [Whoriskey] and I are now aware of it, and want to be very supportive," he says, "not just with roles but also ongoing training opportunities for actors."
Yet beyond local pride and lower travel costs, why should theaters give Seattle actors priority? Is it too artistically restrictive? And what's in it for the audience?
Probably some excellent individual and ensemble performances. Manning agrees (with this critic) that Seattle's finest can go "toe to toe with the best actors in New York, Chicago, L.A."
"We have an amazing acting pool," echoes 5th Avenue Theatre head David Armstrong, who often engages locals for the 5th Ave's big Broadway musical revivals. "There's few cities that have what we do — a great, unofficial rep company of actors who move from theater to theater."
Others laud the "stage chemistry" among actors who've worked together, in different material, for years, and developed a strong creative rapport.
Jim Tune, astute head of the Seattle cultural-funding organization ArtsFund, suggests drama patrons also get behind hometown actors. "They know these people, choose favorites, follow them from role to role, theater to theater."
For decades, many of Seattle's best thesps have wanted to put down roots here, enjoy the outdoors, serve the community and perfect their art. But how can a city this size, so far from media centers like New York and L.A., maintain such a stable of talent?
"I think Washington state could offer more tax breaks and other incentives to attract film and TV jobs," suggests Armstrong. "Portland has a resurgence of that work, but Seattle is falling behind."
Others want the larger playhouses to have full-time acting companies — once the national norm, now rare — which theater managers say are unaffordable.
But Carter contends the artists who are front and center in every show should get a bigger cut of the shrinking budget pie. And he believes audiences will pitch in for that. Strawberry Theatre Workshop recently held a "Fair Share" event, with some patrons forking over $54 a seat; much more than the ticket price, but a more accurate reflection of the what it takes to pay actors decently.
Taproot Theatre, a popular midsize venue in Greenwood, has another idea. They're inviting donors to sponsor a particular actor (or role) in a specific show, which, says artistic director Scott Nolte, "creates a direct link between the patron and the actor onstage. They also meet the actors and can attend a dress rehearsal, which they really enjoy."
In the boldest initiative, a group of accomplished, 30-something Seattle actors set off on their own. They formed the New Century Theatre Company, raised enough cash to present two lauded, actor-centered shows ("The Adding Machine" in 2008, and "Orange Water Flower" this July) and are building a fan base.
Stetler, a co-director of NCTC, says the group is not out to build a big theater institution to rival the Rep or Intiman. They just want more chances to tap and develop the trove of theatrical talent here.
"Times of crisis have always been when new movements in the arts have arisen," says Stetler. "Apparently, it's our turn to pick up that mantle. And I'm excited about being a small part of this current movement."
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org
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