Something happens to a theater audience after about 11:00 at night. Some of it's booze-related. (Shakespeare's description in Julius Caesar of the citizens of Rome—"they throw up their sweaty nightcaps"—presciently describes a late-night theater crowd.) There's also the expectation that all serious theater is now safely in bed. (Few late-night productions of Samuel Beckett or King Lear get any traction.) Bret Fetzer, the creator and for the past 11 years curator of Spin the Bottle, Annex Theatre's late-night show, thinks the difference is neurological. "Your brain is a little more relaxed. You're kind of receptive in a different way. And you're ready to laugh. Not that our audiences haven't embraced some really serious stuff, but a Spin the Bottle that was serious from top to bottom—that wouldn't go over that well."The monthly show grew out of a number of similar live variety programs during the mid-'90s, like New City Late Night. Every first Friday, Spin goes up with a completely new and open performance format. That means theater, music, stand-up comedy, dance, poetry, puppetry, etc.—essentially anything you can put on a stage. "Whenever possible, I want a full range of flavors," says Fetzer. "I want people to feel like they've had all their aesthetic senses stimulated."Fetzer is currently serving his second term as artistic director of Annex, which recently turned 21, making it the granddaddy of Seattle's fringe companies. Now comfortably ensconced in the former Capitol Hill home of the Northwest Actors Studio, the company endured several years of wandering after leaving Belltown in 2001. But no matter how sporadic its full productions may have been, Spin has remained an institution since 1997. "The consistency of it has been crucial in maintaining its audience," says Fetzer. "And it's been crucial for our company to come together once a month." The show's technical rehearsal is only 45 minutes long, giving it a rough-and-tumble edge unlike polished but often more predictable alternatives (see On the Boards' 12 Minutes Max).Fetzer explains that there are only two rules: The work has to be new to Spin, and it has to be short. "People will adore you for 10 minutes, and then they want to know, 'What's next?' Even if you're a genius, you can feel people getting restless after that 10-minute mark."Artists (including myself, twice) often use the show as a development tool, trying out new material on a late-night crowd. Cult art-band Awesome! developed theatrical sense, musical style, and audience over a series of regular gigs at Spin, for example. This Friday, solo performer Marya Sea Kaminski is trying out some new work. Yet amid the mix of Seattle vets and newbies, and despite all the Seattle theater gossip I hear (more than anyone would wish for in one lifetime), I've never heard a single charge of favoritism against Fetzer's selections.This month's show, which also includes music, belly dancing, and stand-up, is being guest-hosted by Teatro Zinzanni regular Kevin Kent (in place of Annex member Bruce Hall). It's not an easy job, according to Fetzer: "You have to be able to come on and be the center of attention right away. But then you need to give it up right away, too." (As much as I love Kent, I wonder how successful he'll be at the latter part of this equation.)Another regular element of the show is a short reading of erotica (or "smut," per Fetzer), provided by writers including playwright Keri Healey, Gillian Jorgensen, and (this week) Amber Wolfe. "Sex is most often interesting when it's either sad or funny," Fetzer observes.What's his favorite Spin act ever? I'm surprised how quickly Fetzer responds, despite 11 years of memories: "Stephanie Roberts and Cecilia Frye came out and did a duet of Madonna's 'Like a Prayer' with Roberts on ukulele. As the song progressed, other musicians kept walking onstage, until finally there was this 20-person ensemble singing and playing instruments. It was awesome. I've loved that song ever since."Unexpected, quirky, low-key spectacle with a strong democratic element—that's pretty much the essence of a successful Spin the Bottle.
Spin the Bottle Annex Theatre, 1100 E. Pike St., 728-0933, www.annextheatre.org. $9. 11 p.m. Fri., Oct. 3.