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For the past two years, Strawberry Theatre Workshop has been making some of the most exciting theater in town—but on paper the company looks a little suspicious, even a little hippie. There is the affection for puppetry. There is the -re spelling. There is the cumbersome name (a Beatles reference) and the soft-focus Marxism of its mission statement: "The Strawberry Theatre Workshop is committed to the idea that the theatre is the people's place of aspiration... Our ensemble does not only mean a resident company of workers, but a collective that includes our work, our audience, and our neighborhood. This is an activist stance."
You'd expect that kind of talk from people who revel in dullardry and didacticism, the kind of artists who make Theater of Good Intentions. But what matters is what's onstage, and Greg Carter's company has produced some of the best theater—the kind you want to keep watching, even when it's three hours long and involves puppets—since it started in 2005.
Accidental Death of an Anarchist: part of why Gabriel Baron won his Stranger Genius Award. The Water Engine: a paranoid radio thriller, about oil interests hunting down a small-time inventor, with Foley sound effects, and a big, great cast. The Bridge of San Luis Rey: gorgeous and sad, about monks and orphans and sea captains. An Enemy of the People: I can't believe I missed it.
So why, when Hugo House announced the winners of its new two-year theater residency program, wasn't Strawberry on the list? Why did Hugo House choose SiS (best known for Sex in Seattle, its serial Asian-American soap operas; SiS says it wants to start producing new plays by Asian-American writers) and Next Stage (brand new; its leader, Mark Jared Zufelt, has spent the last two years at Book-It, not exactly Seattle's crucible of thrilling new theater)? Annex Theatre and Macha Monkey were among the other companies turned down for the residency.
When it came to Strawberry, the problem wasn't artistic, it was financial—they didn't look so good on paper.
"There was no issue of artistic merit," said Hugo House director Lyall Bush about Strawberry. "The real deal breaker was sustainability."
Which seems off: Aren't artists of merit—the ones who need money so they can continue to make great work—the kinds of people we should support with grants and residencies? (While we're at it, here's what the residency entails: It's two years long, provides for two five-week runs and one four-week run per year, including storage and rehearsal space; residents pay Hugo House $10,000 a year and keep 100 percent of their box office.)
There is a richness to Strawberry's work. It is technically innovative: Foley sound effects, live music, elaborate sets tailored for their space that fill out the theater and fit the production like a well-made suit. (Carter has a master's degree in architecture.) It attracts large casts of good to excellent actors (Amy Thone, Rhonda Soikowski, Todd Moore, more)—actors who are paid by Strawberry director Greg Carter.
Which means Strawberry shows are also expensive. A typical budget, Carter says, allots $15,000 for actors and designers, $5,000 for materials and marketing, and $5,000 for renting the Hugo House theater. He brings in $15,000 per show (tickets, donations, a few grants). He bleeds between $5,000 and $10,000 a show.
Which is what lost him the grant.
Carter admits his financing scheme is radical, treating the company like a small start-up business. Instead of chasing grants for his new company with no track record, Carter decided Strawberry would spend its first three years making great work and racking up debt.
Many granting organizations, like 4Culture, won't even give a company money until it's been around for two or three years. (This was also one of Hugo House's prerequisites—"companies that have been in operation for a minimum of three years"—which should have disqualified Next Stage. But, Bush said, "We wanted to take a chance on an exciting new company.")
If you make something people care about, Carter reasons, the money will follow. They're going to work on a break-even season and, now that they've proven what they can do, get serious about fundraising. "This is our year," Carter said. "The iron is hot. We need to strike now."
This weekend, Strawberry is having a fundraiser—"Awesome" will play. Actor Troy Fischnaller will host. A trip for two to Peru will be raffled. Go. Make this Strawberry's year.