Before Lane Czaplinski spent 15 years artistically directing On the Boards, Seattle's internationally renowned and locally beloved center for avant-garde performing arts, he was an athlete and an author.
Making the Basketball Team: Get off the Bench and into the Game, published by Quality Sports Publications in 1996, drew heavily on his time as a point guard for the celebrated University of Kansas men's basketball team. He walked on in 1991-92 as a cocaptain, and led the mighty Jayhawks to a Big Eight Championship.
It's tempting to compare Czaplinski's ability to effectively communicate highly technical aspects of the game with his ability to effectively program highly technical arthaus acts, but that's not the reason I bring up the book. I bring it up because his quest to publish it indirectly landed him where he is today: a truly curious, risk-taking curator who's leaving a prestigious Seattle arts institution better than he found it.
He asked various faculty members for advice on how to get his book published, and those conversations led to Czaplinski getting the box-office gig at the university's Lied Center for performing arts. He worked his way up the ladder to director of education, and eventually took a position as the program manager for Brooklyn Academy of Music.
After his stint at BAM, Czaplinski took the reins at On the Boards in 2002 at the tender age of 32. At the time, the organization was in disarray following the firing, rehiring, and resignation of previous artistic director Mark Murphy. Seattle artists loved Murphy for committing serious money, time, and attention to developing their work, and international artists trusted him so much, they would choose to perform at OtB over bigger venues.
Czaplinski was a quick study on that model, according to Sarah Wilke, former managing director at OtB and current executive director of Seattle International Film Festival. One of the first things Czaplinski did at OtB was create the Performance Production Program for local artists, which provides commissioning funds, access to rehearsal space, and staff dedicated to providing feedback. He also allotted more resources to commissioning work from national/international artists while condensing their period of residency.
His combination of boldness and practicality characterized the creation of OntheBoards.tv in 2010, probably Czaplinski's biggest administrative achievement. Through that program, full-length performances at OtB are filmed in HD and then hosted online for subscribers to access for pretty cheap. It used to be that only the National Theatre of London and the Metropolitan Opera were professionally filming performances in this way. Czaplinski decided to formalize the process with a grant from the Wallace Foundation, pay artists as their work was distributed, and invest time and resources into working closely with the artists during the editing process.
"Now 157 countries are accessing that content. More than 100 universities use it as content," Wilke said. "By doing that, OtB created a whole new way of deciding who gets to be in the canon of contemporary performance. Suddenly, [Seattle artists such as] Zoe Scofield can be accessed by a tremendous number of students all around the world." The program also secured a brand-new revenue stream.
Longtime arts philanthropist John Behnke has said, "An On the Boards show is a success if one-third of the audience walks out, one-third of the audience gives a standing ovation, and one-third of the audience stays in their seats, shaking their head and wondering what the hell just happened." Under Czaplinski's risk-taking leadership, that's exactly what you got.
Seattle Repertory Theatre artistic director Braden Abraham said, "There's something a little impish about Lane. He wants to surprise you into looking at something in a different way. And I love that about him. That's such a great tone: It's both playful and surprising and provocative, and I think he really embodies that. He's in the lobby when people come in and he's got a drink in his hand—you feel like you're coming into his living room."
Czaplinski's impishness seems to come hand-in-hand with his social reputation.
"He's a fearless karaoke singer," said OtB's director of external affairs Betsey Brock, adding that they often duet Kenny Loggins and Stevie Nicks's "Whenever I Call You Friend."
Brock also added that whenever touring artists would visit, Czaplinski sometimes took them paddleboarding out at Shilshole, if they were interested. He'd happy direct them to the cannabis dispensaries. Once, he cooked handmade pasta at his own home for an Italian performance company of approximately 12.
Abraham said Czaplinski's OtB "was the first place I saw the Wooster Group, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Richard Maxwell, Young Jean Lee, Dorky Park. The only place these people are going to go is On the Boards. There's no other theater in Seattle that puts those acts in conversation with artists from Seattle."
The dancer Zoe Scofield, one half of Stranger Genius Award–wining digital dance duo zoe | juniper, credits Czaplinski with supporting her career from the very beginning. Every single one of zoe | juniper's full-length works was developed with Czaplinski and OtB. "There was just a lot of time and space for trying things out and exploring," she said. "It felt like a mutually beneficial relationship all the time."
Like Abraham, she talked about the powerful effects of certain OtB shows: "Seeing Romeo Castellucci's Hey Girl!—that piece blew my mind. Just the way he handles visual composition and time—the feeling of watching a dream state played out in reality onstage."
Choreographer and dancer Dayna Hanson, who's worked with Czaplinski since 2003, told a story that seems to be indicative of his relationships with artists.
"When my work-in-progress performance of Gloria's Cause tanked at the TBA Festival in 2010, it was all the more excruciating because of all the 'A-list' presenters in the audience," she said. "Afterward in the beer garden, some of those presenters avoided me, one pretended they hadn't seen the performance, and one jovially, harshly criticized the work to my face. Lost, I looked at Lane, who said, 'I'm just here watching you do your work.' His response was as important as the experience itself in helping me—not only to turn that hot mess of a work-in-progress into a finished work, but also to shift my thinking about artistic process and practice in bigger ways."
She went on: "It's a challenging role to fill in any community—to be that person every artist wants to impress, one of very few people who can hand out golden opportunities to artists—but Lane has always managed to stay both true to himself and accessible to artists."
Part of that ability, both Scofield and Wilke believe, has to do with the fact that Czaplinski is an artist himself. As it turns out, he still writes. "Every morning," Wilke said. "That's where he develops a lot of his creative energy. That's what allows him to not lose sight of his creative side."
It's really easy for artistic directors to close off that part of themselves, but Czaplinski didn't. That he uses the word instead of the body as his medium means he can work alongside, and not in competition with, the artists who trample, spit up, and glitter across his stage.
This article has been updated since its original publication.