Theatrical Thrift

by Brendan Kiley

As most everybody involved in the American art world will tell you, things are tough all over. In the midst of weird economies and steadily declining donations, the Northwest Actors Studio (NWAS) has found an innovative way to combat its current financial afflictions. This year, the studio entered into an ad hoc business relationship with Greg Kerton, a former student, who recently opened the Backstage Thrift store (1512 11th Ave) on the same Capitol Hill block the studio has occupied for 22 years.

While finishing his coursework, Kerton approached NWAS' artistic director, Ann Graham, with a proposal: Open a thrift store devoted to the theater. "The idea might have been mine," Kerton said, "but the inspiration was right here at the studio."

"I just about fell off my chair," Graham said. "It's never been as hard in the arts as it is right now, and it's directly attributable to the economy. And things are hard for the community, too, so what better time to open a thrift store?"

This initial conversation took place in March. By May, Kerton had found a suitable space in West Seattle and opened his first shop to great success. "It's one of the city's largest residential communities," Kerton said. "That means lots of old families, lots of closets, and lots of garages." On top of family donations, importers and prominent retail stores began giving the store tax-deductible merchandise donations. Soon Backstage Thrift was able to open its second location, closer to its theatrical home.

Though Kerton is devoted to maintaining a tight relationship between the theater and the store, he lauds more general thrift-store virtues. "The very nature of thrift is conservation," he said. "The environmental perspective is a huge aspect of what we're doing."

Backstage Thrift aspires to devote a steady percentage of its profits to the studio, and the two businesses also engage in resource pooling, to mutually beneficial ends. The store earns name recognition from its affiliation with NWAS, while the studio uses the store for rehearsal space and as a massive prop and costume closet.

"It's absurd that Northwest Actors Studio spends so much energy trying to make money when they should be putting that energy into teaching people to be actors," Kerton said. And, as an innovative approach to the problem of staggering arts budgets in a limping economy, Backstage Thrift may serve as a future model for partnerships between business and the arts.

"I'm not here to make lots of money," Kerton said. "Frankly, I'd rather be acting--but it's good. We're doing good work. Period."

Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer: Jan 13-Feb 14 at Bagley Wright Theatre
Part theater, part revival, and all power, this one-woman show will have your head nodding and hands clapping!