Exit Interview: Teri Lazzara, Theater Schmeater’s Managing Director, is heading for the wings

[media-credit name=”John Ulman” align=”alignright” width=”299″][/media-credit]Teri Lazzara would have preferred this interview been conducted over a bottle of wine, preferably at St. Johns (formerly The Rosebud) with the murmur of pub clientele and friends as a background score. It’s not as though Lazzara is averse to talking about herself and her accomplishments–not at all. She’d be the first to tell you it’s because she’s Italian and Italians are always more comfortable with a bottle of wine on hand.

Just the same, she takes a seat in the Theater Schmeater Green Room where the hint of fresh paint lingers in the air. Under her watchful gaze, the theater has been put through one of its regular scouring and sprucing events, leaving the old Green Room walls a deep and healthy purple. Perching cat-like on the edge of her chair she eyes a “To Do” list longer than her tidy little frame is tall. A glass of wine would go a long way in easing her over that mound of tasks.

Once referred to by John Longenbaugh of the Seattle Weekly as “Fringe’s Patron Saint,” Lazzara has been one of the most enduring (if not endearing) figures in the Seattle Fringe community for longer than even she’d like to admit, lending her acting, producing, directing and management talents to some of its finer moments.

In November of 2011 Lazzara turned fifty and announced that she would be vacating her position as Theater Schmeater’s Managing Director. “Three years ago I said, ‘Okay, here’s my exit strategy–I leave in three years when I turn fifty. I’m going to give you one year.’ So they knew, close to three years ago that I was going to leave. I knew my term would be up and I knew that I’d be right at that point of saying, ‘Okay, it’s time to go…’”

When she stepped into the position alongside then-Artistic Director David Gassner in 2006, the two took charge at a time when the former parking garage-cum-print shop’s finances and esprit de corps were scrabbling for higher ground.

Truth be told, Gassner’s offer of Schmeater’s MD wasn’t the first. In fact, she’d turned down the gig in the past.

“Rob (West) sort of gave me a little nudge because he went through managing director after managing director,” recalls Lazzara. “It’s not a beloved job. It is by me. I love it and I have a great passion for producing theater and how much fun that is and to see all the teams working together.”

The timing of West’s offer just wasn’t right for Lazzara. “He had approached me at the Rosebud and said, ‘Hey, would you ever think of being my partner?’ I was just settling up my divorce and not in a place where I could consider it,” she laughs. “But had he lasted a little bit longer and come back to me again I probably would have said ‘Yes.’”

Though she’d had a lion’s share of career administrative experience Lazzara felt as if she’d been airdropped into Terra Incognita. Like most feline creatures, Lazzara landed on her feet.

“So when David asked me, I was ready to produce theater and be part of a team here…not knowing about all of the drama. I think that I thrive in that kind of trouble–$85.00 in the bank and the taxman after us…”

And after them he was, to the tune of $35,000–a debt that was ultimately tackled thanks to some hacking and slashing of prior Schmee programming and procedures. Gone were the once-successful late-night programming like The Twilight Zone and Crescendo Falls. Attendance at 11pm shows had flagged as the rude health of the Schmee’s youthful target audience gave way to maturity and practicality. No more late nights for them, and no more late nights for the Schmee.

“None of the staff got paid for the first two years. They didn’t receive any kind of stipend, it was just about tightening the belt,” says Lazzara. “Then of course the rewards came. We set up things like percent of growth which was how we paid people to inspire them to become part of the production.”

[media-credit name=”Adam Sanders” align=”alignnone” width=”604″][/media-credit]Looking back, Lazzara reels at the turbulent start to her career as MD and grateful it was not a process she faced alone.

“I didn’t know how to do it, I’d never run a facility,” Lazzara recalls. “I didn’t even know what a P-and-L was! I just dug through every single file that I could find to figure things out. I called people who had been here… John Bradshaw, whom I would call at 11:00 o’clock at night with a martini in my hand as I went through the Civic Partners grant request. ‘How do I do this, I don’t even know how to do this?’ And so I was calling and meeting with the Mayor’s office and meeting with everybody I could think of to just get help, help, help!”

Though scattershot at first, all that frantic energy began to focus and coalesce. “People like Stephen McCandless at Annex and all the managing directors in town were very helpful in throwing stuff at me until we started building this team,” says Lazzara. “The board was really small and David and I helped cultivate that and get them growing. Now they’ve written by-laws and strategic plans. They’ve got themselves set up for a great stewardship for this organization.”

Between the Schmee and her full-time job as an executive assistant (okay, she says she’s a secretary, but the semantics are open for debate) personal time was at a premium. Ever pre-occupied with patching holes in the budget, wrangling artists and directors, ordering supplies and stocking the bar–not to mention planning the season, she still made time to act and direct but the plumbing was disintegrating and now there were overflowing file cabinets dominating her kitchen.

“I came in crying, ‘I can’t have my kitchen like this…every minute of every day is Theater Schmeater, which is fun and it’s my passion but I need to have a little break.’ So Michael (Mowry, Technical Director) and Doug (Staley, Artistic Associate and Public Relations) built an actual office for me. They shortened the theater backstage so I could come here and get work done and it didn’t have to be part of my kitchen.”

While Lazzara and company wrestled Schmee’s debts into submission, cajoled plumbers and fire marshals and drove an unwelcome horde of scurrying tenants back into the streets of Capitol Hill, a sturdy and supportive community began to grow up around her. She was as befuddled as anybody as to how this happened. “I wish I had the answer. I think it just has a lot to do with who this team is. We have had turnover, certainly, young ones that have moved on but there are ones who do stay. For example Miranda (Pratt) who came on board as our resident Stage Manager. I see us as an incubator for that kind of talent. She may have moved on to do Equity stage management now, but she still stays. She doesn’t want to leave. And some of the ones that do go away and get bigger and better jobs that really do pay them come back and give back. I think because it is fun and they like the quality of the product.”

[media-credit name=”Regan MacStravic” align=”alignnone” width=”640″][/media-credit]Many agree replacing Lazzara will be no mean feat. “There’s a committee on the board and two staff members who know me and the job better than anybody else on staff besides Michael, Doug and Miranda who’ve been here as long as I have. They’re going to call the first round and the whole staff will meet certain candidates. I’m pretty sure they’re going to do it that way. I’ve recommended some people and JD (Lloyd, Artistic Director) has recommended some people and we’ve gone and talked to people and said, ‘Apply, apply, apply’”

Lazzara says she has really only one hope for her replacement, “That it will be about a month of me training them and then this person will say, “Get the hell out of here, I can handle it now without you!’ There is no place for two people in that role. Well, there is but I’m too strong of a personality. If I’m there, I have to be the boss. I want somebody else to come in and work with the team. It’ll be a different atmosphere, probably, but hopefully better.”

What will Lazzara miss? Damn-near everything.

“In this business, where you see your friends is at your job. I’m going to miss that day-to-day.” She says, “And I’ll miss my customers. I love my customers, even the ones who come in and bitch. I got this voicemail that I saved forever until I had to get a new voicemail…

‘Hi, I saw your play. It was good, it was fine and I loved the doors in the bathrooms but the one with lady dancer and the man dancer but what’s with that? I kinda get going down into the rabbit hole (it kinda went with the play) but going down the hill, that’s just stupid. You need to fix that. I don’t think I’m ever coming back again and could you stop doing all the queer plays?’

It was just a random message and she hung up. As crazy as that is, I love that and I’ll miss that too.”

Indeed, Theater Schmeater will be a much different space without Lazzara’s signature purse fashioned from Rod Stewart 45s, the framed Charles Bronson 8x10s and the vivid conversations peppered with her unique phraseology, “Meow me later?”

“It’s been a lot of work but I know there is a limited amount of time that you can give on a volunteer basis before you get crabby,” says Lazzara. “I want to leave and cry. I want to miss it and I don’t want to feel bad about it.”

The actual deadline to apply for the position of Managing Director at Theater Schmeater was April 16, 2012. No word as yet on the interview process or how soon the position will be filled. One can only hope that the feet filling those shoes are as nimble, sheer and cat-like as their predecessors.