Living-Room Theater at Its Best

Seattle Shakespeare Co. nabs Swansong.

Some of the best evenings of theater I've experienced in Seattle were in living rooms. Over the years, I've heard original works by writers like Yusef El Guindi, Mike Daisey, and Vince Delaney in private readings long before a paying audience had a chance to hear them. These readings are often the first time that the words have traveled from the page to the ears of an audience, and the moment of initial impact between good actors and a strong script can lead to fantasies of transporting the whole thing to the nearest rehearsal room to be costumed, kitted, and set on a stage as soon as possible.That's pretty much exactly what Stephanie Shine, artistic director of Seattle Shakespeare Company, felt when she heard a reading of Swansong at her friend David Pichette's house last year. Pichette had come across Patrick Page's three-hander about the friendship between William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and liked it enough to bring in three actors he knew to give it a read. "By the time they were finished with the first act, I knew this was a play that my audience would love," Shine remembers. "And I couldn't imagine another cast doing it. All three of them got it from that very first reading."So armed with her cast of Tim Gouran, Brandon Whitehead, and Ian Bell (as fine a trio of young talents as one could hope for), Shine went to talk to her managing and marketing directors. Because Seattle Shakes shares its venue with Book-It, there was no chance to add another slot to their current season. Unless, that is, they were willing to run a show on the nights that are traditionally dark, Sunday through Wednesday. "I am intrigued by the nights of the week that we go to the theater in Seattle," says Shine. "We have no sense of when sporting and other events must occur—if it's on a Sunday or a Wednesday or whenever, when we want to see it, we go see it. In New York, many of the theaters have productions on off nights, or at least readings. Well, why can't we do that, too? Why can't we open our doors seven days a week and see what happens?"And so, in an unprecedented move for the company, they're running their chamber production of Julius Caesar on the traditional Thursdays through Saturdays, and Swansong Sundays through Wednesdays. The risk has been mitigated by keeping Swansong's budget bare-bones—just $16,000, almost all of which goes to artist salaries and royalties. "We've budgeted so that we only need to fill half the house to break even," Shine explains.Thirty years ago, running shows in repertory was commonplace. Two or more shows would alternate on stage through the week, which gave venues a lively buzz and actors a semiregular paycheck. But regular repertory theater pretty much requires a resident company that can share roles throughout the year, and at some point administrators and granters decided this was too costly. The Oregon Shakespeare Company is one of the few places left in the country that has kept the repertory model, and despite its huge financial and critical success, no one else seems to be giving the old model a new fling.That's a shame, particularly in Seattle, which has been teetering on the verge of a theatrical resurgence for the past few years, and could use not fewer productions but more. Shows in repertory can also provide a useful backup if one of the productions disappoints. Audiences may well find that Page's appealing if sentimental three-hander is more to their liking than Gregg Loughridge's frankly eccentric take on Julius Caesar, which moves the play's setting from ancient Rome to a modern West Coast martial arts dojo for no very clear reason. (Though I'll admit—if this show is a goof, it's a committed, elaborate, and spectacular goof.) "As artists, we can't continue to fold inwards, to just cut more and do less," says Shine. "We have to expand, and hope that we're rewarded by doing so." At Swansong's first Monday night preview, the house was more than half-full, and plenty enthusiastic. Shine's big risk just might pay off.

 
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