At a reception after "Trapdoor 62: The Dream Interpretation Panel" last week, everyone was talking about Richard Hugo House. The gathering included nightclub owners, museum curators, a few Seattle novelists, and one bona fide famous writer, Denis Johnson, who had earlier in the night worn Groucho glasses and interpreted dreams involving a spider attacking a cat, a giant turban squash, a half-built house, and a bound and gagged man on a rattan couch. The event—short, bizarre, sold-out—was originally set to take place at Hugo House but was moved to Theater Schmeater after its producer, Anna Maria Hong, was fired from her Hugo House writer-in-residence post for reasons that remain murky.
"Are you talking about Hugo House?" said someone who overheard Hong and I talking during the reception.
Hong said, cheerily, "What's left of it."
A few minutes later a businesswoman who used to be on the board of Hugo House introduced herself to Hong and asked about her association with Hugo House. Hong laughed, said she'd been fired, and politely mentioned a few of the challenges of programming events at Hugo House. The businesswoman nodded and admitted that—while she had nothing against Hugo House—she hadn't been interested in Hugo House's programming in years. She added that the board member who'd convinced her to join the board is no longer there.
Half a dozen people associated with Hugo House have left the organization in the last six months, but Hong's dismissal a few weeks ago was a shocker. The sequence of events leading up to the dismissal hardly makes sense: At the beginning of the summer, after a year as a writer-in-residence, Hong was given a $500 bonus as incentive to sign a contract for a second year (the first time in Hugo House's history that a writer-in-residence has been given such a signing bonus). When she showed up in September to begin this year's residency, she was hard at work on "Trapdoor 62," but she was $527 over budget.
According to Hong, Hugo House's Programs and Education Manager Lyall Bush had assured her that, due to the caliber of talent she was bringing to the event (Denis Johnson), extra money could be found; when she asked Hugo House's Artistic Director Frances McCue how to go about getting more money, McCue canceled the event. The next day, Bush left a voicemail on Hong's home answering machine letting her know that her contract was canceled. "I don't exactly know what happened," Hong told me.
Bush was reluctant to talk specifics but suggested the reasons were interpersonal. McCue told me, "It's been a chronic issue that [writer-in-residence] budgets spiral out of control."
"I have a hard time believing that it came down to $527, honestly," Hong said. "I think Hugo House has that money. In fact I know they do." Hong joins a growing list of former writers-in-residence who've left on bad terms. At the "Trapdoor 62" reception, former writer-in-residence Matt Briggs made a joke about Hugo House burning to the ground.