The Argument for On The Boards, Part One

[Tim Summers] Promotional image from OtB’s production of NWNW 2012; Catherine Cabeen is pictured.

In my relatively short career as a drama critic, I’ve found that there are some theaters that I need to visit regularly, if for no other reason than I find spending time within their walls is rewarding on some minuscule level. These include, but are not limited to, New City Theater, Theater Off Jackson, the Satori Group (who are due back soon), and boom! theater–all of whom regularly rent their space out to other interesting companies. The venerable On The Boards on Lower Queen Anne resides at the top of the list for your correspondent.

For those who value the organization, the title of this essay is redundant; certainly, OtB’s record and standing within Seattle doesn’t need defending–and yet, it is with increasing alarm that I find that the majority of my fellow artists are not attending. The fact that some of their shows aren’t selling out is a shame, but an accepted risk within the arts. Similarly, I would include uneven critical response into the “accepted risk” category, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have read some of the most wrong-headed “reviews,” to use the term loosely, attached to what is consistently the most daring and effective theater this town has the privilege of seeing.

I can sense the skeptical grumbling among certain readers now, none louder than those coming from my fellow theatrical co-conspirators. While not every doubter is the same, their gripes could be narrowed down with some general triangulation: “You know, I used to go back in the day, but I found them to be overpriced and overhyped,” says one. “I kinda dig what they do, but they’re more of an experimental thing,” or “It’s dance, and what I like/do isn’t,” notes a theatergoer or artist, depending on the answer. A critic pipes in with, “They just bring in stuff from out of town–what’s local only runs for one weekend. Everything runs for one weekend, it’s too much work to try to fit it into the schedule.”

To which my reply is a friendly “Wrong.” Just wrong. If we have to start somewhere, let’s look at the the average ticket price for an OtB event ($25) and compare it with most established Fringe theater ticket prices. Now compare it to an average ticket at one of the “professional” theaters in town. I realize that even that low average might be too much for some pocket books, however they do seem to use volunteer ushers. (An aside to the critic: They are worth the effort, honestly. How often are you truly engaged by what you see regularly? More to the point, how often do you purposely put yourself in a situation where you have to open up and engage with a work instead of expecting everything to be handed to you?)

As far as the “Experimental/dance is not my thing, dude” excuse goes, it speaks to a lack of seeking spirit, an unwillingness to engage. How can one become aware of the stale timidity that’s crept into our stages without being aware of what bracing, brave and invigorating theater looks like? Or what’s possible in other forms of performance? Some of what’s out there is pretty stale and timid, folks, and others would argue that it crept into our stages well over a decade or two ago. The majority of what we are watching these days–regardless of whether it’s a production of a new play or a well known classic, the silliest of comedies or the direst of dramas–they all share one common characteristic: It lacks rigor; it lacks artistic and intellectual rigor. This is galling considering the amount of talent, potential and resources we have at our disposal.

It pains me to write this, given that I used to be one of the biggest boosters of local talent, but no amount of chest-thumping, boosterism or self-congratulation can disguise the fact that Seattle’s artistic personnel, from Artistic Directors on down, are more concerned with “getting butts in seats,” with “catering to the Stranger/Weekly/Seattle Times crowd,” than they are with artistic merit–this list includes people I see at OtB on occasion. We have created a situation where everyone is a marketer, and the artist is becoming extinct.

I long for the day when our companies realize that a hook, a gimmick or a trend should not be the first, second or third consideration in their productions. That a cash cow might fill their coffers, but might also be artistically bankrupt. That when high production values trumps artistic intent, the resulting experience is typically empty.

(Please note that these comments are being made about theater artists, primarily, as I remain a blissful dilettante about Dance and its realm, although I do hear some negative rumblings from folks more experienced than I on the topic. I have enjoyed what I’ve been exposed to, however.)

Until that cathartic day arrives, there is On the Boards.

As I think back over the last couple of years, most of what has left me agog has been witnessed inside the Behnke Center. El Gallo and Newyorkland immediately spring to mind from last year. 2012 alone has given us a bounty of outstanding work, beginning with Erin Jorgensen’s collaboration with Steve Fisk, Redemption. This was immediately followed by the Argentinian El Pasado es un Animal Grotesquo, an intense exploration of not just what kind of stories can be told onstage, but most importantly how. After that, we got tEEth’s Make/Believe, an intense, physical exploration of the aggressively binding and torturous nature of inter-gender politics that made me wonder why my co-conspirators aren’t paying more attention to Dance. Followed by Kyle Abraham, followed by Rouge, followed by Northwest New Works

All of that took place between January and June this year; after a largely quiet Summer, OtB began their 12-13 season firing on all cylinders, though I will save my thoughts on their opening salvos for Part Two. For the moment, I will again encourage you to take advantage of your last chance to see The Tempest Replica tonight, as well as promote the first 12 Minutes Max of the season (which I had a hand in curating, along with choreographer Kate Wallich and illustrator/writer/performer Eric Pitsenbarger), in which you’ll witness Korby Sears’ metal-influenced madcap energy, Brenna Fredrickson’s textual exploration of love amid senility, Paris Hurley’s musings on feminist shame via cassette players orchestra, and Kaitlin McCarthy’s sweet depiction of a tweener in limbo. A perfect sampler of both the kind of talent that is percolating in Seattle, and what is, in essence, the best theater company in town.