By Rayna Stackhouse with reporting by Justin Carder
Greg Carter and Strawberry Theatre Workshop aren’t about to get rich. But the company is putting on one last show on Capitol Hill the old-fashioned theatre way.
“Our industry doesn’t work very well in a capitalist model,” says Carter. “The rich get rich, while the poor get poorer.”
While the city’s behemoth performance and arts organizations like Seattle Opera have a full staff to raise money, sell tickets and can support and pay their performers, small theater companies around Capitol Hill typically barely scrape by. The money they make is mostly from tickets and booze, Carter says.
The 12th Ave Arts building, slated to open in early November, should help change that equation for Strawshop and its two companion theater companies, Washington Ensemble Theatre and New Century Theater Company, teaming up to form a new kind of arts organization resident in the new Capitol Hill Housing development.
Capitol Hill Housing and Black Box representatives were on hand this week for a “hard hat” tour of the new building. The $47 million
$38 million, 29,000 square-foot 12th Ave Arts project is creating 88 affordable apartment units, office space, retail space and a theater facility above parking that will also be utilized by Seattle Police’s East Precinct.
The project is the result of a two-decade push from community groups and organizations to create something greater with the East Precinct parking lot that used to call the land home.
Capitol Hill Housing’s Michael Seiwerath said it was community pressure that finally moved the project through the mire at City Hall.
“These citizen volunteers went down there and said there’s a better use for this,” he said about the old, barbed wire-ringed police parking lot.
In a most unusual twist on the typical “mixed-use” development around the Hill, 12th Ave Arts will also have two fully tricked out, state of the art performance spaces totaling nearly 6,000 square feet: one with room for 149 seats, the other Studio Stage with an 80-person capacity. Hardcore theater geeks will nerd out at the catwalks above and sound suppression enveloping both venues.
The three theater companies will share the two theaters and craft shows to the features of each. Expect the smaller, more flexible Studio to be put to good use. About one third of the schedule will be open for other companies to rent out the theaters.
To give the impressive performance investments a solid plan for tenants in the shaky world of live performance, three theater companies formed Black Box Operations to manage the spaces.
But, one last time, Carter and Strawshop are in the old world they have inhabited since 2003 — and without the new digs. They’re ending the run with Black Comedy, a farce that turns on a blown electrical fuse right before important guests arrive for a dinner party. Chaos, of course, ensues. It plays through September 20th in the space they rent from Seattle Central’s Erickson Theater on Harvard. In the beginning back in 2003, Strawshop started on the Hugo House stage performing two shows a year.
Starting in January 2015, it will join WET and New Century in putting the arts 12th Ave Arts. WET’s longtime 19th Ave E home is now for rent, by the way, and likely to end up as a bar or restaurant. The theater companies aren’t yet large enough to individually keep the stages filled in both of the 12th Ave Arts venues. But together, they expect to have enough drama to keep the spaces moving about 60% of the time. The rest of the time, other companies will be able to rent the performance spaces.
Carter says the unique partnership in which each company has two members on the board gives the art creators control of management of the ground floor of the building.
“What we get out of it,” says Carter, “ is we are at the table for all the decision making for Black Box.”
The 12th Ave Arts stages will see their inaugural performances in 2015. The first pairing of performances might give you a taste about the interplay that will play out in 12th Ave Arts through the seasons. WET will stage Sprawl, “Josh Conkel’s darkly hilarious new black comedy” — “It’s about how evil the suburbs are,” WET’s lead producer Ali el-Gasseir said – and, in the big theater, Strawshop will dust off and reimagine the classic Our Town.
12th Ave Arts could end up as a centerpiece to a much-talked-of, little-acted-on Capitol Hill Arts District. At a community forum earlier this summer hosted by Capitol Hill Housing, artists, developers, and business owners discussed ideas for creating a formal district with the City of Seattle to somehow promote “the arts” on Capitol Hill. A performance district might already be forming. 12th Ave is already home to the Velocity Dance Center and the Northwest Film Forum. Around the corner, the Annex Theatre celebrated 25 years of performance on Capitol Hill in 2012.
12th Ave Arts stands (almost) ready to be a kind of headquarters for live performance.
“Performance was the issue from the beginning because it’s so space specific,” Seiwerath said. Seiwerath said he and the theater representatives believe there is a demand for higher quality performing arts spaces in the neighborhood.
Capitol Hill Housing used a mix of tax credits, levy dollars, state programs and commercial bank loans to complete the $38 million project and received a $7.7 million loan from the city. It also raised more than $4 million from community donations and grants to pay for the theaters. Half of the $4.6 million goal came thanks to big cash from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the Joshua Green Foundation, and the Wyncote Foundation. The project also received $565,000 from Washington Building for the Arts.
Capitol Hill Housing will move its offices into the building’s second floor. It will share the office component of 12th Ave Arts with Three Dollar Bill Cinema, the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, and classroom and rehearsal space for the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Above, 88 affordable apartment units fill the six-story building. Here’s what happened when those units joined Capitol Hill’s high-demand rental market. The first come, first served apartment units are reserved for those with household earnings no greater than 60% of the area median income, putting max income eligibility in the ballpark of $37,000 for a single person and and $53,000 for a four-person household. A one bedroom apartment rents for $883 a month and a two-bedroom, $1,191. At least one theater member was able to secure an apartment in the building, according to Capitol Hill Housing.
The architect on the project is SMR Architects, creator of the plans for CHH’s Pantages Apartments on E Denny Way. “I can’t think of any other project that’s been built like this,” SMR principal Dean Kralios said about the unique mix of housing, office, arts, and police parking.
Black Box will employ dancer Kaitlin McCarthy to coordinate the mix — and keep track of schedules for the theater spaces.
With small theater companies struggling to survive in Seattle, 12th Ave Arts could also provide one model for survival — and success. But even so, given how many companies have come and gone, the organization behind the 12th Ave Arts arts component is engineered for survival. Black Box will allow the continued management of the space in the likely event that one or all of the companies aren’t there in the future.
“Live performance,” says Carter, “will always not be very cost efficient… Any arts organization is on the verge of going out of business any day.”