Theater Sep 11, 2013 at 4:00 am

Why Seattle Theater-Makers Aren’t Flocking to New York and Chicago the Way They Used To Years Ago

Young Seattle actors used to seriously discuss getting new cell phones with New York area codes just so regional-theater casting directors would call them back. That’s not the case anymore.


Magnificent story! Thanks for paying attention and having a clue.
But where do we go from here?
Sorry I didn't throw in my $0.02 into the mix when I had the chance, but I don't 5hink I would have added anything that isn't already more than eloquently expressed by those who did.
Stay, or go! You'll be fine! Circus people are survivors! You might get lucky in LA or NYC,you can stay in town, and you may come home! I have been blessed by being a colleague of most of the amazing artists you mentioned (including you)! Life is always more challenging for actors. If you know how to tell time and are not a complete asshole you'll always have work as a stage manager (as long as you're willing to work 6 days a week for 5 years, after that you might have saved enough money to say "no")! I'm so proud of my actor colleagues who keep looking for more, either here in town or in "the big city"! They keep reinventing, exploring, and doing exactly what they would do with a script, a director, or a set they hate! There is nothing new under the sun, unless you make it new! They are now doing amazing work in/out of town. There is so much great work being "made in WA" that I'm proud to be a Seattle theater worker!
Because I'm seeing discussion of this happening around Facebook, and because the usual Stranger/SLOG suspects don't seem, by and large, to be theatergoers, I thought I'd toss out some questions:

What are the implications here for artists of color? Are they "staying" in greater numbers, or is this benefit solely to the pastier among us?

What affect do you think Moisture Festival, and all that is connected to or implied by it--clowning, generative and/or physical theater, vaudeville, burlesque, performance art, even "avant-garde" outfits like Implied Violence/Saint Genet, Blood Squad, or the Satori Group-has had on either self-production or moving the whole body of possible theatrical experiences away from the quasi-realism that's still the norm in the LORT houses and even in many fringe theaters? And is this sort of thing unique to the region, or does it reflect trends we're seeing elsewhere?
I don't think this conversation is complete without mention of the fact that David Armstrong has done his part to reinvigorate the Seattle theatre scene over the last decade. Under Mr Armstrong's hand, the 5th Avenue Theatre went from hiring a smattering of locals every once in a while (under Frank Young) to 3-5 productions a year that are 90-100% local. Some of these productions take their local cast to a second city, adding precious health weeks. The 5th crosses "party lines" and hires many so-called "straight" actors for main-stage productions, developmental readings and to teach acting. He chooses shows that feature as full a spectrum of the local talent as possible every season in a direct attempt to allow that talent to continue residence in Seattle. The WCLO is by far the most lucrative weekly contract in town for actors, while I am certainly not blind to the fact that there is an aesthetic rift between the Stranger and the 5th Ave's usual fare, I don't think the full picture is presented without mentioning Mr. Armstrong's concerted efforts.

Is technology affecting theater?

It's one of the few arts where you had to be there. You couldn't ship it like a sculpture. You can't copy it like a film. However, nowadays, you can put even the smallest play live on Ustream.

Also, $69 Southwest airfares nonstop. Using the cell phone doesn't seem so outrageous.
It's not just the cheap airfares (although that's certainly a factor), but with the decreasing cost to access digital technology and the Internet it's now possible for performers to audition for jobs literally anywhere, but without having to leave their home turf. Anyone with a $700 video camera, a computer and a network connection can put together an audition video and send it to a director hundreds, even thousands of miles away, without having to take on the expense of traveling that same distance to audition in-person. This has the obvious effect of greatly expanding the geographic range in which an actor can work, without necessarily forcing them to pack up their entire existence.

There's an additional factor at play here however, that Brendan doesn't really address, but which nevertheless needs to be mentioned, namely, the explosive growth of local independent film in the past several years, alongside the continued development of our high-tech industry. The reality is that actors will never make a living by doing just theatre; even if one books as many shows as possible, there are still sizable gaps of time when an actor isn't working due simply to scheduling. But, and actor who has trained to work in a diversity of media (each entailing its own particular style of performance) at least has a decent shot nowadays of making ends meet.

In the old days, some actors would use this down time to hone their skills via workshops, private coaching, readings, etc. But, with all these new options open to them, they can now fill in these gaps with actual work: get a one-day role in a Lynn Shelton film, and you've just earned $500; do a half a day on a Microsoft industrial and you can net another $300 or $400; record a couple of voices for a video game - another $400 or $500. Sure, the work isn't any more consistent than theatre jobs, but just having it available can mean the difference between an actor who can make a reasonably comfortable living here and one who decides there are greener pastures elsewhere.

And, it's also important to keep in mind that there are still actors leaving town almost every day to seek out those greener pastures, however ephemeral they may be. No matter how much things have improved locally, no matter how much money we raise to entice production into our market, or how many corporations spring up that require the occasional services of performers, New York and Los Angeles are still going to be considered the "gold standard" in terms of steady work. One can argue that's merely perception: yes, there is a greater volume of work available in larger markets, but many actors who make the move quickly run into the sobering reality that the amount of competition has also increased exponentially, in addition to the further complication that, due to intense competition among states with commercial and film incentives programs, much of the work that traditionally would have stayed in SoCal is now being distributed throughout the country, including, ironically, Washington and Oregon.

Faced with the implications of this equation, some eventually decide to return to a place where, if nothing else, the air is cleaner and the scenery more appealing; because, as @7 suggests, an L.A. audition is only a few hours and maybe a couple hundred bucks in airfare away, assuming they can't just shoot a video, edit it in Final Cut, and email it down to a Casting Director or post it to a YouTube channel, which, once you've made the relatively modest investment in the camera, computer, software and modem, costs almost nothing to create.
Great Article! I love the commentary about creating your own work. I am a firm believer in doing so and teach all of our students that belief! I am a Seattle girl living and working in Florida - helping run the Plaza Theatre in Manalapan -
I'm very late to this party. I was a local, born-and-raised "first call" lighting designer in the area from the mid-60s (I'm 64 now) until 1990-ish. I lit a few shows at ACT and Empty Space, and all kinds of stuff at Seattle Center Playhouse before it was Intimannized, (Bumbershoot, Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan, etc.), countless shows @ Seattle Children's Theater, and I applied repeatedly for work at SRT. I was working most of the time and STARVING. The "fees" were laughable! When new kids showed up on the block, they excoriated me for "working too cheap." (I was unable to get blood out of turnips.) While I did learn my craft partly as an assistant at the Rep, and regularly racked-up glowing reviews, I NEVER got hired to light anything at the Rep main stage, being told more times than I can count, "Come back after you've gone to New York."

I finally did that in 1979, doing work for my mentor, Richard E. Nelson, Tony-award-winning lighting genius (RIP). I gave up and came home after learning that I hated NYC. It was better being a medium frog in a little pond. But, guess what? I was still starving and fighting the dog-eat-dog-back-stabbing competition. I finally quit when I sort-of permanently lost my temper with the whole spirit-sucking scene, and when One-Reel took over Bumbershoot and I WAS UNDERBID by a kid just out of college and without being told I was bidding. That really pissed me off and I quit. Seattle's much-vaunted theater reputation was built on the backs of starving artists such as this has-been. Thanks for the chance to blow-off some very old steam.

--Scott R. Hawthorn
Reaches back a few years, but shortly after I moved to NYC (from California) I met a couple just relocated from Seattle. They couldn't get any local theatres there even to audition them, so they gave up. Two weeks later, they took their NY-addressed resumes with them to an audition for Seattle Rep, in NYC. They were BOTH cast and returned to Seattle. Glad that things are moving away from that insanity. Truly.
The fact that most of your sources are artists who relocated to these big markets and made it there before returning here probably distorts the merit of this main argument.

Also, with Amazon and the resulting rise in cost of living wiping the scene out piece by piece, the premise of this article may be moot at this point.
If your goal is simply to act, then any city in the world with a local theater will do fine and you can just stay. However, if your goal is to earn money as an actor, then you’ll need to move to a “big” city. But which of those cities we should go? I have read an article about the top 5 major cities for acting here…. What do you think about it?

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