It has been busy on the theater front up here in the Emerald City. Not only have there been more shows on the boards than during any summer since the pandemic struck, we have also had momentous news – some promising, some distressing.
What’s big theatrical news in Oregon is big news in Seattle, too: Tim Bond (left; photo by Hillary Jeane Photography) is the new artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and former Artists Rep leader Dámaso Rodríguez (right; photo by Lava Alapai) is the new artistic director at Seattle Rep.
IN A TIME OF GREAT CONCERN over the fragility of America’s essential regional theater circuit, and dire warnings about its future via The Washington Post and The New York Times, the disturbing bulletins about Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s fiscal woes and uncertain season were tempered somewhat by the recent appointment of Tim Bond as OSF’s new artistic director. This is of consequence for both Seattle and Portland theatergoers, a major portion of OSF’s past audience.
Bond has, in his impressive resume, done a lengthy stint in Seattle as artistic head of Seattle Group Theatre, a company that spent 20 years devoted to producing a multicultural menu of plays and musicals. While at the helm, Bond directed more than 20 productions, spearheaded an annual new plays festival and other initiatives, and oversaw a move from a University of Washington playhouse to the Seattle Center. (The move did not work out as hoped. It, among other factors, led to the company’s disbanding in 1998, two years after Bond’s departure.)
In Seattle, and later as associate artistic director at OSF, and then a.d. of Syracuse Stage in New York and Palo Altos’ TheatreWorks, Bond garnered considerable respect for his poised and approachable manner, his keen knowledge of theater, and his skill as a director of both classical and modern work. He is perceived in these parts as the kind of steady hand and genuinely inclusive leader, with close ties to the Ashland community, that OSF desperately needs at this juncture. Seeing OSF through this crisis will be a monumental task, and one can only wish him well.
The big hiring news of more direct import to Seattle is the choice of Dámaso Rodríguez as the new artistic director of Seattle Rep (formerly known as Seattle Repertory Theatre). In my own conversation with Rodríguez for American Theatre, he discussed his attraction to the Rep’s two-stage operation with its much larger budget and wider recognition than Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, which he ran for nine years. And despite all the doom and gloom about theater survival, he shared his belief that a key to reversing the national crisis in loss of audiences and funding challenges will be offering big, bold productions rather than scaling down the size and ambition of shows. It’s a refreshing notion. But can he pull it off?
His appointment, like Bond’s, was greeted positively here. However, as previous Seattle Rep honcho Braden Abraham noted when he left the company last year to run the smaller Writers Theatre of Chicago, it will take a lot of savvy and luck to raise substantial funds from a shrinking Seattle pool of well-heeled patrons, and to (my phrase, not his) get those tech bro’s butts in the seats. (The 2023-24 Seattle Rep season, which is an enticing mix of local and imported shows, was already in place before Rodriguez was hired.)
A Big Loss
RODRÍGUEZ IS ARRIVING just as Seattle theater sustained a hard loss — one of its most popular midsized companies, Book-It Repertory Theatre. After three decades of presenting faithful, skillfully mounted adaptations of modern and classical novels and short stories, the troupe (according to its board of directors, and former co-artistic director Myra Platt) simply could not go forth with a planned 2023-24 season due to serious financial constraints.
After Platt and co-artistic honcho Jane Jones ended their long reign several years ago, the company under Chicago transplant Gus Trenery struggled to survive the Covid pandemic. And longtime subscribers noticed a distinct shift in artistic sensibility, with a shift away from Book-It’s signature style.
Book-It’s style pre-covid was unique: its adaptations of fiction often included omniscient and first-person narration, and hewed very closely to the original author’s plotting, characterizations, dialogue and descriptions. And the company’s creative reach, if it occasionally exceeded their grasp, was admirably ambitious – whether it was in dramatizations of Treasure Island or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; The Cider House Rules or The Maltese Falcon.
Book-It also forged strong relationships with contemporary Pacific Northwest authors, and spun off worthy educational programs.
Though the ensemble dared to tackle difficult-to-stage books like James Purdy’s In a Shallow Grave and A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, some of the most popular offerings were the graceful renderings of Jane Austen novels, which paralleled a renewed interest in the 19th Century author’s works. One of the most successful, Book-It’s sparkling version of Pride and Prejudice, adapted by Marcus Goodwin, was also presented at Portland Center Stage in 2005.
Successes, and Coming Up
Consider how bleak things looked for the dramatic arts when the bubonic plague swept across Eurasia and North Africa. But theater, that “fabulous invalid” (as George S. Kauffman and Moss Hart dubbed it) has somehow survived wars, other pandemics, electronic and digital media. And though high rents and other costs make Seattle an increasingly difficult place for theaters and theater artists to thrive, the final curtain hasn’t dropped yet.
In Seattle we’ve recently seen a riotously delightful production of Jeeves Takes a Bow (based on the comic tales of P.G. Wodehouse) at Taproot Theatre. And I enjoyed a searingly effective airing of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cost of Living by Martyna Majok, which focuses with subtlety and power on the dynamics of caregivers and the physically limited people they care for. It was produced by the intrepid Sound Theatre Company.
As predicted, the Broadway tour of the devilishly clever, quasi-historical musical Six was a huge box office success at the Paramount Theatre, as it has been at Portland’s Keller Auditorium, where it concludes its run on Sunday, July 30.
Just opened, and running through Aug. 5, is the catchily titled Champagne + Sodomy: The Art and Crime of Oscar Wilde, a mashup of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moises Kaufman and Wilde’s own The Importance of Being Earnest. It is a typically adventurous venture by the footloose Williams Project, one of the city’s most exciting (and mobile) troupes.
And while Seattle Opera isn’t whipping up a blow-out full production of Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle, it is staging a starry production of Das Rheingold featuring Greer Grimsley as the supreme Norse god Wotan and Denyce Graves as the earth goddess Erda. This first of the four operas in the cycle, it runs Aug. 12-20 at McCaw Hall.
And by the way – in another big change of leadership, Seattle Opera general director Christina Scheppelmann announced she will be leaving at the close of the 2023-24 season to take up another top post, at La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels, Belgium, at the close of the 2023-24 season.
She was a steady leader over the past four years, and will head back to Europe (she is originally from Germany), where despite their own struggles governments are still substantially more generous to the arts than our nation is. How generous? In 2022 France’s Ministry of Culture budget was more than four billion Euros, or more than 4.4 billion U.S. dollars, in a nation of some 67 million people. Our own National Endowment for the Arts’ budget for 2022? $201 million (raised to $227 million for 2023), for a country of about 332 million people.
Given those figures, it’s no wonder nonprofit theatrical and other arts organizations are so shaky.