Annex Theatre’s Two Decades Buck Fringe Mortality Rate

The veteran theater group's moving into Northwest Actors Studio's old digs.

Fringe theaters have the life span of chain-smoking mayflies. Largely run by volunteers with day jobs, fringe is a time-intensive and exhausting pursuit, and it’s a rare company that’s still around five years after choosing a name and crafting a provocative mission statement (including the perennially popular “we believe in theater, not mission statements”). Yet somehow Annex Theatre has bucked the trend, and 21 years after its founding by five local artists (none of them currently active members), Annex is still here.

For the past year, Annex has been housed in a cozy black-box space (and when I say “cozy,” I of course mean stuffy in the summer, chilly in the winter) in the Capitol Hill Arts Center. But after some precipitous rent hikes and other problems with CHAC, the company got to work looking for a new space. Last week they announced the happy news that they’ll be taking over the old home of the Northwest Actors Studio on 10th and Pike, keeping Annex on the Hill and the old NWAS space from becoming another condo casualty.

Annex’s longevity is somewhat bewildering. Theater survival is usually a result of companies balancing new or experimental works with classics and crowd pleasers, building subscription-style loyalty with their audiences, and having artistic directors who boldly choose plays that set the aesthetic direction of the group. Annex has blithely ignored all such wisdom.

In the ’90s Annex was the reigning wunderkind, at the absolute top of what seemed to be a mountain of fringe companies. In their shabby-chic 99-seat upstairs space on Fourth Avenue, they were unstoppable maniacs of artistic energy, producing shows 50 weeks out of the year. Audiences were reliable, and much of the work was the best I’d see anywhere—original musicals by Chris Jeffries, avant-garde extravaganzas by Nikki Appino, and, most memorably, the astonishing epic The Yellow Kid, a celebration and dissection of an early American comic strip that was so freakishly entertaining that after attending it for free as a reviewer, I paid to see it twice more.

Since Annex became nomadic in 2001, some of that Young Turk energy’s gone. But the company has still managed to produce full seasons as well as a monthly late-night cabaret, Spin the Bottle, which is coming up on its 10-year anniversary.

When I speak to their current artistic director, Gillian Jorgensen, she seems unruffled about the company’s future, spending most of our conversation outlining Annex’s upcoming season: four original works around a dystopian theme. Among them is Keep the Light On, an as-yet-unwritten, single-evening series of plays illuminated by bicycle-generated theatrical lighting.

The most radically different aspect to Annex’s success is how they choose plays: via a long company meeting which is affectionately known as “The Evening of Long Knives.” Annex members read proposals, attend pitch sessions, and then involve themselves in a frenzy of artistic horse-trading, politicking, and arguing until consensus is reached. This sounds like the unholy love child of a socialist commune and a college-dorm bull session, but it works, and it has become a core value of the company.

Long-time Annex member and past artistic director Bret Fetzer says the process has “reaffirmed my faith in humanity,” which, given his famously dry cynicism, is quite a statement.

Annex has survived this long not because of grants, sound business decisions, or even exemplary work. They’ve survived because they know who and what they are: a scrappy group of misfits who aren’t afraid to fight with each other when and where it’s necessary. Long may they scrap.

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