Sum of Their Parts

A new theater company makes it past the drunken-idea stage.

Whenever three or more actors are assembled and liquor is involved, one idea always comes up: Let’s found a new theater company! Not one of those staid old boring companies with a director, administrative staff, and company manager—no, this is going to be an actor’s ensemble, like Chicago’s Steppenwolf, New York’s Wooster Group, and Seattle’s own late, lamented Empty Space, which in its earliest days was actor-founded and actor-driven. (The staff, company manager, and building came later.)

Such booze-induced brainstorming is usually gone by the next day’s hangover, but over the course of a year Seattle’s New Century Theatre Company has made it all the way through formal meetings, fundraising, and rehearsals to its first full-sized production, Elmer Rice’s 1923 surreal play The Adding Machine. And here’s the kicker: It’s really good. John Langs has done more than give his actors and designers a chance to shine, he’s fused them into a tight ensemble who handle complicated and elaborate stage choreography—the mechanized routine of an office, a hideous office party, a burst of joyous dancing in the Elysian Fields—with work that looks like it’s been developed over months, not over weeks.

“The bigger houses have the disadvantage of bringing in directors and actors and designers from out of town, putting them in a room for three weeks, and hoping that magic happens,” explains New Century’s Executive Director Michael Patten. “We’ve known each other for years and worked together. That’s given us an established level of trust, a shared vocabulary, and we don’t have to spend time sniffing each other out as artists.”

“The sort of rapport we all have takes years to create,” adds company member MJ Sieber, who plays Lt. Charles in the show. “It also means that we’re more willing to know each other’s tricks and habits, and I feel like we’re more willing to challenge each other to do more than an unfamiliar director would be comfortable asking of us.”

The company’s members, including Patten, Sieber, Jen Taylor, Paul Morgan Stetler, Amy Thone, and Hans Altwies, routinely work on practically every larger stage in town, and commendably made sure that all the designers and artists involved with Adding Machine were compensated for their work. What’s frankly astonishing is that they were able to do this and stretch the rest of their minuscule $55,000 budget to renting the Falls stage at ACT and creating professional-quality sets and a variety of costumes for the cast of 15. The result is required viewing for every established theater designer in town, if only to see how to stretch a dollar—a useful skill for the months and possibly years ahead.

The company’s fundraising took in everything from garage sales to pitching to private donors. The plan is to use the ticket sales of Adding Machine as seed money for the rest of their season. At this point, about the only company members who weren’t paid out of the budget were those like Patten and Altwies whose work this time around was administrative, though they’re hopeful that as the company grows this will be remedied. Right now these tasks are taken up as required by troupe members based on their experience and interest. “I’ve been working in real estate for about 12 years, so I’ve got some business background, and that’s why I agreed to be Executive Director,” explains Patten. It’s an approach that puts a premium on what goes onstage over all else, in significant contrast to the operating budgets of Seattle’s larger theaters, most of which have a payroll primarily concerned with administrators, not artists.

But this difference may be one of economic necessity instead of philosophy. When I ask Patten what’s on the company’s five-year wish list, his answer is “our own space, the ability to pay a staff, an educational outreach wing, corporate sponsorship and grant underwriting, and a larger audience base.” When I point out to him that this is pretty much exactly what all the larger theaters have, and that they’re all struggling with finding audiences and trimming budgets, he admits that he’s not sure how New Century will deal with such issues. “It’s early days. I believe if we stay true to our core aesthetic of challenging material and a focus on the acting and not just production values, we’ll attract the audience we need.”

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