Opening Wallets

A fringe troupe can stretch a donated dollar pretty damn far.

Like everyone I know—and probably almost everyone I don’t know—I’m feeling pretty broke right now. This is going to be a lean and chill Christmas in my household, and the good feelings won’t really warm up until Inauguration Day. Regardless, sitting on my desk there’s a small flurry of envelopes from my regular charities and causes, so it’s once again time to try to figure out who might get some end-of-the-year charitable giving in preference to the IRS.

This year, everyone could use some cash. Every theater in town, from the Seattle Rep on down the food chain, is contemplating or already implementing cuts in their budgets, including layoffs. And make no mistake: No one’s crying wolf right now. Those anguished howls you hear are in earnest. In the next few months we will not only hear about these companies’ further financial problems, we’ll see them on their stages: smaller casts, cheaper sets, and in some cases shorter runs. Let’s hope their regular donors rise to the challenge this year.

But those of us with more modest resources might be amazed at how far some of the fringe-theater companies and smaller organizations can stretch a buck. $50 would pay for some cleaning supplies at the Rep, but when I was the artistic director of the now sadly demised Theater Babylon, $50 would sometimes pay for the set. (If you doubt me, ask around about our scenic designer Brad Cook.) Programs were photocopied at the stage manager’s day job, costumes were rustled up from actors’ wardrobes, and in winter the heat was turned on only two hours before each performance—we couldn’t afford the heating bills. (As for the lack of an air conditioner in the summer—let’s just say it made Bikram yoga seem soothing.)

So I decided to ask some of Seattle’s fringe companies what would be on their Christmas gift list if they manage to score a year-end check or two. Their notes helped me understand what Santa must feel when he gets those letters asking for a new bed or a new stove for Mommy and Daddy. A gift of $100 to fledgling fringe outfit Backwards Ensemble Theatre, for example, would pay one night’s venue rental for their new playreading program “The Virgin Playwrights.” The same amount would pay for two space heaters for Eclectic Theater Company, currently resident in the Odd Duck Studio—a venue whose winter frigidity I can personally attest to as producer and performer. Theater Schmeater’s managing director Teri Lazzara provided a typically long and effusive list, including a new refrigerator for the concessions booth (“I could get us a good one on Craigslist for $125, but I bet I could talk them down to $95 if I give them a performance pass and a smile”), a table saw for the resident scene shop (“I think we need $800 for that, but I bet I could get Lowe’s and Home Depot in a war over price on that one”), or even just $50 for an opening-night party, with some decorations and Pabst to supplement the catered goods donated by a local restaurant.

Then there are the small arts organizations that not only support the local scene, but provide venues for the new, weird, wacky, and experimental to flourish on our stages. There’s SketchFest, which this year has expanded from an annual event to a semi-regular presenting organization that’s brought such wonderful and unexpected comic talents as Jayson McDonald and The Pajama Men to Seattle. The company’s new artistic director, Andrew Connor, says that $500 would pay two nights’ rent for the Festival, or travel expenses for a visiting troupe, or for two directors to mentor up-and-coming comedy acts. Theatre Puget Sound, a service organization that offers workshops, annual actor auditions, rehearsal rooms, and an online database of local acting talent, is working to raise cash to overcome a year-end deficit of $30,000, but only $350 would subsidize the tech needs of a visiting company in their Theatre 4 space in the Seattle Center House, and $50 would buy a few replacement lamps for that theater. And as for Freehold Theatre Lab (where I recently worked as a teacher), I just received a plaintive but hopeful note saying that they’ve just found someone to match, dollar for dollar, their heating fund of $5,000, to help keep their new Belltown home’s temperature above freezing.

I know, I know. We’re all broke. Everyone, from the homeless to the sick to the unlucky to the downright stupid, has their hands out right now. But this Christmas, if you’ve got a little extra, consider helping keep our theaters, like our citizens, warm and lit and a little hopeful. And maybe even think about getting them a new table saw.

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