Carol Louise Thompson's play was scheduled to premiere inside an old house slated for demolition on Capitol Hill. Nine days before it opened, the show's director and stage manager showed up with boxes of props and tools in their arms. The director's father had driven up from Portland to help build platforms and other last-minute scenery. The lighting designer was en route to rig up the lights for tech rehearsals.
But when the director and stage manager got to the front door, they discovered that the locks had been changed.
This was weird. Thirteen theater artists had been rehearsing in the house for a whole month. They'd left personal belongings inside.
Calls were made to the producer, Liza Curtiss, who assumed the house's developer locked them out, but she wasn't sure why. So Curtiss called the middle man who had secured the house in the first place: Seattle Demo Project.
The Seattle Demo Project is a loose collective of architects who are making the most of construction disruption throughout the city by connecting artists with developers. Artists pitch projects they want to produce in buildings destined for demolition and inevitable condo-ification, the Seattle Demo Project (which is awesome and run by volunteers) then scans their contacts for developers who might be willing to do an artist a favor, and if all goes smoothly, they find a site for the play or the installation or the music video.
The idea is to memorialize beloved buildings sometime between the moment they're scheduled for doom and the moment the wrecking ball swings.
In ideal situations, everyone benefits. Developers like it because squatters and taggers trespass less often when art is present. Artists like it because it's fucking cool to do a show in a to-be-demo'd house, especially because the space is more or less free.
Playwright Carol Louise Thompson was especially excited to have a literal home—a dying house, no less—for the setting of her play, This Show Is About Progress. The story follows a woman named Mona whose interior life is intimately intertwined with a timeworn house that she and her brother share. Though the house has a special power that connects them, he's considering selling the place because he's broke. A house scheduled for demolition would perfectly suit the needs of this play, which seeks to complicate the conversation about "progress" and "development" that the city's been having with itself since 1850.
Thompson spent five years writing and workshopping the script, and received a CityArtist grant for $7,200, which came with a stipulation: The show had to be produced in the year 2017.
She initially approached the Demo Project in February of 2016, but it wasn't until May of 2017 that they were able to find a site. When they did, it felt like a dream come true, Thompson said.
In the middle of May, the Demo Project took Thompson and Curtiss on a tour of the house. The pair thought it would work perfectly. The Demo Project told them they could have the house for the play so long as they signed liability wavers. Thompson and Curtiss were fine with that, and made it a point to say that they'd be getting their own liability insurance, too.
Thompson and Curtiss immediately got to work. They created a rehearsal and production schedule and started a Hatchfund to help pay for a crew and actors.
But there were a few unexamined assumptions at play. The artists were assuming the Demo Project had the authority to let them use the house. The Demo Project was assuming the owner and developer of the house had granted them that authority because they gave them the lockbox code to enter the house to show the artists the space. Moreover, the Demo Project had worked on similar projects in the past, and big hitches never came up.
No contracts had been proposed, suggested, or signed. Curtiss would say later that relying on verbal agreements early in the process was her mistake, but at that time and throughout the month, the Demo Project gave her assurances that everything was cool. Anyhow, in May, a representative from the Demo Project sent the developer the play's rehearsal schedule, and everyone worked while they waited for a reply.
In early June, the developer replied, expressing nervousness. One of the developer's investors had learned about the project and worried about being liable for audience members. The Demo Project thought this fear might be allayed if Curtiss sent them press materials and other credentials. She obliged.
Three weeks later, in the middle of July, 13 days before curtain, the developer said they needed to be added to Thompson's insurance and also called for a legal contract to be drawn up between the theater company and the developer. They prohibited the artists from using the house without further permission—but they didn't tell the artists directly, they told the Demo Project, which didn't immediately pass on the message. Over the weekend, some artists did some work inside the house, but by Tuesday, before the theater crew showed up with lights and props and dads and boxes of stuff, the developer had changed the locks.
Curtiss delivered the requested insurance shortly thereafter, but again received no reply from the developer. After the Demo Project followed up with the developer later that day, they got an auto reply: The representative had left town for vacation until late August.
The contract with the lawyers hadn't been drawn up yet. No one at the developer's office was authorized to unlock the doors or give the team permission to enter the house.
The professional team of actors and designers that Curtiss and Thompson had assembled didn't exactly have flexible schedules. Most were booked up for the rest of the year with other paying gigs. It would be a year at least until schedules would align again.
A sad truth emerged: The show—or at least this version, in this house—would not go on.
It's hard not to see this deflating episode as the very show that Thompson and her crew were trying to create. It's a play about real estate being at the center of certain parties' inability to communicate. And it's about how the circumstances of each "development," each thing that gets turned into a condo, are different and layered and complex.
"We lost hundreds of dollars" on the insurance paperwork alone, Thompson said. That doesn't include lost wages on other projects they could have been working on. "And we'd become like a family. Like with every show you do, you become a family, and then you get to have a baby with that family called 'the play,' but we couldn't have that baby."
Though plenty of frustration and confusion and sadness remain for the theater artists, Curtiss doesn't think the blame game is in order.
"How artists move forward, how we uphold the character of the city, how we work together in a more progressive way depends on dialogue," she said. "If no one is talking to each other and we're all just pointing fingers, someone is going to get left behind, and most likely it will be the artist."
As mentioned, per the terms of her grant, Thompson was contractually obligated to produce This Show Is About Progress within a year. But after she explained her current predicament to the city, they're now in the process of granting her a one-year extension. So the show will go on, eventually.