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Sunday, November 20, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater

On the Boards regaining its footing

Seattle Times theater critic


When Lane Czaplinski hit Seattle in 2002 to take charge at On the Boards, his cool, spiffy new place of employment was an internationally respected arena for experimental dance, music, theater and performance art.

It was also engulfed in rancor and uncertainty.

Now, thanks to the quietly energetic guidance of artistic honcho Czaplinski and others, On the Boards is emerging from that storm.

Attendance at the Behnke Center, OTB's two-stage Queen Anne facility, was a robust 83 percent of capacity last season, reports managing director Sarah Wilkes, who has been on the job since 2004.

The organization's varied, intriguing programming for 2005-06 includes new works by noted local artists (writer Rebecca Brown, choreographer Zoe Scofield), as well as local premieres by edgy, imported headliners (the Amsterdam theater troupe Kassys; South African choreographer Boyzie Cekwana and his company).

The funding picture is also bright. They've retired much of their moving debt, and they've received such major gifts as $250,000 from Seattle philanthropists Bagley and Virginia Wright. (In return, OTB named its 400-seat main venue the Merrill Wright Mainstage after the Wrights' daughter, a longtime supporter and trustee of the organization.)

So no wonder the mood at OTB is palpably upbeat. "There's a very positive spirit here now, a tremendous momentum and harmony," observes current board President Chris Rogers.

Playing at On the Boards

"Another You," a solo show by Allen Johnson, plays its final performance tonight at On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle. $18. www.ontheboards.org or call 206-217-9888.

Coming up: "12 Minutes Max," a series of showcasing local artists (Dec. 4-5), and "Bloody Mess," a piece by the cutting-edge British theater troupe Forced Entertainment mixes theater with art installations, video and digital media (Dec. 8-11).

For tickets or a full 2005-06 season schedule: www.ontheboards.org

A troubled past

Not so back in 2002, after a period of bitter dissension among board members, staffers and local artists.

The vibes soured in 1999 (after OTB's move from the Central District to larger digs on Queen Anne), when the board of directors fired Mark Murphy, the company's popular artistic head for 16 years. Murphy was reinstated in 2000, after a community outcry. But in 2001, amid more strife, he resigned.

Enter Czaplinski. Fresh from a stint at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, he was a stranger to Seattle's tight-knit arts scene. And, at age 32, a first-time artistic director anywhere.

Czaplinski knew he had a lot to prove here. "My first two seasons I felt a huge need just to let everyone know On the Boards was alive and well," he recalls. "So I programmed a lot of events. And it was essential to have a presence in the community, to get out and meet people, to see artists' work."

Actually, Czaplinski and then-managing director Diane Ragsdale mended fences by becoming tireless goodwill ambassadors — and dedicated local talent scouts.

"We decided we could have more meaningful relationships with local artists if we gave out more commissions, helped people get funding, and offered four to 10 weeks of free rehearsal space to develop new pieces," Czaplinski explains.

A recent example: Seattle monologist Allen Johnson, whose show "Another You" ends its premiere run at OTB tonight.

Johnson, a former boiler mechanic whose raw, autobiographical writings have been likened to the works of Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller, impressed Czaplinski when he appeared in OTB's ongoing talent showcase, "12 Minutes Max." Johnson went on to perform in OTB's annual Northwest New Works Festival, and was then given the space and funds to create "Another You," with director Sean Ryan.

Such efforts have reassured some Seattle artists who got their first breaks at OTB, and feared in Murphy's absence the organization would lose some of its commitment to homegrown talent.

"Lane's track record proves his commitment to this scene," comments Gaelan Hanson, co-artistic director of the acclaimed Seattle dance troupe, 33 Fainting Spells. "He stepped right into Mark's shoes and has done a fabulous job."

Not just for hipsters

Czaplinski says he's just getting started.

He rankles at the idea that OTB is still often viewed as a rarified, aging-hipsters' haven. He wants more people to see it as a welcoming, accessible spot, where at modest cost (usually $18 to $24) anyone can discover "brilliant artists like [performer-filmmaker] Miranda July and [neo-cabaret band] Antony and the Johnsons, before they get famous."

He also frets about the stranglehold more commercial entertainment has on the culture. And he complains about the conservative programming of more mainstream arts institutions and further marginalization of artistic innovators.

Usually, though, Czaplinski's enthusiastic geniality and diplomatic humility prevail.

"The biggest point for me in moving to Seattle and taking this job was that On the Boards already had an impressive legacy and reputation," he says. "I've just been trying to reinterpret that mission in the current arts ecology."

That means plugging into what's new in "a Web-driven world," as he puts it, where artists readily mesh live action and high-tech, and freely blend such forms as dance and architecture.

"There's also a lot of the so-called 'karaoke effect,' with pop songs and movie language showing up in live performance," Czaplinski reports. Whatever you call the current aesthetic, Czaplinski is shuttling between Seattle, and cutting-edge arts festivals in Asia, Europe and Australia looking for the best of it.

With OTB regaining its footing, he says his job "is just starting to be fun. We've worked our butts off and accomplished a lot. I just hope we continue to have the sense that people care about what we're up to."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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