Back in the early 1990s, an American veteran named Lewis Carpenter, who was living in Slovakia, found an exquisite seven-ton sculpture of Lenin lying facedown in a scrap heap, waiting to be melted down for its bronze. Carpenter bought the sculpture for $13,000, had it cut into three pieces, and shipped it to Washington State. The statue now stands at a prominent intersection in Fremont and has become a neighborhood icon.
Back in January of 2011, theater producer A. J. Epstein was talking with actor Eric Ray Anderson, lamenting that he couldn't come up with a name for his new theater in Fremont. (Its inaugural production is June 20.) "I wanted a name that would reflect the neighborhood," Esptein says. "I originally wanted to call it Lenin's Tomb, but that sounds like a goth bar. I was talking about the problem with E Ray. He asked, 'Where's the theater?' I said, 'It's a five-minute walk west of Lenin.' He said, 'Well, there's your name!'"
The West of Lenin project might seem ill timed. Over the past several years, theaters have faced a trend of collapse across the United States, and this hardly seems like the moment to open a new one.
When Epstein bought his 1963 building on North 36th Street, he had no intention of opening a theater. The building had been the home of Warden Fluid Dynamics, a light-industrial manufacturing business that made automated machines—the kind you see on assembly lines, sealing bags of pet food or bolting together slabs of metal. The building, which Epstein bought in 2009, is a muted modernist/brutalist thing, with poured concrete and a second story that juts out over the first. ("I'd never build something with that much poured concrete," Epstein says. "But this building is of a style and of a time, and I thought it was important not to erase that.")
Epstein planned to renovate the building as a purely commercial project, use one part of it as his own office and studio, and rent out the rest of the space to tenants. But then, shortly after the planning stages, he realized he had a potential theater on his hands. He could build an 88-seat black box on the first floor and still rent the other office spaces out to tenants—a commercial enterprise that would subsidize the theater, where he could produce some work, curate some work, and rent the room out to other companies.
"This part of town is known for having an artist community and for having arts patrons," he says. "I've always wanted to run a theater and realized I would be an idiot if I didn't do something with this opportunity."
Fremont hasn't had a dedicated theater since the Empty Space moved out in 2005 (and collapsed the following year). But if West of Lenin succeeds, it will bring regular theater to Fremont as well as a new venue that matters to the entire city. Epstein has already been talking with several well-known artists and companies about projects for West of Lenin's first year. (He didn't want to share names on the record, as the final commitments haven't been made yet.)
Epstein's track record as a producer—in Seattle, Chicago, New York, and beyond—is impressive. He put together the money and logistics for critical and audience successes such as Gilgamesh, IA (by Scot Augustson), Starball (by John Kaufmann and Dan Dennis, performed in planetariums across the country), Parrot Fever, or Lies I've Told in Chat Rooms (Keri Healey), An Oak Tree (by Tim Crouch, won an Obie Award), the off-Broadway run of Mike Daisey's How Theater Failed America, and solo shows across the country by comedian Tania Kazan.
West of Lenin's inaugural production comes this Monday, with the one-night Sandbox Radio Live!. The Sandbox Artists Collective is a pack of talented Seattle theater artists who've been flying under the radar for the past two and a half years. According to Sandbox member Leslie Law, it originally began as a networking and resource-sharing group that hosted salons, master classes, exercises, and the "book club"—a brunch at someone's house where members would read plays out loud. Sandbox currently has 75 members, including well-loved Seattle actors (Charles Leggett, Sarah Harlett, Todd Jefferson Moore, Alexandra Tavares), writers (Scot Augustson, Paul Mullin, Elizabeth Heffron), and actor/musicians (Rob Witmer, Jose Gonzales).
Some members, led by Law, decided it was time to produce something for the public and came up with Sandbox Radio Live!, which pairs writers with actors to come up with radio plays, using live Foley, to record for a podcast. Heffron wrote Irreducible Howard, a this-is-your-life story of a man played by Eric Ray Anderson. ("This is the one play where we're going a little ape with the sound effects," Law says.) Stranger Genius Paul Mullin wrote the first installment of a radio serial which he described as a "noir detective-angels piece based on an obscure Robert Louis Stevenson story—you know, same old bag of tricks." It will star Seattle favorite Charles Leggett. The other playwrights include Anita Montgomery, Scot Augustson, and Vincent Delaney, whose Notes from the Workplace begins with the same line as Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground: "I am a sick man... I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased."
It's fitting for Dostoevsky to christen West of Lenin. And it's good to have a promising new theater in town.