Galileo sat at the top of the 325-foot Campanile di San Marco with his telescope. He turned to the governor of Venice and said, "My best ideas occur to me while eating. For example... What I'm going to show you now." The governor hesitated, saying, "Galilei, I feel a kind of fear." Galileo focused the telescope and said, "Now I will show you one of the shining fogs of the Milky Way."
Historically, this conversation happened in 1609, moments before Galileo showed the governor the planet Jupiter and its four moons, and 24 years before he was punished for his heretical discoveries. Theatrically, this conversation happens near the beginning of a play by Bertolt Brecht, The Life of Galileo, which Strawberry Theatre Workshop is currently preparing for an October opening.
Facing me at this moment is Greg Carter, the founder and director of Strawberry Theatre Workshop. We are in Cafe Pettirosso, and between us is the small and naked surface of a table standing on uneven legs. As Carter explains the details of The Life of Galileo ("it will happen in Lee Center for the Arts at Seattle University," "we are using David Edgar's translation," "the set is very important"), the tower of San Marco in Venice happens to be on the wall behind him. It's a reprint of Giovanni Antonio Canal's 18th-century painting Piazza San Marco with the Basilica. In that tower, Galileo showed the governor his great discovery: that four moons went around Jupiter instead of the earth—proof that humans were not the center of the universe. This discovery caused a major religious and philosophical disturbance. That disturbance is the subject of Brecht's play.
Carter moved to Seattle 12 years ago from Minneapolis (he is originally from South Carolina) to complete a master's degree in architecture at the University of Washington. He teaches stagecraft, scene design, and stage management at Cornish College of the Arts. Until he inaugurated Strawberry Theatre Workshop in 2004 with the puppet play This Land: Woody Guthrie, his reputation was primarily in set design—his work appeared in productions at Book-it, Seattle Rep, ACT, Intiman, and so on. That is the man's life in a nutshell.
Now for his politics: Carter is resolutely progressive. "If you are not doing anything for the political and social good, you are not doing anything," he says, with the certainty Galileo had that the sun did not go around the earth. "I never grew up with that idea in mind. I grew up in an affluent neighborhood, went to pretty good public schools, no diversity. I never had anything like a political purpose until I completed college and began working in theater in Minneapolis."
Carter started Strawberry Theatre Workshop with two resolutions: one political, the other professional. Politically, the ground on which STW stands is socialist. The kinds of plays that the company produces have this defining theme: The world is not as it ought to be. And the reason why the world is perverted, upside down, is because the best of humanity is continually challenged and undone by the worst of humanity. In The Water Engine (by David Mamet, produced in 2006), an inventor is terrorized and murdered by oil interests. In An Enemy of the People (Henry Miller's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen, produced the same year), a scientist is undone by an unscrupulous businessman. The best of humanity is science, social welfare, peace; the worst is greed, corporations, war. The world that ought to be, then, is a socialist one, but the world we live, suffer, and fight in is neoliberal.
STW is convinced that these humanist feelings can be translated into art. This belief is expressed in its mission statement: "The Strawberry Theatre Workshop is committed to the idea that the theatre is the people's place of aspiration, and that any voice from the stage is translated exponentially into conversations at coffee shops, bus stops, classrooms, and play fields... Our inspiration comes from social leaders, scientists, and artists of all disciplines who seek to motivate collective action by expanding collective wisdom."
Upon reading this, most thinking people would brace themselves for a long encounter with the worst form of art: bad, self-righteous art. But since its inception, the plays that STW has done (Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Fellow Passengers, An Enemy of the People, The Water Engine) have not been obviously didactic—they've been artistically brilliant. Read the critics in this city and you will have to make an effort to find one firing a bad word in the direction of a play by this socialist company.
But how is this possible? How can you turn a moralizing mission statement into excellent theater? How can politics, convictions, and populism be turned into high art? How can you turn water into wine? The secret to that seemingly impossible trick is found in Carter's second resolution: a commitment to doing whatever it takes.
"Whatever it takes" usually means "money." Carter is willing to spend good money on good actors—he isn't afraid to run the company on a deficit or pay for productions with credit cards. Spending good money is something that most theater groups of STW's size and position avoid.
"Seattle does not need another fringe theater," says Carter, as the soothing sound of a Gregorian chant falls on us from a black speaker tilted above our heads. "Fringe theater in Seattle is rich. There is no problem there. The problem is when you want to get paid for work. That kind of theater does not exist in Seattle in any real kind of way. Between the big theaters downtown and the flagship theaters in Seattle Center and what are essentially community theaters, there is nothing. There is no middle class. No place that actors can fall upon for paid work. Either you are making money or you are not."
He goes on: "The limited resources that the community theaters have go into space and royalties. I mean, you pay your landlord $50,000 a year and you pay the artist nothing. How is that successful theater? You have to start with the artist. And that is what we do. We want to provide jobs."
This commitment to a program that registers artists as workers, rather than laborers of love, is one of the leading reasons STW plays have an exceptionally high success rate. They are performed and directed by accomplished artists. A few of them are in the photo on this page: Timothy Hyland, Greg Carter, Rhonda J. Soikowski, Gabriel Baron—an actor who made his directorial debut with STW's Accidental Death of an Anarchist in 2005 and won a Genius Award shortly thereafter—and Maggie DiGiovanni. To say nothing of Todd Jefferson Moore, Amy Fleetwood, and Amy Thone.
As with The Water Engine and An Enemy of the People, Brecht's Galileo pits the best of humanity (science, creativity, progressive politics) against the worst of humanity (greed, stupidity, religious intolerance). Also like the previous two plays, it will have great actors—Hyland, Baron, and Hana Lass. It is this understanding that makes Strawberry Theatre Workshop remarkable: Good politics and good art come at a high price.