All local art lovers have collections of indelible memories from On the Boards. The contemporary arts center has been Seattle's showcase for world-class experimental performance since 1978. As an On the Boards audience member since 1991, my collection is oppressively huge, but the majority of my richest memories come from its recent period, the era that commenced with the departure of beloved longtime director Mark Murphy and the arrival of Lane Czaplinski in 2002. Armed with a fierce love of experimental art and emboldened by a successful stint as program manager for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Czaplinski landed in Seattle ready to seize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Through a combination of vision, tenacity, and resourcefulness, he has led On the Boards to a new golden age.
My shortlist of Czaplinski-era unforgettables: Cynthia Hopkins, the dazzlingly accomplished singer/songwriter/performance artist, singing a beautifully melancholy song while upside-down, strapped to a slanted gurney, in Accidental Nostalgia; Peter Simpson and Ellen LeCompte battling it out as the dazed and hilarious mother-son duo in Richard Maxwell's oddball performance-art musical Drummer Wanted; Allen Johnson opening Another You, his Bukowski-flavored solo show, with the most dread-inspiring set imaginable (a porcelain toilet bowl, nothing else) then unpacking his tale of horrendous abuse (child, self, and whatever else you got) so artfully that the audience walked away grateful for the experience.
I could go on. But what's important to remember when celebrating the success of On the Boards is the daunting risk involved in virtually everything it does. For a less adventurous organization, programming season after season might entail little more than providing the stage for each year's crop of critically acclaimed dance troupes, solo performers, and experimental theater acts on the national tour circuit. Programming for On the Boards is a much swampier affair, featuring equal parts research, gossip, and dumb luck. That such a formula regularly results in dazzling performance events is a testament to On the Boards' instincts, intelligence, and—yes—genius.
"An unsystematic system of crossed references," says Czaplinski of his curatorial technique. Reading is key—theater and performance listings from all over—followed by focused polling. "I quiz artists and art lovers about what they've seen and liked. When a name comes up more than twice, bells go off." Rather than angling for established art stars, he searches for burgeoning greatness. "I love when I can involve myself with the artist, in a way that I can become an advocate and a fan," says Czaplinski, for whom On the Boards provides numerous opportunities to see artists' creative processes, from the bimonthly showcase 12 Minutes Max (where Johnson debuted what would grow into Another You and visual artists SuttonBeresCuller performed their only theater piece to date) to the theater's coproductions with "Awesome," Sarah Rudinoff, Kiki and Herb, and, uh, me.
But it's never fully smooth sailing. Favoring new artists' new works over established touring shows invites a slew of risks. "The development of new work is a really tricky proposition," says Czaplinski. "We program things to see what they can be, and sometimes artists strike out." I don't ask for names, and he doesn't offer. Then we go off the record and gossip about the duds, from underrehearsed up-and-comers to dead-on-arrival art-world legends. Throughout, Czaplinski remains diplomatic, citing unforeseen technical challenges, tonal discrepancies, and premature artistic births. Still, it's heartening to hear him talk about those times when the grand experiment goes kaboom—they are a significant part of the On the Boards mystique. Venturing in, audiences understand that what they're about to see could prove upsetting—mercilessly slow, maddeningly obtuse, painfully pretentious. But this threat of potential torture only ups the thrill of landing a winner, which On the Boards does with impressive regularity.
Only by maintaining a respectable ratio of winners to duds can On the Boards command its audience's admiration and devotion—for every befuddling experiment, there are three shows to blast off your panties and light up parts of your brain you forgot were there. Between the extremes exists a universe of only-at-On-the-Boards moments, filled with works that defy easy thumbs-up/thumbs-down evaluation, languishing instead on the beguiling plane of pure experience. Watching one of these ineffable performances—say, French choreographer Christian Rizzo methodically rolling his face in a pile of glitter—you may not know what that freak onstage is doing, but you'll know that he knows, and go away happy to have seen whatever the fuck it was.
"I follow a gut feeling," Czaplinski says of the choices he makes, which are brought to the stage by a small but passionate staff of eight full-time and five part-time employees. "If Seattle is a world-class city, what should it see?" In a heartening development, he regularly answers this question with work from the Northwest. "Coming in as artistic director, the thing I felt most confident about was building relationships with local artists." When he cast his outsider's eye over the regional art scene, he found plenty to love. "Local successes make me most proud. To have Amy O'Neal [who just won a prestigious Creative Capital Foundation grant] and Allen Johnson [who's booked to perform Another You at New York's Public Theater] break through on our watch is just wonderful."
While last year's featured performers embark on faraway tours, On the Boards continues its work on Queen Anne, kicking off its new season with the one-two punch of Matthew Richter's smash interactive culinary-lecture-with-food Dinner Theater and Constanza Macras/Dorky Park's stunningly funny, flesh-drenched dance explosion Back to the Present. Coming soon: Seattle dance collective locust's mockumentary, separate new works by 33 Fainting Spells members Gaelen and Dayna Hanson, and the return of the worship-worthy performance-art star Cynthia Hopkins.
"I know we're a boutique organization," Czaplinski says. He's being modest. Year after year, On the Boards presents performances Northwest audiences would never see otherwise, and we are in their debt.