In 1959, a director named Sir Tyrone Guthrie bought a small ad in the New York Times, asking if any American cities would like a resident theater—a place where actors could perform classical plays, away from the commercial corruption of Broadway, and edify citizens of the heartland. Seven cities responded. In 1963, Guthrie opened his theater in Minneapolis. The regional theater movement had begun.
Just two years later, Andre Gregory famously announced at a national theater conference: "I'm scared that the regional theater, by the time it is mature, will have bored the shit out of millions of people all over the country." (He had already worked at three, including Seattle Rep.)
People have been calling for the death of regional theater since it was born. The regionals are moribund for dozens of reasons: exhausted economies, overhead and union costs that keep tickets prices high, an old and dying subscriber base, their inability to adapt to a younger audience (viz., its preference for buying single tickets instead of subscriptions), and, of course, their failure to not bore the shit out of people.
But ACT, one of the feebler regionals (it nearly died of debt five years ago), is showing signs of renewed vigor with something called the Central Heating Lab, led by Carlo Scandiuzzi, a Seattle philanthropist (the new library named a room after him) and theater guy (he worked with the late lamented Empty Space). The Heating Lab promises something vital, something regional theaters have conspicuously lacked—a nimble, populist wing that can absorb the best local theater, dance, and literature, and put it onstage. (Most Heating Lab events happen in ACT's moody, haunted-seeming cabaret downstairs.)
Central Heating Lab had its coming-out party in August 2007, with readings (by Rebecca Brown, Matt Briggs, and other quality writers) after performances of First Class, a play about Theodore Roethke. The Heating Lab still focuses on post-play addenda (cabaret, dance, concerts), but its genius has been to yank off the "events" blinders and start subtly programming a kind of counterseason for a whole other audience: the younger kind that likes to buy single tickets and doesn't think Alan Ayckbourn comedies about middle-aged couples having affairs are all that funny.
Coming in the next few months under the Lab's rubric: comedy by Black Daisy, Dart-Mondo, and Andy Haynes; music by "Awesome"; dance by Julie Tobiason (of Pacific Northwest Ballet); and The Adding Machine, the first production by New Century Theatre Company (the fledgling collective started by actor Paul Morgan Stetler, playwright Stephanie Timm, Stranger Genius Amy Thone, et al.).
If it works, the Heating Lab will combine the best of the regionals, the fringe, and the bars where people go to see comedy and bands. It's an idea 50 years overdue.