Last weekend, first-time playwright Dwayne Clark sat in ACT's biggest room—the 434-seat theater in the round upstairs—to watch the world premiere of Seven Ways to Get There, a two-act play about how his life was changed by group therapy. The experience, he said, was "phenomenal"—a sold-out house with CEOs and professional football players in attendance, hundreds of people at the pre- and post-show parties, and a flood of messages the next morning from men thanking Clark for writing a play that inspired the most intimate conversations they'd had with their wives in decades.
"If I had scripted it myself, I couldn't have asked for a better opening night," he said. "People came up to me afterward and said, 'I would be shocked if this didn't go to New York or Broadway.'" Clark deflected some of the praise, saying much of it belonged to his cowriter Bryan Willis (a longtime playwright who, by all accounts, did most of the heavy lifting) and director John Langs (a respected artist who will soon take over as artistic director at ACT).
Watching a first script brought to life in one of Seattle's biggest theaters would be a thrill for any local playwright. But there's something about Clark that sets him apart from the likes of Keri Healey, Scot Augustson, and Kelleen Conway Blanchard.
Clark is a wealthy CEO, with a Rolodex full of wealthy CEOs, and their combined wealth was instrumental in getting his story onto ACT's stage.
While he was pitching the show, Clark asked how many tickets ACT expected to sell. "They said, 'Well, a first-time play typically sells 50 percent to 60 percent of the show,'" he recalled. "'If we sell 100 percent of the show, we may not break even.' I'm a CEO and I'm like, 'Why do you do this? How do you stay in business? This seems like a broken economic model.'"
So Clark, who also wants Seven Ways to raise money for Sound Mental Health, made a proposal. "I told ACT, 'I'll take all the risk so there's zero percent chance of you losing money,'" he said. "I reached out to 28 of my CEO buddies and said, 'I want you to front-load this, sell out the house, pay double what you normally would, and give the tickets away to your employees.'"
This new way of producing theater—allowing a wealthy playwright to guarantee the financial success of his own show, a first for ACT—has already paid off. "By opening night, we had sold 60 percent of the run," director John Langs confirmed. "That's a big number."
Clark is the founder and CEO of Áegis Living, a family business of high-end, publically lauded eldercare facilities—his own mother lived out her final days in an Áegis home. Áegis is a synonym for "patronage" or "protection" and specializes in the swank end of the spectrum—one of its facilities has gotten press for its "sky lounge" and "man cave" with televisions for sports-watching, a poker table, wine and beer taps, and a full bar. The eldercare company has also been praised for its treatment of employees. Since 2011, KING 5 has regularly placed Áegis in its top five “best places to work.” And Clark has shown interest in figuring out how to provide more affordable care. In a 2013 interview with Seattle Business, he said: "There is a huge need for nursing facilities at the lower end, but how do you pay for it? If you look at state rates for assisted living, they are the same as what I kennel my two dogs for—like $2,300 a month. You can't get quality at those rates. What we've tried to do to address that issue is to have communities that reach every bracket."
"I wanted a CEO to be vulnerable in front of his community," Clark said about the play. "We have a lot of guys, and when they've got some kind of prominent position and responsibility, they think they have to put on an aura that they're perfect and everything's great." That, he believes, is "unhealthy—it's one of the things that contributes to the chasm between employees and CEOs, and it's destructive to corporate culture."
Clark has a hunch that CEOs sharing their life stories with employees, and the rest of us, would not just enrich the inner lives of corporations but American theater itself. "If you can get more CEOs to open up and be vulnerable—there are some great stories out there—and if they can use their Rolodexes, they could re-create theater," he said. "This could be an opportunity for a new economic model."
In fact, what Clark is proposing is a very old economic model: the patronage system, in which wealthy people commission artwork, and sometimes flattering portraits of themselves. The system was so entrenched in ancient Rome, historians suggested it came from Romulus himself, who wanted to forge a friendly link between patricians and plebeians, who would otherwise be natural enemies. Patronage, one could argue, was an ancient form of improving corporate culture. (When asked if this production was modern Medici-style patronage, Clark replied: "You're spot-on.")
But this kind of patronage for cash-starved theaters—dramatize the lives of CEOs, let them fill the house with their friends and employees—opens a bundle of thorny questions. Through one squint, it looks like Clark bought his way onto the stage, a luxury most working playwrights with deserving scripts—Keri Healey's Torso, for example—can't afford. Why should the life stories of CEOs get more opportunity to be broadcast than the lives of anyone else? Just because they can afford to buy the bandwidth? That, says onetime playwright Paul Mullin (who has stepped back from theater), would be "laughably corrupt."
Through a second squint, one could argue that access to the stage is not sacrosanct and theaters have a duty to seize financial opportunities when they come along—which isn't often—so they can put artists to work and subsidize other, less profitable, projects.
Then there's the possibility that a donor-playwright actually has a great show on his hands—which Seven Ways to Get There isn't, not exactly, but it's not a dog either. Much of the credit goes to Langs and the cast, as they play out a series of quick scenes from Clark's group-therapy experience: Darragh Kennan as a surly lug with a court order to get treatment for his anger issues, Charles Leggett as a tightly wound Christian with a tortured sexuality, Bob Williams as a terminally mild-mannered and indecisive man ("My decider is broke," he explains), James Lapan as a sandals-and-socks-wearing goofball with a financially crippling pornography habit, Kirsten Potter as the therapist, Michelle, who struggles to hold the group (and herself) together, and so on.
But Nick, the alpha-male CEO played by James DeVita, is the most fully formed character study. (Three guesses who he's based on.) While Seven Ways is about his struggle to realize that his money, power, and "brand" aren't sufficient for a fulfilled life, Nick never loses his alpha status in the play: Its central conflict is between Nick and Michelle for control over the group. The men establish some rough-and-tumble intimacy, and Nick gets his comeuppance a few times. (In one scene, the rest of the men are exuberantly unimpressed with Nick's Ferrari and the tan he got in Italy.) But in the final moments—spoiler alert, I suppose—we find out he's been doing some good deeds for the other men and Michelle slips offstage without a word. Nick proposes they all go get coffee. He has maintained his leader status after all and gets a happy ending.
Clark says his real-life time in therapy had a happy ending as well. "I learned that some of the things I disliked most about some people were probably issues I didn't like about myself," he said. "It made me into a better man." And he's still very close to some of the men from the group.
Approximately 15 years after the experience, Clark approached Bryan Willis—chair of the Northwest Playwrights Alliance—and commissioned the story, which they then shopped around. Langs says he liked the project, brought it to Kurt Beattie and Carlo Scandiuzzi at ACT, and Seven Ways to Get There found a home. (It's a coproduction between ACT and DeeJayCee Creative Ventures, Clark's company.) "We have a contract," Clark explained. "I have final authority over how the play looks and everything else, but I tried to let them have theatrical space—there's a lot of theatrics in the play."
Langs says he loves the show—"I love what we created"—but that the jury is still out about its experiment in patronage. "We were all working toward a great production, but in addition, I was very interested in seeing if some of his ideas would translate into different ways of thinking about producing theater," he wrote in an e-mail. "It remains to be seen if all of these ideas will pay off." (Clark says he's spoken with ACT about working together on a second play—he's also begun a film project with Adrian Grenier, the star of Entourage, about a finding a reclusive whale.)
There is a third way to read what this venture means. Patronage systems flourish in aristocratic societies—Renaissance Italy, Imperial Japan—where wealth doesn't freely circulate, but is locked up among a very small number of people who release it strategically, either for pleasure or for virtue. Maybe what Seven Ways to Get There really tells us isn't so much about Dwayne Clark or ACT Theatre. Maybe it's another indication that we live in a situation that is closer to aristocracy than we normally like to admit.