6:58 p.m., a recent Thursday. On the Boards' parking lot is mysterious, quiet, with potholes and gravel, half a block big, just across the street from the theater. It's a good place for sitting on a folding chair in the afternoon sun. Or lurking at night. The rusty orange sign on the corner lists prices ("0–2 hours: $3, all day: $7, evenings: $6") and two phone numbers. If you have questions about the fees, call one; if your car has been impounded, call the other. The first number connects to some guy's phone. When you call, he will say: "I just got this number. People call a couple times a week, asking about parking lots. I don't have anything to do with parking lots." The other number connects to a message telling you that, for $9.99, it will send you a text message with "more information about this number." This is not the place to let your car get impounded.
In an hour and two minutes, a New York–based dance company will have its opening-night performance at On the Boards. The cars in the parking lot seem friendly and modest—a green Honda Accord with a big sombrero in the back, a beat-up pickup with enigmatic bumper stickers like "Have you hugged a clown today?"
7:05. A car pulls in and a woman gets out—well-dressed, middle-aged, wearing a long black coat. She spells her last name for me: "K-a-d-e-r-l-a-n. Actually, I'm a dance critic for the P-I and KUOW." Ms. K-a-d-e-r-l-a-n says she's in a hurry, bustles away, then bustles back. "Brendan, can I see some ID?" I have my driver's license but no business card. She's not happy about that. "I gave you my name, the fact that I'm a dance critic at the P-I—as a longtime reporter, I know you have to be careful who you talk to. And what about the parking lot?" I don't know, I say. I just got here.
It seems weird for a nonprofit theater to own a pay lot, especially when you consider that the Seattle Art Museum, the opera, and the Rep don't own any. The revenue from the lot is less than 3 percent of the theater's budget, just spare change lost in the backseat.
Some, like Josh LaBelle, director of the nonprofit Paramount and Moore Theaters, are more interested in leveraging the earning power of parking lots. During a conversation a few weeks ago, he said: "We may decide to get in the business of hotels and parking lots to serve our mission. We've got to look at alternative ways of funding—everybody does, or they are going to be toast."
7:25. Catherine, a deferential woman from Kirkland with short white hair, pulls in, in a baby blue Mazda. "I love dance," she says, but adds that she has been less interested in On the Boards lately. She can't explain why.
7:34. This parking lot is lonely, not like the teeming, sociable parking lots at concerts and football games where strangers offer each other hot dogs and beer and drugs and, sometimes, romance. This parking lot aches for a tailgate party.
7:39. Looking across the lot from its western edge, you see the brick façade of On the Boards, five spindly trees just beginning to bud, and letters on the side of a tall building announcing the "Queensborough Apartments" in a mod-medieval font you'd see on a poster for Camelot. A man walks to the edge of the roof eight stories high and stands for a long time. He looks like he's going to jump. He doesn't.
7:45. A shiny Honda Civic pulls into a spot and shuts off. An older couple sits inside—the engine clicks as it cools. Olga and Victor creak out. She wears a red-plaid skirt; he wears a green-plaid hunting cap. She is excitable; he is wry. They are from Petrozavodsk, a foundry town founded on September 11, 1703, to make cannons and anchors for the Russian Navy. "The Seattle of Russia," Victor says. "Northwest, but also with culture—" Olga interrupts, "But more snow." "Some rain," Victor says. "But more snow," Olga insists.
They love On the Boards. "Always surprise," Victor says. "It is like new TV show where they try to surprise every episode. Works for one season, maximum! But here? Always works."
7:53. Anne, a young woman in glasses, is flustered by the pay box. "I have a ten and need two fives." She nods at the car that her friend, whom she met in Guinea, West Africa, is parking. "I bet he doesn't have two fives. I'm going to ask that cabdriver." The cabdriver has two fives.
7:59. Misha Berson, theater critic for the Seattle Times, hurries up the sidewalk, toward the theater. "Where are you going?" she asks.
Me? I just came for the parking lot.