Herds and Music

Why two Northwest theater companies are thriving in a down market.

It’s been a tough decade for live theater, in Seattle and beyond. The great recession, Netflix, and more never-leave-the-house entertainment options, among other factors, have resulted in a nationwide wave of theater closures. Local casualties include Empty Space (in 2006) and Intiman’s near-death and revival as a summer festival. Practically every house in town has reduced staff, hours, and programming. For most stage companies, such cuts are the new normal.

Yet certain Northwest companies have bucked the national trend. The 5th Avenue is succeeding with both bus-and-truck and locally sourced musicals. Teatro ZinZanni, originally created in 1998 as an off-season special project by One Reel, continues to draw robust audiences despite one of the most expensive tickets in town. Its current show, Lucky in Love, runs through September 8; a week later, it opens Hail Caesar: Forbidden Oasis. Just over the border, the powerhouse Oregon Shakespeare Festival drew almost 400,000 visitors last season. What are these latter two companies doing right?

TZZ founder Norman Langill points to the spectacle and sense of occasion. “The audience comes dressed to the nines, so that’s how you have to meet them,” he says. “It’s always a special night, that’s where we start; sometimes a surprise birthday party, sometimes a dinner at the end of the world”—a reference to TZZ’s previous show, Dinner at Wotan’s, which reimagined Ragnarök as a circus-themed rock opera, a good-hearted, shambling mess that nevertheless delivered TZZ’s regular dose of entertainment, amazement, a four-course dinner, and booze.

Given the hefty ticket price (starting at $106), TZZ must make patrons feel they’re not just out at a show, but at an event. The house company includes acrobats, clowns, dancers, contortionists, singers, and other variety artists. They collaborate on an evening that combines circus, music, neo-vaudeville, and physical comedy. It’s almost always a delight, if often hard for critics to describe. (I should know: For years I was one of those critics.) It helps that the acts are neatly staged between courses. “You don’t eat while you watch TV,” explains Langill. “It’s bad manners, and you don’t enjoy your food.”

The basic template of each show, from ritual greeting to confetti-filled finale, works regardless of the cast or putative subject. Scripts are created in collaboration with the performers, allowing them to create fresh characters and develop new skills and routines outside their well-honed acts. Thus in Lucky in Love, sultry contortionist Vita Radionova performs a new movement routine and juggler Sergiy Krutikov takes out the accordion he learned to play while acting in the show.

Crucially, the audience is part of each TZZ show, too. “Coming out of the ’60s,” says Langill, “we thought that the revolution was performers leaving the stage. But what audiences want, really, is to come up on the stage with us. That’s what we do here.” The lighting and in-the-round presentation in the antique Spiegeltent help make everyone a participant.

Now 78 years old, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a different sort of draw. If TZZ is a party, Ashland has become a tourist magnet—especially for Seattle theatergoers during our summer doldrums. (Intiman has its eye on the same market.) This year’s edition offers 11 plays running through November 3. OSF managing director Cynthia Rider says, “It’s a destination theater, and our audiences generally commit to four shows or more at a time. They don’t say ‘I’ll see this show, not that one.’ They either come or they don’t.”

Certainly the OSF is a known quantity, the crown jewel of summer Shakespeare on the West Coast. Its scale dwarfs the ambition and budget of most American regional theaters, which continue retreating into smaller and smaller cast sizes. The OSF consistently attracts the cream of the verse-speaking crop, performers drawn by its reputation as a repertory company. And as road-tripping Seattle theater lovers know, that repertory isn’t just Elizabethan. This year’s offerings also include My Fair Lady, a razor-sharp A Streetcar Named Desire, and the hip-hop/blues/fusion musical The Unfortunates.

Two key concepts link TZZ and OSF: musicals and groups. “School trips are vital to us, and they come from all over the Northwest,” says Rider. As with Langill’s birthday parties and bridal showers in the Spiegeltent, the OSF makes it easy for groups of Bard-minded travelers to come for the Shakespeare, then stay for the vineyards and outdoor activities. (The festival works closely with southern Oregon tourism businesses.)

Over the decades, OSF has carefully added popular shows to complement the classics, says Rider. “We have to be willing to produce a broader range of programming. If you want new audiences, you need to have a new and different kind of work.” That often means musicals—the gateway drug to serious theater. And OSF’s repertory schedule is designed to let visitors gorge on plays. Over a long weekend, it’s possible to see almost every show on the schedule. Unlike the traditional season-subscription model (which is failing most regional theaters), you can be a one-stop theater junkie in Ashland, with no future obligations.

Back home in Seattle, like many regional companies, ACT and the Rep are trending toward more compact stagings. Understandably, no theater’s board of directors wants to take on excess debt. The big Broadway shows that tour through town demonstrate that spectacle is what sells, and the declining audience for traditional theater proves the same point.

Yet both OSF and TZZ exemplify how an elaborate show doesn’t have to be empty-headed; they make big shows feel personal. Watching Shakespeare at Ashland, you’re struck by how often the performers acknowledge and interact with their audiences—just as the players at the Globe must have done in the Elizabethan era, just as Langill’s performers do today.

stage@seattleweekly.com

TEATRO ZINZANNI 222 Mercer St., 802-0015, zinzanni.org.

OREGON SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL Ashland, Ore., osfashland.org.

 
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