I suspected it would happen eventually, but I never thought my first time sitting in a room full of people who'd paid to see a man sodomized with a 12-foot pole would happen in Texas. But that's what you get at a quality performance festival (in this case, Fusebox in Austin, which ended last week): surprises.
Now imagine, if you will, a summer night. You're sitting on the viaduct—it's been closed to cars for the evening—facing north, and Justin Bond, formerly of Kiki & Herb, is singing the Carpenters' Close to You in its entirety, backed by a full symphony orchestra. The entrance to the performance is a walk up the on-ramp at Seneca Street and First Avenue. For one night, the elevated highway is a performance venue with the best view in the city—the sun setting to your left, reflected in the windows of the skyline to your right. You have a glass of wine—and maybe a small sandwich—in your hand.
The following night, Dorky Park makes its triumphant return from Berlin, with its superhuman—and supremely crazy—dancers doing nude solos inside phone booths filled with houseflies. (Or something.) On Saturday, Austin's Rude Mechs perform The Method Gun, a comedy about the sweet stupidity of experimental theater, in which a bunch of fuckups rehearse their version of A Streetcar Named Desire—one without a Stanley, Blanche, Stella, or Mitch—for nine pathetic years. (That was at Fusebox this year and, by most accounts, the best thing the Mechs have made in years.)
Also visiting on this magical week in Seattle: Mike Daisey, Reggie Watts, Banana Bag & Bodice, tEEth. And the locals—Zoe Scofield, Implied Violence, locust, New Century Theatre Company, "Awesome," Pat Graney, Washington Ensemble Theatre—will all do something, too.
It's called a performance festival—a destination performance festival, designed for visitors as well as locals. Theaters will stay open after every show, with tubs full of free beer and cheap cocktails for sale. People from all over the country will hang out, see each other at some of the same events, meet, and have intercourse—in both senses of the word. An instant global village will spring up in the middle of the city, as people keep running into each other along a vector of lobbies, restaurants, and bars. It will be the best week you've had in a long, long time. There's no reason Seattle shouldn't do this.
America's most electric and engaged destination festivals happen in New York City (Under the Radar), Portland (TBA), and Austin (Fusebox). Hear that? Portland and Austin, though they are smaller cities than Seattle, import nonpareil performers from Europe and America every year. Ron Berry, the eternally friendly, patient, chipmunk-cheeked director of Fusebox, said the festival started as a bunch of local companies performing a week of shows in a warehouse theater. Austin was hungrier for it than anyone knew. Its audience and budget have nearly doubled every year of its five-year existence. (This year, the festival budget was $200,000, with him getting paid for the first time.) He can't believe how it's grown.
We already have almost everything we need. The audience exists—On the Boards has done a fantastic job of cultivating a crowd that wants to see and think about new performance. And festivals, by hosting music and popular acts like Kiki & Herb or Antony and the Johnsons, can woo theater-allergic people into their clutches.
The impulse and resources for a festival already live in Seattle, distributed among a little grove of saplings. We've got Northwest New Works (local works in progress), Giant Magnet (mostly for kids), the Moisture Festival (cirque and vaudeville), SPF at Theatre Off Jackson (solo fringe shows), mini dance festivals at Velocity and Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Bumbershoot, where the performance programming feels spotty and ancillary—a place for music fans, trapped in the playpen of Seattle Center, to wander into a show between bands. Every once in a while, theater people begin talking—quietly, tentatively—about bringing back a fringe-theater festival. But the frenzied, throw-everything-at-the-wall mood of a fringe festival feels amateur, bush-league. Let Saskatoon and Edmonton have all that fun.
Plus, calling it any kind of theater festival would be inaccurate. We're not talking about well-made plays or even poorly made plays. We're talking about performance—yes, a dullish word, but the only one big enough for all the stuff that lives in the liminal parts of the theater-dance-vaudeville-comedy-installation Venn diagram of the 21st century.
What we need is a real, grown-up, curated festival with violence and nudity and smart people doing weird things onstage. Something built to animate the city in atypical ways—events in art galleries and rock music clubs and warehouses and on closed-off freeways. (Not for nothing have we watched Implied Violence and Free Sheep commandeer chunks of the abandoned city for their own purposes.)
There are a couple of ways to proceed: We could build it around one of the existing festivals. (Summer is imperative.) Maybe we should go head-to-head with Bumbershoot—in a friendly way! Because we'll be asking One Reel for help!—and give all the people who've stopped going to Seattle Center every Labor Day something else to do. Or maybe One Reel decides it wants to dedicate itself to music and hands us the keys to its performance car. Maybe the festival grows as an extension of Northwest New Works. Maybe The Stranger moves the Genius Awards to summer and treats the party as the festival's opening gala.
Will the current sapling-festivals pull together, pitch in, and give up a little of their money and independence for the good of the city? Will an impresario step forward to muster the troops and draw up the battle plan? Will the city be ready to throw energy and resources at a fresh risk (and will it let us have the viaduct for that Justin Bond concert)? Remember: During recessions, the smart money is on expansion—rushing into the void everybody else has left by their hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass.
The questions are endless, but the facts are these: Seattle has the will (smart audiences, smart artists) and the resources (the money, the infrastructure) to build one of the best performance festivals in the United States. We have the components. No question. Now we just have to dump them on the table and start stitching them together.
So. Who's ready to get to work?
Who's ready to cut some checks?