Saturday, April 20, 2013

theatre notes. ACT.

The first play I ever saw at ACT was William Nicholson's Shadowlands, about the writer C. S. Lewis - I was 12, so I had read all the Narnia books - and his relationship with Joy Davidman, who became his wife (then they fell in love, and then she died of cancer). It was witty - all these Oxford dons trading barbed quips back and forth - and heartbreaking - a young boy sobbing over the death of his mother, passing through the other side of the wardrobe where he could not follow. The second play I remember just as vividly, Alan Ayckbourn's The Revenger's Comedies, which is some five hours long and is presented as two plays performed over successive nights or, for those with more stamina, over a weekend afternoon and evening with a dinner break. It is fucking HILARIOUS. Many of the actors I loved in these two plays - Michael Winters, Suzanne Bouchard, Laurence Ballard, R. Hamilton Wright, Marianne Owen, John Aylward, Leslie Law, Katie Forgette - are still making theatre in Seattle.

The ACT I first remember was on a corner lot in Lower Queen Anne near Seattle Center, a smallish theatre with an angled thrust stage. Wikipedia tells me it had 454 seats, so it was clearly bigger than I remember, but to me it had a feeling of cozy intimacy. In the late nineties they moved to their current home, the former Eagles Auditorium in downtown Seattle. Now they had two stages - the thrust Falls Theatre, and the arena Allen Theatre, neither of which could be described as cozy. There was a sense they didn't quite know what to do with all this new space. I remember several plays during this period, mainly the amazing Death of a Salesman, but I was in high school and then away at college. The last play I saw there for quite some time was Dinner with Friends, with John Procaccino and the late Mark Chamberlin. Soon after that ACT crashed and burned, financially, and in a spectacular fashion. In their early years at the corner of 7th and Union they were like a child wobbling around in her mother's high heels, excited but unsteady and unsure. They were one company producing six plays a year in a theater that was far too large. But that they weren't ready to share any of it with anyone else, the way a four-year-old wants ALL the toys even though they aren't actually playing with all of them. This was unsustainable. Even I could have told them that, and I was a teenager who didn't know anything about managing a theater. I still don't.

But ACT regrouped, although during these years I was in my 20s and wasn't really paying attention to Seattle's theatre scene. I wouldn't be back until I was 28 and found myself at the last performance of Steven Dietz's Becky's New Car and saw Suzanne Bouchard and R. Hamilton Wright and Michael Winters together again (as well as Kimberly King and Charles Leggett). I remember thinking, ok. I can come home now. I haven't looked back since. The real game-changer, though, was yet to come. It was the Central Heating Lab that turned ACT from a mere theatre to an actual community of theatre-makers and this, I think, is its most compelling creation. This allows for more new work, for more experimentation, for more creativity. Small companies finding their own voices can come in and make something and have the support of a large infrastructure already in place. They get marketing and a wider audience of people like me, who are ACT Pass members and can see pretty much anything on any of the four stages for the princely sum of $30 a month. Now I walk in on any given night and there is always something going on on at least one stage and often two and sometimes three or four stages. Are you upstairs in the Allen? Downstairs in the Falls? Even farther downstairs in the Bullitt Cabaret? Or in that little black box next to the Bullitt that they've nicknamed the "Lalie"?

Last night I was at the first preview for the second play of ACT's 2013 mainstage season. Assisted Living is written by Katie Forgette, directed by her husband R. Hamilton Wright, and performed by Kurt Beattie (current artistic director of ACT, incidentally), Marianne Owen (who happens to be his wife), Jeff Steitzer (who happens to be former artistic director of ACT), and Laura Kenny. All people whose work I have loved for a long time. (The other two actors, Julie Briskman and Tim Gouran, I don't love them any less, just not nearly as long). Besides being howlingly funny, the play is about fears that are very real - of the indignities of growing old, of not having family, of being trapped in an existence where you are at the mercy of powers beyond your control. And yet there is friendship, and the solace of words and of making theatre. There was the sense that all of these people have known and loved and worked together for a very long time, and I was reminded again why coming to ACT always feels like a homecoming.

I was very lucky to see three wonderful plays in London last month, but what I love most about live theatre is that it is about more than a play or a famous actor. It is about relationships built through time, about how a community develops between theaters and actors and playwrights and the audience. About watching actors evolve over the years, their powers not diminishing or burning out, only growing greater. It is a privilege to experience and to support this.