Making a living as an actor has always been difficult, but some eras were better--or at least more interesting--than others.
In her 1940 book Arena, Hallie Flanagan, national director of the Depression-era Federal Theater Project, writes that "Seattle was a show town from the days of the tinny piano in the saloon." Vaudeville was a big deal in Seattle, says local actress and theater historian Laura Drake. The well-known Pantages vaudeville circuit originated here; founder Alexander Pantages settled in the city in 1902 and ended up not only making a fortune booking acts for his circuit on the Pacific Coast and in the Midwest, but also building several opulent, distinctive Seattle theaters, most of which have now, of course, been destroyed. Jimi Hendrix's grandparents were vaudeville performers.
Vaudeville had been the most popular form of entertainment in the country for decades--but then came technology. The cheaper diversions of movies and radio wiped out vaudeville in Seattle and the rest of the country in a few short years. Seattle residents lined up for hours in the rain when Seattle's first movie theater, the Coliseum, opened at Fifth Avenue and Pike Street in 1916.
And then came the stock-market crash of 1929 and the Depression. Thousands of performers around the country were thrown out of work, and by 1935, deep into the Depression, things were looking dire. Then, in a remarkable act of imagination and farsightedness, FDR's Works Progress Administration was created to preserve and utilize the skills of unemployed workers in their own professions. Out of the WPA came the Federal Theater Project.
The purpose of the project was to provide work for thousands of unemployed theater professionals. However, the FTP also rapidly became a fertile ground for progressive forms of theater--and progressive ideas. Flanagan, an experimental theater director from Vassar, developed innovative productions all over the country; two early FTP directors were Orson Welles and John Houseman. The project eventually employed 12,372 people. Author Tom Robbins has said that "our artistic coming of age has its beginnings in the WPA art projects."
In Seattle, the Federal Theater was directed by Glenn Hughes, head of the drama department at the University of Washington. Seattle was one of 17 cities in the country to simultaneously open satirist Sinclair Lewis' controversial new play It Can't Happen Here, featuring a fascist president of the United States. The Seattle Negro Repertory Company produced Aristophanes' Lysistrata to rave reviews, but WPA officials closed the show after one performance when Seattle city officials protested its "indecency." Accusations of Communist activity shut the Federal Theater Project down in 1939. (During the hearings, Flanagan was grilled about her interest in Stanislavsky, and asked whether "this Marlowe" was a Communist.)
What happened after 1939 in Seattle theater? Until the founding of the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1963, "basically nothing," according to UW-trained theater historian Ron West. "With a single exception: theater on the UW campus."
The 1960s gave birth to the regional theater movement. Money was suddenly available through the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations as well as the NEA to develop professional regional theater companies that would, ideally, house year-round professional companies, serve as workshop settings for new playwrights, and emphasize art over commerce. "In the Broadway setting," West says, "there was no such thing as a permanent company. One of the goals of the regional theaters was to have a permanent group of resident performers."
In 1963, our own original regional theater, the Seattle Rep, was founded by British Broadway director Stuart Vaughan. In his rather self-serving 1969 memoir, A Possible Theatre, Vaughan describes his experiences starting the Rep with Andre Gregory in the theater built for the 1962 World's Fair.
His salary was $15,000. The first season sold a disappointing 9,000 subscriptions, and the Rep's board, which Vaughan found provincial and unprofessional, had to grapple with fundraising and organization. Personal and artistic conflicts arose as well, and Gregory was fired during the first series of rehearsals. Appeals to the Ford Foundation for a grant were denied; no one from the New York headquarters ever bothered to come see a show, Vaughan says, although the Rep did receive some money from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1964 for workshops.
Vaughan, fired by the board in 1965, ends his book with comments about the Seattle arts scene and the difficulties of working in a community where the number of people in power are relatively few. "The WASP population of Seattle, particularly the long-term residents, are complacent in the notion that everything is all right with their community and that they are upstanding, moral people... their intolerance, narrowness, and clubbishness is rarely revealed.... I wonder whether [they] are mature enough to accept democratic responsibility for the arts organizations which their 'boosterism' urges upon them."
Vaughan left the Rep $250,000 in debt, says theater historian Ron West. Duncan Ross was appointed managing director, and within six years, the company had 22,000 season subscriptions. Financial considerations eventually put an end to the dream of permanent gigs for actors at most regional theaters across the country, but these theaters continue to be used as workshops for new plays; Neil Simon, Wendy Wasserstein, and others have developed and premiered new work in Seattle.
After the Rep came a rapid succession of new theaters, energized by the cultural movements of the 1960s and '70s. A Contemporary Theatre was founded in 1965, the Empty Space in 1970, and the Intiman in 1972. (The Intiman, the first regional theater in the country to stage Tony Kushner's Angels in America, seems to have recently been assaulted by marketing consultants. A January 2001 press release proudly announces a "new logo design as part of a re-branding process for the theater," which will "create imagery and language that reflects a sense of adventure." Eesh.) The Empty Space was one of the first theaters in Seattle to prominently feature works by contemporary international playwrights, along with other plays, as West puts it, "that weren't exactly the fare for a commercial stage."
The Empty Space started as a collective with no board structure, and featured works by Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and David Mamet, along with company-created shows and the classics. In 1976, a Seattle Times critic called it "the most consistently interesting and admirable theater operating in Seattle." West says fringe theaters arose initially out of political impulses and "the urge to do something different than mainstream Western realism... something that had a strong social and political connection with the current surroundings."
Despite the drying up of federal funding for the arts and the demise of some third-wave theaters like Alice B. and the Bathhouse in recent years, dozens of Seattle companies produce hundreds of shows every year, and new companies continue to emerge, produce, and sometimes die. The technologies that originally put actors out of work--film and radio--now serve in their various forms as a source of decent income for actors working "day jobs" in commercials and industry films. Since some of the best art these days is found in the theater, and the FTP shows no signs of ever returning, perhaps shilling for a mattress company is worth it if the result will allow productions like Player King's Ballyhoo.
But wouldn't it be nice if it were otherwise?