Capitol Hill Arts Center, the iconic local experiment in running a successful for-profit theater (excuse me, Arts Center) will no longer sell subscriptions or produce seasons. The former isn't a big deal: Plenty of small theaters don't sell subscriptions. CHAC's decision to abandon seasons is a bigger deal. Even the smallest (nonprofit) theaters, from Annex to Theater Schmeater, announce and perform seasons of plays. What happened?
First, let's look at a quote in Seattle Weekly, where CHAC's Executive Artistic Director Matthew Kwatinetz seems to take a swipe at the audience: "If the Seattle audience doesn't recognize Seattle value, the value will have to migrate elsewhere." That sounds like: "Fuck you for not appreciating us." That's a common lament, but Kwatinetz denies this interpretation, saying "value migration" is just a business term for the consumer's change in preferences. "I have no ego attached to this," he says. "It's not about the art I like, it's about the art the audience likes." The audience, apparently, wasn't liking the art enough. But Kwatinetz says it's more complicated than that: "The season wasn't meeting our mission."
To talk about CHAC, you have to talk about The Three-Part Mission, (which comes up a lot in conversation): do good art, do good for the community, do good business. The season allegedly failed the first prong because "audiences didn't respond the way we expected," the second prong because the rigors of a season schedule forced CHAC to scuttle some promising projects (that, I suppose, would have been good for the "community"), and the third prong because the sales weren't there.
How many more ticket and subscription sales would have saved the season model? Double? "No. Our decision is about artistic quality." Quadruple? "We're not guided by money. We're guided by our three-part mission." (Of course. My mistake.) CHAC will continue to produce individual plays, spending more time on single productions with long runs (like Stones in His Pockets) instead of smaller-scale shows that go up and come down in a few weeks. CHAC will also form a producing company.
"We will continue to produce risky theater," Kwatinetz says. We have a small spat about this. CHAC's plays are not risky: Arthur Miller is great, as is Tom Stoppard; Ionesco is overrated (vintage absurdism aged like vinegar, not wine); a Clifford Odets production just won a Tony; Brecht is standard; Dario Fo is slightly off the beaten path; Mike Daisey is in the middle of a national theater career—they all deserve to be produced, but none of them are even a smidgeon risky. "I guess it depends on your definition of risk," Kwatinetz replies. "People don't do these plays because they're artistically hard and deep." (Let's momentarily ignore the ubiquity of Stoppard and Brecht and Miller.) Some of these playwrights are hard and deep, but so is Hamlet, and Hamlet isn't risky. It's fine that CHAC has a kind of miniregional, Theater 101 aesthetic—they'd do well to admit that to themselves and their audience. Not everyone can be risky. Being honest is enough.