Fifteen years ago, people in Seattle theater used to tell a joke that went like this: "An actor new to town is checking out the local theaters. He stops an old-timer for directions. 'What's the fastest way to get from Annex to ACT?' the newcomer asks. The older actor pauses for a moment and says: 'New York.'"

That wasn't just idle bitching. At the time, young Seattle actors seriously discussed getting new cell phones with New York area codes just so regional-theater casting directors would call them back. Jerry Manning, now the artistic director at Seattle Rep, said when he first came to town in 2001, "This city was hemorrhaging its best and brightest. I came when the idea among artistic directors was 'god forbid you hire a Seattle actor.'" As a result, talented artists were fleeing the city—artists who loved the town and loved their cohort but had hit a glass ceiling, since the regional theaters (ACT, Seattle Repertory Theater, Intiman) didn't usually hire even the biggest fringe stars, and big donors tended to support those flagship institutions instead of energetic young companies such as Printer's Devil and Annex. So many actors were fleeing the city that newspapers published alarmist articles about it. Meanwhile, artists had their own hand-wringing conversations in bars and at parties wondering whether getting work, making rent, and staying in Seattle were mutually exclusive propositions.

There was, in fact, a small coterie of Seattle actors—R. Hamilton Wright, Marianne Owen, Laurence Ballard, and others—who regularly worked at the regional theaters, but pretty much everyone else felt shut out. Heidi Schreck of Printer's Devil Theater (who left in 2003 and has since won an Obie Award, acted alongside Edie Falco, and now writes for the Falco-starring show Nurse Jackie) said that nothing got the attention of Seattle's regional theaters back then like her move to New York. "My agent," she said, "would call and say, 'Do you want to do this thing at Yale Rep or this thing at Seattle Rep?' Suddenly, those auditions were available to me."

Mike Daisey remembers trying to get someone from the regional theaters to see his monologue 21 Dog Years, which was selling out absurdly fast in 2001—sometimes six weeks in advance—and getting coverage in Entertainment Weekly and Newsweek. But nobody from the big houses would come. "The closest we got to anyone paying attention to the show," he said, "and we were really excited about this at the time, was when the ACT literary manager's boyfriend—or girlfriend, I can't remember which—almost came." That person never showed up. Daisey and his director/partner Jean-Michele Gregory figured they had to move to New York if they were going to get anywhere. So they did.

They were not alone. Actor Jillian Armenante still remembers a realization she had while riding her scooter in the freezing rain between two of three gigs she was juggling in the late '90s. She'd gotten hooked up with the wild and fast-producing Annex Theater crew soon after moving to Seattle. (Funny story about that: Being a spunky Jersey actor, she showed up in town and immediately started calling theaters she found in the phone book. The first one she called was the Apple, the old porn theater, where somebody on the line enthusiastically urged her to visit. When she realized her mistake, she called Annex.) On that ride through the rain, she realized that, after eight years of hustling, she had only just cracked the poverty line—and just barely. She fiercely loved her theater community and loved the work she was doing, but "I wasn't physically capable of working any harder." She knew she had to try something else. A production of The Cider House Rules she was in moved to Los Angeles. When it was over, she stayed there.

Kip Fagan of Printer's Devil remembers having the annual conversation with Heidi Schreck (now his wife) about when they should give up and go to New York. As Seattle's midrange theaters were shutting down—theaters like Alice B, the Group Theater, the Empty Space—he realized there was nowhere for him to work. The big houses wouldn't hire him, and the small theaters couldn't pay him. So, in 2003, they left. (This year, Fagan directed a critically acclaimed play starring Vanessa Redgrave.)

Even Laurence Ballard, who performed regularly in regional theaters across the country, realized he was working more and more but being paid less and less—including one "top-dollar" offer in the early '00s that was the amount he'd been working for 11 years earlier. "I was in my early 50s and couldn't make rent," he said. He left Seattle and took a teaching offer from the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Kristen Kosmas and Paul Willis were two other theater artists making electrifying work in Seattle 10 to 15 years ago who also left during the theater exodus of the late '90s and early '00s. This winter, On the Boards will present their show There There, which got a glowing review earlier this year in the New York Times. Like a real-life version of the old joke, Kosmas and Willis went from Seattle's fringe stages to its big stages—via New York.

There There begins with the absence of an actor—Christopher Walken, we learn, is supposed to be performing a solo show inspired by Chekhov's Three Sisters but recently fell off a ladder and cannot perform it. The script's proofreader, Karen, will perform as Walken's substitute. Because we're supposedly in Russia, Karen must have her English lines translated through an interpreter, who, on this night of all nights, is an understudy for the usual interpreter. The result is a real-life performance (There There) of a fictional performance (Walken's solo show performed by unprepared artists) as it completely unravels. Kosmas wrote and stars in There There, and Willis directs it. Claudia La Rocco's review in the Times called it "a virtuosic feat" and "a language-drenched resonant knockout" in which "layers of meaning stack up, and the edges begin to fray." But There There's arrival at On the Boards will have another, unintended layer of meaning about a generation of artists and their absence.

Kosmas, to be clear, told me she didn't relocate to New York for professional reasons, but because she wanted to get away from theater for a while, be closer to her family, and get a "boring receptionist job." (She got that job, by the way, at a fancy SoHo day spa where she says Julia Roberts's people tried to get her fired because she wouldn't take their anonymous reservation without a credit card number.) But even Kosmas, who tried to get away from theater, found her career prospects reinvigorated by leaving Seattle.

Since then, something significant has shifted in Seattle.

Theater artists still come and go, of course, but the alarmist newspaper articles and hand-wringing conversations have largely vanished, and the anxiety seems to have been sucked out of the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go debate. Moreover, since that period of exodus, younger artists like the actor Marya Sea Kaminski and the designer Jen Zeyl—artists who might have left in the late '90s and early '00s—have stuck around to work in Seattle. The fresh college grads of the Satori Group even moved their company here a few years ago from the East Coast—which had everyone scratching their heads—after they did some independent homework about the best city in America for them to make ensemble theater. Seattle is no longer repelling entire generations of theater artists.

So what changed? I asked around 30 theater artists (younger and older, people who stayed and people who left), and they collectively came up with four major theories, all of which could be simultaneously true.

Theory One:

Regional theaters went broke and started hiring locally.

Bret Fetzer is one prolific theater artist—writer, director, actor—who chose to stay in Seattle during the exodus, partly because he'd already had his own dissatisfying sojourn in Los Angeles. After the economic crashes of 2001 and 2008, he said, the glass ceiling between the fringe theaters and the regional theaters became "notably porous." There's still some sense of an in-club and an out-club, but contracted budgets made it much more convenient for big theaters to abandon the apartments they'd been keeping for out-of-town actors and to "discover" local talent.

"Localism gets a chance when the till is closer to empty," Daisey said about that shift. "I wish it weren't that way, and we'd be able to see what local theater artists could have accomplished if they'd had the resources to have more reach. Actors only grow as fast as they have enough productions and opportunities to support them."

The economic bottoming-out also encouraged boards of directors to hire more local artistic directors instead of bringing in carpetbaggers—even well-intentioned carpetbaggers—from other towns. Jerry Manning at the Rep and Kurt Beattie at ACT are not, as Daisey pointed out, the typical American artistic directors that he sees as he tours from city to city. "They're both fully residents of the city they're in," he said. "You could see before Intiman imploded [shortly after longtime artistic director Bart Sher left and his choice for successor, New York–based director Kate Whoriskey, stepped in] how that other way of thinking was divergent from the way ACT and the Rep were and are."

"Kurt Beattie in particular," Ballard said, "is not bedazzled by a Manhattan address on a résumé."

Plenty of local artists still need work, of course—nobody would say the situation is rosy. But local does get more play at the big houses these days. This season, for example, the Seattle Rep is producing Bo-Nita, a world-premiere play by local writer Elizabeth Heffron, directed by young local Paul Budraitis, starring young Cornish graduate Hannah Mootz, and featuring an entirely local design team.

If the Rep had been sponsoring those kinds of projects back in 2000, who knows what the Seattle theater scene might look like today?

Theory Two:

People—and not just young people—are producing their own work.

Julie Briskman is one of those actors who tends to get regularly hired at the big houses, but even she panicked in the mid-2000s as theaters stumbled and her peers moved away or switched careers. "That was a rough time," she said, but she hung in there. "Then a few years ago, a thrilling shift began to happen. Actors in all stages of their careers began creating their own work." It wasn't just the youngsters fresh out of school who were taking the reins, she said, but "experienced folks with years of work behind them saying, 'It's time for me to stop sitting by the phone and waiting for someone to call.'" So companies of more mid-career artists, such as Strawberry Theater Workshop, New Century Theater Company, the Endangered Species Project, and the Seagull Project, joined the younger companies such as Satori and Washington Ensemble Theater.

The effect, she said, is several-fold— these projects aren't necessarily raking in money, but they're allowing accomplished artists, young and old, to work together, making them all more confident and better at what they do. In theory, these companies could incubate new projects and artists that go on to work in regional theaters. (Strawberry Theater Workshop was early in this trend, and it already has regular actors who work on the big stages.) They also, as director Kip Fagan pointed out, might become a seedbed from which a new mid-level theater (an Alice B or an Empty Space) might spring—and pretty much everyone I talked to, no matter where in their careers, said a new midsize, stepping-stone theater would be excellent for everyone in the city.

Theory Three:

The flotsam of the grunge era is gone.

Actor and producer Ian Bell ventured a different theory about why people were more emotional then than they are now—the grunge magnet of the 1990s. "There was this period when lots of kids were coming to Seattle, lured by these pretty colors and tattoos," he said. They showed up ready to live their romantic dreams as starving artists, but were dismayed to discover that nobody here was particularly willing to subsidize their young and unaccomplished work, and there was a lot more starving than art. While some theater artists had talent, experience, and legitimate grievances about not being recognized, their grumbling was amplified by this din of entitled wannabes. Then people either grew up or moved on (most of them, anyway).

"After grunge hit," Bell said, "the wave crashed on the beach. Some of us were jetsam that stayed on the beach and some were flotsam that drifted back out there. That doesn't mean that all the flotsam was destined for bigger things, it just means some flotsam was more buoyant. Jesus, I hope I'm using those words correctly."

Kurt Beattie, the current artistic director of ACT Theater, who has long roots in Seattle from the early Empty Space days, agrees with Bell—the regional theaters have changed, he said, giving local artists more opportunity, but the talent pool has also gotten better. "Back at that time, there were a lot of unqualified people," he said. "I was skeptical that the younger community of actors could carry significant plays." While economic trouble made it more convenient for regional theaters to hire local talent, he said that during his decades of sitting in audition rooms, he's watched Seattle actors get better as a whole. "They grow," he said, "and it's so gratifying."

Theory Four:

Things are tough all over, so here's as good as anywhere.

The economic collapse that made Seattle's regional theaters a little more serious about hiring local talent also made the classic cities of destiny—New York and Los Angeles—a little less attractive. With a little more opportunity at home and a little less opportunity elsewhere, the gap between a possible theater career here and a possible theater career there shrank considerably.

"The typical wage for my New York counterparts—for people of the same education and caliber of talent—is roughly 15 percent of what I'm making," said designer Jen Zeyl. "There is not one designer I went to grad school with who is working as much as I am, and not also working another job outside their field."

Actor Julia Prud'homme, who left Seattle with the exodus, first for New York and then for Los Angeles, says she's actually decided to come back this fall. "Hollywood has changed," she said. "There's less work, the big blockbusters are not making back their money, reality TV is taking over, and Hollywood stars who would have never agreed to work on TV are now taking costarring roles on TV shows. And I'm about to turn 49 and am tired of fighting to play a scene against 40 other women. It's not that it's beneath me or anything, but the opportunity is less and less and less—not just for me but for everyone."

Armenante, who's also in Los Angeles, said she's seeing the same thing: "When the economy hit and tanked, eight actors on my street got out and moved to Portland... I think the economy, and the flow of people, has reversed." Pamala Mijatov, artistic director of Annex Theater, is a little more pessimistic, saying there's less angst in the Seattle theater community because people are just generally less hopeful that they'll get anywhere. But, she added, "A surprising (or totally unsurprising) number of playwrights have relocated to Seattle from New York."

So while it's true that Kristen Kosmas and Paul Willis fit the old joke about young theater artists whose work traveled from Seattle fringe theaters to a Seattle big stage via New York, the city they're coming back to is not the city they left. During—and just after—Seattle's turn-of-the-century theater exodus, the performance community felt like it was falling apart.

Now, perhaps, we've gotten over the jitteriness, seen the collapse, and are starting to build something new. recommended

Artists and critics consulted for this story include: Jillian Armenante, Laurence Ballard, Kurt Beattie, Ian Bell, Misha Berson, Julie Briskman, Lane Czaplinski, Mike Daisey, Mary Ewald, Kip Fagan, Kristen Kosmas, Charles Leggett, John Longenbaugh, Jerry Manning, Alex Matthews, Stephen McCandless, Pamala Mijatov, Paul Mullin, Allison Narver, Julia Prud'homme, Heidi Schreck, Mark Siano, Brandon J. Simmons, Caitlin Sullivan, Gianni Truzzi, Jen Zeyl, and a few people who didn't want their names included.