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S.P. Miskowski

So much to talk about...

First response: You will never get a big turnout of actors for this kind of discussion. The reasons offered by individual actors will be legion, but the core reason is: It's hard enough for them to get noticed in a positive way, and in Seattle they are not appreciated by the big houses.

The administrative people there will say, "Oh, yes, we have some fine actors here." Or, "So-and-So is just fabulous!" But they routinely employ New York actors in place of brilliant local ones, dismiss them as amateurish behind their backs, eat and talk to friends during their auditions, and generally behave horribly. I have seen these things with my own eyes, heard them behind the scenes, and have been told horror stories by actors I know and respect who are not at all reactionary.

No one in charge will own up to this, but why would they? And why would actors lead a revolution? If it's already that hard to get a job doing what you do exceptionally well--in your own city--imagine how hard it is after you've criticized the big houses in public.

We writers are accustomed to speaking out. It's our nature, and our tradition. We bite the hand that feeds us, and the hand that doesn't. It's almost expected. Not so for actors, certainly not in a hostile climate, and definitely not in a hostile climate that wears a smiley face so you can't tell how pissed off it is at being questioned.

Jim Jewell

Writers are biters. Love it, SP.

That question about sacrifice, Paul, wasn't just directed at playwrights (I know, we're writers and assume the world is always speaking directly to us). And I don't have an answer.

I'm not even sure I have my own answer all straight. I don't want to lose the institutional history that I believe has some value. I don't want to encourage playwright's to give up. I essentially gave up writing poetry in the 90s for mini-versions of what we're saying here (journals that publish shit I hate and hate the shit I do, allegiance to the red-headed step-child to everybody that is performance poetry).

But, I think it is the way we have to think. We need to straighten out some core values. Whose blood are we willing to spill? I offer my job up on the chopping block. I believe I do what I do very well, and that I can always add to the success of an organization that employs me, but if the required change for long-term sustainable, vibrant theatre is jobs like mine going away, then so be it. I may argue along the way, but take as a given that the final solution may not involve me.

I also accept, which I know I will likely get creamed for, that the price of artistic endeavor is high, and may just be a 90%-99% likelihood of poverty. Does that necessarily have to be the case? Maybe.

Depends on what we're willing to sacrifice. Notions that we write for ourselves? Long-standing organizations with pretty buildings? Artistic integrity? Livelihoods doing what we love?

I dunno. I should really go back to work support the arts and simultaneously taking money out of the hands of artists.

S.P. Miskowski

Jim, I think I understand your dilemma. Bless your heart for asking the tough questions despite your job and position. That's rare.

Here's the thing: I have made the choice to embrace art all of my life. I won't go into all the sacrifices I have made for it, but I've made plenty. I must write. Is there a market for what I write? If so, I'll sell it. If not, I'll keep right on making it. Always have, and always will.

But the decision to make that sacrifice belongs to the artist. It is not for an institution (especially one that exists in part because it reaps the tax benefits of the city in which it resides) to remind an artist to make sacrifices. When an arts org of any kind starts reminding artists that they have to make sacrifices to be artists, then you know there's something rotting at the core of that institution.

All of these companies exist because artists exist. Yet they often behave as though artists were their enemy, making unreasonable demands. And until they stop clenching their paychecks with both fists and start trying to embrace the artists in their own neighborhood, they will continue to slowly decline until they die off.

Paul Mullin


I second SP's blessings on you. It's a rare person employed at one of Seattle's Regional Theaters that has been willing to chime in, so far.

Where I split with, SP, and perhaps foolishly, is that I honestly don't give a damn about the money at this point. I want the Big 3 (and yes, I'm excluding SCT right now because yes, they do hire local writers, though you have to understand that adaptations are only a narrow sliver of what playwrights do) to DO LOCAL PLAYS. Plays that will tell stories directly to LOCAL THEATRE GOERS in a theatrical way.

I honestly do not believe David Mamet has anything to say to us, no matter how far the Rep wants to stretch the argument that somehow GLENNGARY is about the recent mortgage meltdown. 'Cuz it AIN'T! And don't bother with the "but it's a great play" argument 'cuz I'll go ahead and go on record right now to say it ain't and tell you why.

Okay. Enough ranting. Bottom line: we ain't whining for money here. We want the theatres in this town to stage more locally grown plays. No more lip service.

Must I really trot out my awards and my press and my LA and NYC world premiere extensions to prove I deserve consideration here in my own town?

It's broken, Jim. You know it. I know it. We playwrights have been given literally nothing to lose. And it's time to see how far the power of zero can take us. If the Big Houses want to neutralize this special zero power of ours, the solution should be obvious: simply give us something to lose and see what happens.

Till then, the struggle continues. I don't know about you, but I'm having fun. And really, isn't that why we all got into this anyway?

Blessings on you, again!


Scot Augustson

ACK. My head is about to explode from wanting to comment on so much at once.
But there are three voices I desperately want to hear chiming in:
1. Long time audience members of the big three.
2. Board members of the big three.
3. Funders.

These three groups have stake in the issues at hand and power to change things.
If we can't rope 'em in to this conversation then we're just going round and round having the same arguments.

Jose' Amador

Much of what SP says is true, me I hoard my paid time off. But I do wish I had been there, if only for the chance to rebut this whole "quality does not grow locally" malarkey...

I'm sorry, I saw Boom, I saw Speech and Debate; I saw great performances and directors having a good time. I saw plays that were good, fine even, and I enjoyed myself; but were they of such a quality that it made me forget there were ever any Seattle playwrights in existence? No. I did not see anything that could have been matched or exceeded by an Auguston, a Conway-Blanchard, a Healy, Mullin, Miskowski, Moore, etc.

So, great job of blaming the victim for your inability to do your work, ass (the person who said this, not you, Paul Mullin).

I say this with some confidence because the local Fringe scene, the other Seattle resource that goes vastly ignored by the big houses (and pardon me for not holding my breath on anything happening with pipelining), has been meeting with some success with virtually unknown plays by local and non-local playwrights. Jihad Jones was written by a former native; Trout Stanley originated in Saskatoon, for the love of Mike; Alecto and the Penguins series were both enormous hits for Annex and 100% local.

"Well, fine," I can hear this person saying, "those are small houses, let them experiment with local plays! They only have to sell 50 - 90 seats a night, *we* have to sell x number of seats," as if the companies in question aren't taking a risk by producing these plays. I'd argue that proportionately, companies like Balagan, Annex, Theater Schmeater, WET, Open Circle, etc. are taking a bigger risk producing unknown plays than the LOTR houses would, because if enough risks don't play out in a given quarter, eviction could be right around the corner.

The other thing that statement would betray is the cowardice local artists have been accusing you of, Mr. Person with the unfortunate pull quote and with whom I've decided to have a one-sided rhetorical argument.

The point of my bringing those examples up is simply that with the right amount and type of marketing and backing you could have successful productions of locally grown plays. The fact that you assert that "local plays" and "quality" are mutually exclusive ideas simply shows that you have not done any research into the matter.

Finally, I'll reiterate the pros of why taking more chances on local playwrights is vital to you and your companies: It helps you reach out to a new audience, while at the same time teaching your existing audience some new habits along with the joys of experimentation. Both of these are vital for your survival, else you die along with your current base.

Lord love a duck,


Jose' Amador

And Scot brings up a massively good point.

S.P. Miskowski

"...with the right amount and type of marketing and backing you could have successful productions of locally grown plays. The fact that you assert that 'local plays' and 'quality' are mutually exclusive ideas simply shows that you have not done any research into the matter."

Right ON, Jose! In terms of risk, all theater companies ought to go big or go home. The problem isn't risk. It's the lack of commitment.

Paul--What I was saying is that it is NOT about the money. It's about that commitment. And my point was that I don't want to hear from an arts institution what kind of sacrifice I should make. It's for me to make that sacrifice, not for them to tell me to make it. Any group that takes that tack is misguided at best.

Holly Arsenault

First, thank you Paul Mullin for wresting that discussion away from the crazies. And thank you for creating this forum so that people who weren't there can join the conversation. I felt there were some important voices missing from that room on Monday, and I'm glad to have a chance to hear from them here.

Second, and not to drag the conversation off-topic, but I just want to respond to S.P.'s comment about the conduct of Seattle casting people. I hear this all the time, and I'm sure that, in many cases, it's unfortunately true, but I witnessed something very different during my time as the casting intern at the Rep, and I never hear it expressed.

Jerry Manning's professionalism as a casting director was unimpeachable. He loves actors, he champions actors (even - especially - the local ones, who, by the way, get cast at the Rep all the time.) He has incredibly high standards when it comes to the treatment of actors during the casting process. During my time there, I saw directors behave unprofessionally in the audition room, but I never saw Jerry behave with anything but the utmost integrity toward actors, whether they were in the room or not. I feel grateful to have learned that part of our trade from someone with such high regard for actors and high standards for how they ought to be treated.

I can't speak to the casting ethics at any of the other big houses in town, but it's clear that the Rep is being implicated whenever these vague accusations are lodged, and it needs to be stated that, as a matter of fact, the institutional ethos of Seattle Rep holds the profession of acting in high regard.

Shawnmarie Stanton

For the last 20 years I’ve walked in two worlds, never fully inhabiting either. I act now and then in local non-equity houses and often lament with my friends my seeming inability to move up in the theater world. At the same time, part of why my “theater career” doesn’t really go anywhere is that I’m too cowardly to completely set aside my day job as an attorney. In that role, I have worked with a few long time subscribers to one or more of the Big 3 and have had an opportunity to hear their take on what makes a good production. Most often, I hear them getting excited when a theater is doing a play written by a big name (e.g., Albee, Mamet, etc.) or a play that was a recent hit on Broadway. They love it when the actors are from New York or L.A. because that means they MUST be great. If a role is filled by a local actor, it has to be someone they’ve seen in at least 10 prior productions at one of the Big 3 because local quantity obviously makes up for the fact that the actor was not brought in from New York or L.A. They also tend to get excited when an entire production is brought in from out of town. These same people will talk about any other theater in Seattle as “experimental.” Of course these people don’t speak for every subscriber, but unfortunately, when it comes to people I know outside of the theater world, these are the voices I hear most often. It strikes me that they feel they’re getting an experience that is bigger and better than what little old Seattle usually has to offer. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder whether their perceptions would change if more locally grown content was secretly or not so secretly slipped into their theater experience. That being said, unfortunately, I don't really have any suggestions as to how to do that.

Shawnmarie Stanton

In re-reading my comment, I realize these are the same things many people have been saying in general regarding the justification big houses give for their script and casting choices. However, I decided to post to confirm that subscribers do, in fact, say these types of things.

Keri Healey

Paul, thanks for all the legwork you've been doing to keep those of us who weren't able to be at Monday's meeting in-the-know. Hmmm. I don't know that I have anything useful at all to add to this ongoing conversation. At least no brainstormy solutions at this point.

I don't complain too much about where my playwriting career trajectory is because I honestly haven't had enough time to devote to taking playwriting beyond an art practice for myself and making it an actual career. That's all on me. I would have to devote a lot more time and creativity to the marketing and distribution of my plays, which I haven't. I know how the marketing of products works and I know that whatever I write is a product. It has to find its audience.

Last summer, I experienced the "product" phenomenon full-tilt when one of my plays toured some stops on the Canadian fringe circuit. Early reviews and immediate audience buzz gave unheard of plays and artists instant cachet - or else the kiss of death - which follow shows to every subsequent stop on the tour. I learned a lot about creating a brand around one's art work (and one's reputation as a playwright or producer). These lessons will probably help me...if I ever take the time to push my so-called career here in Seattle any further along.

As things are now, producing either solo or in partnership with companies like Printer's Devil and Theatre Off Jackson, I get to produce on a small scale, work directly with the collaborating artists, take ownership for a fair share of the artistic decision-making involved, and realize the work the way I envisioned it. That would all change should I decide to go bigger. Not sure that's my goal. I'm still trying to decide about that one.

A production model that's always interested me has been the one that many of our most successful solo performers have taken -- creating a new work in a specific voice, self-producing it, and getting it exposed to people or institutions that can help advance it and give it greater visibility. My plays have never done well just sitting on the page - it's the production that sells them.

Models...models...I'm still thinking about all this. (Not about models. At least not about *those* kinds of models). Will try to come back with some more coherent thoughts and maybe even ideas later.

Matthew Smucker

I have to take issue with the “big houses not hiring local actors” red herring. Counting back over the shows I’ve worked as a designer on at the Seattle big houses (SCT included, since they pay me better that some of the others) over the past three years, my count is 74 local actors to 11 out-of-towners. That’s 15% from elsewhere. Sure, this isn’t scientific, it's just the plays that one local designer gets hired for, and sure, I do wish more in-town artists (including directors and designers) were consistently hired, but it is actually a pretty good local actor batting average. I’d count back farther, but it makes my head hurt.

Now, Paul never got around to explaining why the designers should come (I was waiting for it, but you never got that far up the list) but I suspect that we are actually in a pretty similar boat to the actors who didn’t bother to take the day off from their paying job and head down to the food-court-basement. We like the idea of new local plays, but unless we are hanging out with the commies at Annex, or WET, or insert-the-name-of-your-artistic-collective-here, we don’t get a real say in making those programming choices. We like doing plays, and I can find something to get me jazzed whether the script is home-grown or imported, spankin’ new or from the canon. I’m rooting for the hometown favorites when it comes to playwrights, but coming to this kind of meeting would be for observational purposes only if I don’t really have a voice in the programming. Perhaps this is a reason to bring back the resident company model. Put the playwright and the designer in the company as well as the actors. Freelance is killing us all, so give us all a home.

Paul Mullin

I want to respond to everyone, but Matthew was last, so he's first in my twisted ex-Christian logic.

Matthew, you won't hear the "Big-Houses-aren't-hiring-local-actors red herring" from me. I have eyes. I can see that they are and that is a putative improvement. (I also think it's a pretty scary canary in the coal mine, since it says more about the Big House budget woes than any forward thinking on the part of the leadership.)

But I'm all about the locally grown plays. I have been clear about that. And damned if I don't really REALLY want to locally grow my plays with some of the designers in this town. Because as much as I think that the playwrighting talent here is outstanding, I think the coterie of designers is mother-frickin' to die for.

Sadly-- miserably sadly-- I have as much chance of developing something new with you as I do of working with Amy Thone other than at the Wooden O. I sense I'm preaching to the choir here, based on your last para, but I might as well reiterate: we are being falsely, needlessly separated. It makes me ill. I have had it, and I have, as I have pointed out frequently, nothing left to lose.

I may go down, but everyone's going to know why. I was raised Irish Catholic. We aren't the suffering-in-silence type.

Yours sincerely,


Spike Friedman

The success of Seattle's music scene in the early 90's was because of the sound the performers created, not the venues they played. And if we want to be a major theatrical town it falls on theatrical artists to be more like Cobain and Cornell.

If Seattle is to be a premier theatrical destination in four years, it will be because of the innovation happening in the trenches. And it will be because enough artists here are pushing radically enough that some of them are doing the sort of stuff that makes audiences first, and then other artists take notice. This requires nothing more than a critical mass of artists dedicated to the artform. Let's make our own luck.

I have been pissed off a lot at theatre in Seattle, because so often people aren't really trying. There are numerous huge exceptions to this (for an example, the most recent exception I saw was My Dear Lewis), but generally the Seattle theatre community is about working hard in a nominal sense (there is a baseline of effort expended necessarily in order to produce) but without real thought work and artistic ambition. Well, all I can say to that is no more. No more of that shit. No more producing that play you wanted to do in college. Produce something true to you now. No more making theatre because you are too scared to do anything else. Find the reason you are doing the work you are doing. No more failing because we're not really trying. Please. If we're going to fail (and we will) let's fail because we tried something new, and it didn't work.

I don't particularly care about what's being produced at the regional houses in town. I am also not sure why I should. I guess my ego and wallet would probably be stoked about being produced there (in so far as my wallet can get stoked), but if I really cared about my ego and wallet I'd move back to LA or New York.

Scot Augustson

Shawnmarie: Thank you for passing along those audience sentiments. I've encountered similar.One fellow I met recently said that he wasn't really a theater goer but was thinking about going to see a show at ACT because "That guy from 'Taxi' (Judd Hirsch) was in it."
There's nothing wrong with that. It's a hook. He remembered reading about the play because of Hirsch.
So, my point would be: from a marketing perspective, don't think that a local artist can compete with that. Don't plop an idiosyncratic new work by a Seattle writer on your mainstage if it's going to take a bazillion tickets sold to count as a success. Scale the production down, put it in one of the smaller spaces. Budget it so that 2000 tickets is a success. The market for new, "experimental"(And yes I am using the word ironically)work is smaller than the stuff that Judd Hirsch stars in. And that's OK. The mainstages are just too big for an intimate experience anyway.

Jose' Amador

"It strikes me that they feel they’re getting an experience that is bigger and better than what little old Seattle usually has to offer..." gods, the self-provincialism in this fucking town is ludicrous. Thanks for verifying some of what I was suspecting already Shawnmarie.

And Spike, while I agree that what made the grunge scene hopping in the early 90s was the sound, and that it is my responsibility as an artist to make sure that I am on point and not slacking in my responsibilities.

However, I read what you say about egos and wallets and having to move away and think that this is more self-provincialism. "You do what you do, you get what you get and if you want more than that, move."

Frankly, I just want things here to improve. I don't want to have to move away in order for all of the work I've done here to be noticed. I've given and I've put into this town and community, and I would like to see that pay off in more ways than the valued recognition from my colleagues.

Is that really so much to ask for?

Lyam White

I wish I could have made it to this discussion. I, too, plead stinginess with my time off, particularly since so much of the time that isn't reserved for my wife is reserved for theater-generating with UMO Ensemble. That said, I can take comfort that the discussion going on right here is probably just as satisfying (perhaps more so, if only because the self-selection process has a more disaffected air).

If I could piggyback a little on something implied by both Jose and Spike (though they didn't agree on the implications), I think there's something to be said for models and, where applicable, venues that circumnavigate the "big houses" entirely. The Kurt Cobain comparison is an interesting one (even if I would rather be theater's version of Throbbing Gristle's Genesis P-Orridge, or Einsturzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld), and here's why: I don't often see, say, local experimental noise acts complaining that that the Seattle Symphony doesn't produce enough post-industrial grindcore; they simply ply their trades in venues like Nectar or the Comet.

I don't want to say we should be more like that--after all, those who use the term "experimental" ironically might insist that they're more like local composers being overlooked for the likes of Brahms and Gorecki--traditionalists being denied access to a traditional venue. Not being a traditionalist (or being a traditionalist bound to traditions so obscure they might as well be innovations), I'm not sure it's a plight to which I can relate. Even then, though, well recognized musical acts--local, national, and international--with somewhat more traditional palettes still hawk wares at the Sunset Tavern.

What I'm saying is, I still refuse (perhaps naively) to believe that there's no way to turn a high quality fringe theater into a (relatively) lucrative venture, or to develop new work without a designated space to perform it and slip it into budding pipeline-esque projects like Central Heating Lab, or into non-traditional "roving" venues like art galleries.

I get that we want to be able to turn this into something more popular and career-oriented. But the surrealists and the French New Wave and whoever else I could think to cite as an inspiration didn't pound Cocteau in the gaping wound in the side of the whining canon by begging for acceptance from the academy. They took what they wanted from the academy, politely declined the rest, and did what they did on the blind faith that there was a real, popular audience for what they did, a strain of malcontents in the general population that wanted both entertainment and real content.

So without disagreeing with anything anyone's said (Jose, for one, can attest to my sharing every frustration that's been aired here), I'd like to pose a couple of questions: Should we be cultivating our own venues, audiences, and resources? Should we be asking established companies to let us in on theirs? Are these propositions mutually exclusive? Are they mutually dependent? By petitioning (arguably) reactionary institutions to be less reactionary, rather than creating revolutionary institutions, are we admitting that either the form we practice or the way in which we'd like to practice it is also reactionary?

I'll gladly accept my citation for gross parenthetical excess.

Scot Augustson

Lyam, you know the only reason I used the word "experimental" ironically was because of Shawnmarie's post about how "Experimental" in many ordinary citizen's mind has become a catch-all term for any show put on in a smaller venue. There are a lot of people out there whose definition of "dangerous edgy theater" includes Teatro Zinzani. (Which is not a dig at TZ)

Lyam White

Point well-taken, Scot, and there was certainly no implicit criticism in my mentioning it. I'm not convinced that the line between "experimental" and "traditional" is particularly useful to anyone but marketing directors, anyway.

Paul Mullin

Scot and Lyam,

Everything's an experiment. It's just that WAY too much theatre in this town, big and small, and in towns all over this country, feels a lot like mixing baking soda and vinegar and watching what happens.



Scot Augustson

Paul, after you said that thing about baking soda and vinegar, I ran to the kitchen! Oh! The volcano I made.
And then, what should I spy, but the corn starch! Oh! Let's just say: I went to town!

Jim Jewell

This touches on some things Lyam and Josef in particular said, and which I've been chewing on anyway for a while.

We say "we want more locally-grown works to be produced here," but is that really what we mean? Because I don't see my obstacles to producing local work because a good amount is being produced. That isn't the problem, nobody is stopping us from producing local playwrights. It's about where that work is produced and where it goes.

What I am really hearing is, and not from everybody obviously because Ly's comments push in the opposite direction, that "we want more locally grown work produced by the big houses." Because that is where the money is, that's where there are enough seats to sell that, if sold, there's a share available for the playwright. Because it is an aspirational goal for the developing playwright.

I think that (and this is no grand epiphany) that the death of the mid-sized theatres really exacerbated the issues here, because the middle tier of the potential pipeline was wiped out. I know, that pipeline wasn't being used much better before the mid-sized withered, but when looking toward solutions, it makes it harder.

I guess I'm just trying to be clear what we want. I've found Seattle a pretty easy place to get by when you are in your twenties, so it is going to continue to be a fertile ground for small-venue work. We aren't an artistic wasteland. We also aren't ever going to be anything like NY, Chicago or LA because we just don't have the audience base (by 2007 estimates, NY has 8.3 million, LA 3.8 million, Chicago 2.8 million and Seattle 594k). We are guilty of provincialism, sure, Jose, but them's also the facts. We are a small city.

I believe it comes down to audience. We need to make real efforts to reach out, to engage conversations with audience (which is different than pandering). We need to educate on the form. We need to stop talking about our 1/2 inch drill bits and find the holes people need drilling.

And, if we want to exercise influence, we've got to be specific and precise and open.

I'm thinking about hosting a discussion or series here at SCT about audience development, speaking specifically to the way we talk about what we do, how we pitch its relevance and importance. I'm down for some nuts and bolts. Anyone else?

Paul Mullin


First and way foremost, if you arranged a discussion on audience development I would embrace it, publicize it, come to it and contribute to the best of my ability. I think it's a very important discussion, and one that I do not really have the bandwidth to fully engage, given that I've planted my flag with locally grown new works.

The question of whether we should even bother engaging the Big Houses here in our efforts to foster more locally grown new work (and I disagree with you on its health here, especially in comparison to the fervent 90's) is a crucial and fair one to ask.

For me, it's an issue of honestly. Witness this quote from the recent NY Times article about Seattle theatre:

“Our ambition now is to be a hothouse of creativity, to force conversations and to create new literature for the stage,” said Kurt Beattie, the artistic director of ACT.

If Kurt is going to claim that territory then I think we should insist he actually build something on it. Same with Jerry and his laudable new efforts:

If they want to talk that talk then they need to walk the walk. If, on the other hand, they publicly abandon any aspirations to "create a new literature for the stage", then I for one would consider saying, "Go with God."

But they cannot talk out of one side of their mouth and sneer with the other. People outside Seattle believe that crap when told the LORT houses are dedicated to fostering new work. And then when you actually show them the Big House track record, they're like "Oh shit. They don't really do anything, do they?"

Let's actually do what we like to say we're doing.

And hell, let's change the world while we're at it.

What the hell is wrong with demanding the Big Houses do locally grown new stuff anyway? They claim to want to. Let's help them do what they want.


Jose' Amador

Facts, Jim? You come at me with facts?

As you once told me, facts get in the way of a good narrative; and the narrative I'm pitching here is that regardless of the size of this town, the population, media and those in the upper echelon tends to dismiss most anything that comes from here as "not quality."

Which does lead to this proposed discussion of yours, so count me in as interested.

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