Ever-increasing pressure from commercial growth and development unfriendly to cash-strapped artistic ventures, venue allocation shifts and the logistics of having committed producers and planners who can keep things running year after year may keep it in a relatively constant flux. Despite these challenges Capitol Hill’s theater scene is showing some signs of renewed vitality in 2014 including the return of the reincarnated Seattle Fringe Festival that kicks off its third consecutive year with performances Wednesday.
The festival is bringing another five-day September wave of unpredictable performances to Capitol Hill venues just a few months before 12th Ave Arts is scheduled to open and provide dedicated homes to three small companies which will join the likes of Annex Theatre and the Eclectic Theater in producing smaller-scale theater in neighborhood’s core year round.
“The more Capitol Hill edges toward the mainstream, the more important it is to keep a toehold in the neighborhood for risky, unusual, challenging, non-commercial arts and entertainment,” Pamala Mijatov, a member of the Fringe Festival’s steering committee and artistic director at Annex told CHS in an email. “Seattle is growing and changing rapidly. As rents escalate, artists are getting squeezed out of the central neighborhoods, and there are fewer small production venues, which means fewer opportunities for artists to take risks on unproven work,” she wrote. “The Seattle Fringe Festival is maintaining a platform for those self-producing artists.”
Wednesday through Sunday, a total of 22 works produced by companies that won a spot in the festival through its non-juried lottery will provide 88 chances to see a performance of an hour or less for $10 at five venues within walking distance of each other on the Hill. Annex, the Eclectic, two separate adapted stages at the The Northwest Film Forum and the fairly new Calamus Auditorium at Gay City are all sites for this year’s fringe fest.
The Festival in its current iteration was launched in 2012, spinning out of conversations facilitated at the Seattle Theatre: What’s Next? meeting. It is an associated production of Seattle Contemporary. The original Seattle Fringe Festival was a much bigger affair run by a non-profit that kicked off with a street parade in its heyday. It died out after 2004, when the non-profit filed for bankruptcy, leaving it to fundraising efforts to pay tech folks, stage hands and performers. Some say the previous festival became too big to sustain itself. Others have argued that moving the festival from the spring to the fall, when the theater schedule is said to typically be more packed put a squeeze on audience numbers and revenue.
Several involved said the almost nine-year fringe festival drought and other ebbs and flows of the neighborhood’s and city’s theater scenes are more reflective of practical challenges — including having motivated people who can make stuff happen involved — than shifts in momentum in the culture interested in making and watching theater in Seattle. Founder of Ear to the Ground Theatre, Valerie Moseley, said she agreed with this general narrative.
“I think it was very specific to the people that were running the festival at the time,” Mosely told CHS about the bankruptcy of the first Seattle Fringe Festival. “They made some mistakes, and then were other people who just didn’t want to step up and keep it going,” she said. “It was not like ‘Theater is dead in Seattle,’ or anything like that. You know, it’s a constantly shifting scene,” she said. “For instance, Theater Schmeater, everyone’s upset that Theater Schmeater did not get to keep their space on the Hill, but they found some place in Belltown,” she said. “Years ago Annex did not get to keep their place in Belltown, and now it’s thriving 11th and Pine. Things shift. We’re about to get the new 12th Ave Arts center,” Moseley said.
“Yes people get priced out of the cool spaces and people somehow find a way,” Moseley said. “I still feel like it’s very much a vibrant scene, there’s a lot going on here.”
The new iteration of the festival has remained about the same size the last three years. However, Mijatov, who has been on the new festival’s steering committee since the beginning, says some measured growth could be on the horizon.
“We’re making smart choices about growing sustainably every year, so that we can always offer strong support to artists and an ever-broadening buffet of unusual performances for audiences, Mijatov wrote. “We definitely want to expand out of our current 5-days/5-venues matrix, and get more shows in more spaces all around the Hill — but we’re going to let the audience response drive our expansion plans.”
While this year’s festival has attracted artists from Colorado, from New York City, Portland and LA, the lineup draws heavily on local artists — a majority of the 22 slots in the lottery were set aside for local productions.
CHS talked with several people involved with Seattle-based productions featured in this year’s festival about the works, about their perspectives on the Fringe Festival and about the state of theater in Capitol Hill in 2014.
Check out a special edition of the CHS Crow to hear from writer and producer Leroy Chin, a veteran of the original Seattle Fringe Festival whose new work Children of the Universe, explores life and death, love, relationships and suicide through a story that takes place in Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill — the play sees its world premier this week at Calamus, while plans for a July production in LA and for an independent film adaptation are already in the works; from writer, producer and performer Kelly Ward, a Capitol-Hill based aerial artist whose Dreams of Chtulhu makes a foray in to some new territory as it combines dance, aerial arts, circus and burlesque to tell a horror story with mythical overtones based on three works by HP Lovecraft, a production that involves a massive set for a fringe festival as it starts its run at tonight at the Northwest Film Forum Stage 1; from Mara Siciliano, a veteran of both the old and new Seattle Fringe Festival who is the writer and producer of Missing the Pointe, a tale about woman who goes back in time to the age of three with the goal becoming the next prima ballerina the likes of Pavlova, and who learns some lessons as she sticks with her art despite some bumps in the road and from 26-year-old playwright Benjamin Benne, a fairly-recent transplant to Seattle from LA who makes his Seattle Fringe Festival debut with
q u e r e n c i a: an imagined autobiography, a story that involves some coming-of-age and coming-out elements that takes place in LA County and downtown LA and that starts its run at Calamus Thursday evening.
Other works in the festival include Hamlet & Juliet, an “exercise in short-attention-span Fakespearian theater” from LA-based production company Sound & Fury and Breath Normally, an hour of comic story telling by New York City-based James Judd and Seattle’s Kierra McDonald, both at Annex, and Alligators and Debuntes, an hour of American fairy tales spun by Bret Fetzer set to music by Sari Breznau of Orkestar Zirkonium and Eric Padget at Northwest Film Forum Stage 2. The Two-Step written and produced by Christine Longe received solid reviews at the Fringe Festival in Winnipeg, Canada, and starts its run at Northwest Film Forum Stage 1. The festival also features works by local artists Dustin Engstrom, Cindy Giesse French and Machelle Alman and more.
Seattle-based Louise Penberthy also has a show in the festival being produced at Eclectic that may exemplify some of the potential of Capitol Hill’s theater engine: Herding Cats, the Life and Death of Natalie’s Cat starts its run at the Eclectic tonight. A version of the “surreal, lyrical and humorous mediation on loss, guilt and love” about a person searching for their deceased cat in the “cat world” and the “human world” appeared in the Eclectic’s One-Act Play Festival back in June as Penberthy prepared the work for the Fringe Festival.
You can learn more and purchase $10 tickets at seattlefringefestival.org.