Sharon Ott Justifies the Rep's Existence

As Told to Brendan Kiley

Fourth in our series of interviews with Seattle's artistic directors is Sharon Ott of Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Did you read Jonathan Raban's recent piece in the Seattle Times? It's a pretty caustic look at the difficulty Seattle is having accepting itself as a major metropolis with a sophisticated urban makeup. It was kind of, "Come on, Seattle, don't just go for the down-home and comfy," and I subscribe to that belief. It's part of the Scandinavian makeup or something that it's easier to go out on a boat than to see something that might make you think or challenge you. Aesthetically, that's a problem for theater. We, of all the arts, should be doing the new and controversial and sparking criticism, and it's hard to do in this town because the audience isn't necessarily there.

Take Topdog/Underdog, for example. It's not a perfect play, but it represents an African-American style, a different style of writing, and the production represented some of the best artistry in the country. But we didn't make our goal on that play--by a lot. The only way that play was rescued was that our production went to San Francisco and did very well, which I found sad and ironic, having come from the Bay Area. The audience in San Francisco made my bottom line when the audience in Seattle didn't.

In terms of vision--well, the Rep is already doing this, but I don't think we're getting attention for it. We're originating a lot of works that go on to have a national life, like Topdog/Underdog or The Time of Your Life. I would also love to have the Rep working with some organization locally to develop new work and an audience for new work. I'm trying to get out from under the burden of our operating costs--we're highly unionized and it's expensive to work in our building. Part of what new work needs is to be freed from all that. I'd like to use financial resources from the Rep to work with an organization that doesn't have all that overhead cost and [could produce] a greater volume of work. Part of the problem with developing an audience is that we don't have critical mass. There's a new play that springs up here or at our theater, but there's no core. We could do a reading a week or a quickie, down-and-dirty production of a new play every two weeks.

We would like another place, hopefully on Capitol Hill, to sit down with five or six plays and $50,000--which for us is cheap, we could never do a production for that little--and work together for a period of years to (A) get our audiences to go see a play there, and (B) get whoever started going there to come to the big green building to see Topdog/Underdog. Hopefully, we could put artists to work whom we couldn't hire at the Rep--and help the general ecology of the local scene.

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