Saturday, April 21, 2012

theatre notes. garage theaters.

I thought of Mike Daisey talking about garage theaters when I went to see Stuck at the Washington Ensemble Theatre a few weeks back. This is Seattle, so it's not so much a garage theater as a coffee-house theater, like the New City a couple miles away. WET is wedged into a storefront next to Fuel Coffee - a door from the cafĂ© leads directly into the hallway of the theater - and it has about forty seats squished together in front of a slightly elevated stage. I'm really hoping it wasn't in this theater that Daisey portrayed a masturbating bishop in a performance of Jean Genet's The Balcony many years ago; it's a pretty intimate space. The first three rows would've gotten an eyeful.

Seattle is full of these theaters, including WET, the aforementioned New City Theatre, and The Odd Duck, housed in a former garage. Balagan was in the basement of a trendy loft building before decamping to the Erickson, and Theater Simple used to have a black box in a now-shabby downtown mall. Theater Simple was where I saw The Master and Margarita some fifteen years ago, with a bare-bones, gender-bending, role-switching cast, and lots of equal-opportunity nudity. (Margarita, after all, spends most of her part of the story naked or barely clothed. It must make it a difficult novel to adapt to the stage).

I've been spending more and more time in all kinds of theaters in the year since seeing Mike Daisey's How Theatre Failed America at the Seattle Rep last spring. From big houses (ACT, Seattle Rep), to middle-sized ones (Taproot), smaller ones (Theatre Off Jackson, Strawshop, New Century Theatre Company), and tiny coffehouse theaters (WET, New City, Odd Duck). The big theaters have more money and time, and produce something altogether more polished, but they also have more expectations. They have subscribers to please and board members to keep happy and a budget that must be balanced at year's end. They need to make art, but they also need to make money.

The small theaters don't have any of that. There's a kind of freedom, instead. The freedom to try anything, even if it doesn't quite work. The freedom to take more risks, produce new work, or put on something considered too 'difficult' by the larger theaters, like Genet's The Balcony. It must be so liberating to find your footing as a writer or an actor in a space that's the size of a shoebox with a set built by the cast from a few bits of plywood and curtains from the Goodwill. This is why I go to so many plays, even if they aren't necessarily very good.

Rarely do I actually think a play isn't very good. It isn't that I have no taste (though some might disagree), but rather, there is nearly always something good to be found. If they can communicate to me, somehow, that this is a project all the people involved clearly believe in, rightly or wrongly, then it justifies itself. And theatre can be made anywhere. In a coffeehouse, in a bar, in the park, in a deconsecrated church hall. You just have to make it.

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