Relatively speaking, the theatre business is small potatoes in King County and Seattle. Ticket revenues for 2014 clocked in at $211 million county-wide, with areas much smaller and less capital-drenched bringing in the same or more. That isn’t to mention Broadway.
But for those trying to make a living in the business, there is an option, a portion of the industry absolutely flush with cash. Speaking with an avid thespian recently, she told me that her various on-the-side retail jobs were being superseded over time by her theatrical pursuits. How was she paying the rent?
Two words, she said: “Children’s theatre.”
Children’s theatre in King County — putting on shows for kids, and training them in the arts — is huge business. In fact, Seattle has the second largest theater for young audiences in North America, Seattle Children’s Theater (SCT), which has an annual operating budget of over $6 million.
It’s this phenomenon that led me to the facilities of Studio East in Kirkland. Both its website and façade make Studio East seem unassuming. From the outside, it looks like another drab block of offices on the Eastside, a drop of water in the ocean of parking lots. Inside, though, I’m listening to Education Director Kristina Sutherland Rowell describe the company’s ridiculously extensive offerings. We’ve passed through offices, a kitchen, a room for preschool classes, and a dance room with sprung parquet floors. We aren’t even halfway through the building.
“It’s a lot bigger than you thought it was, isn’t it?” says Rowell.
It sure is. And we haven’t even made it to the theatre. Tucked amid all the educational facilities, it seems like an afterthought.
The business of children’s theatre largely exists for adults. For employees, it’s a way to earn a stable, decent living in a job market known for unsteady and un-lucrative work. For parents, it’s something for their kids to do.
As a result, the Seattle industry doesn’t fit the clichés of “theater kids” and their psychotic “show parents” hellbent on stardom — quite the opposite.
It’s more collaborative than competitive, upbeat and sanitized.
With a history spanning decades, children’s theatre encapsulates the creative and corporate dynamics in today’s Pacific Northwest, where staying afloat is paramount, negativity is often washed out of the spectrum, and the actual show is just a small part of the business.
Creativity is often thought of as individualistic. In Seattle, though, with its game companies, design firms, and rapidly closing art galleries, creativity is becoming more corporate. The health of the arts in the region is increasingly tied to the health and success of artistic organizations.
There are successful arts organizations, but not necessarily successful artists. In this context, the corporations often charged with pricing artists out of the area become not threatening, but part of the same business partnership.
“There’s so much more industry moving in here, and it allows for a lot of opportunity for the [arts] organizations,” says Ariel Bradler, the Director of Sales and Marketing for SCT. Her message to the new industry is: “‘Welcome to Seattle, but make sure you’re participating in the city!’
The idea that the onrush of capital hasn’t been bad for Seattle arts organizations is supported by a countywide ArtsFund report, which lists some staggering figures.
“In 2014, the activity of nonprofit cultural organizations and their patrons in King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish Counties generated $2.4 billion in the Washington State economy and created 35,376 jobs, $996 million in labor income and $105 million in taxes,” the report reads.
Theatre alone, which had the highest proportion of “earned income” of any medium, attracted 1.38 million patrons. “It’s now a huge growth period for the arts — we’re much more of a stable industry than we were in 2008 and 2009,” says Rowell.
Children’s theatre, in particular, has settled into its role in modern Seattle. But for those individuals trying to make a living in the local theater business, it’s increasingly impossible to make ends meet.
“For a independent contractor, acting is constant search for (mostly low-paying) work,” says my thespian friend, who designs Shrek costumes for a children’s theater troupe, and would prefer to go unnamed to avoid burning bridges. “Acting in Seattle typically means a menagerie of stipends ranging from ‘resume credit’ to $400 per show (3-5 weeks rehearsal, 3 week run).”
With the cost of living still rising rapidly, $400 per show is nothing. In most other American cities, it goes further. Minneapolis — home to the only children’s theater bigger than SCT in North America — has significantly lower rents than most Puget Sound cities. According to a 2013 arts report, it also has “especially high per capita revenues for theater companies and dinner theaters, over 14 times the national average.”
In New York, actors make a mean hourly wage of $51. Sure, superstars like Lin-Manuel Miranda of the hit Broadway show Hamilton can skew the average. Most actors can’t make it performing there either, but at least some can.
What about here? What would it mean to “make it” in the Seattle acting scene?
“I don’t know,” says my friend, who is doing her best to find out nonetheless.
Back at Studio East, Kristina Rowell is describing a career path that’s increasingly common in Seattle theater: “I started as a performer, and definitely fell into teaching.”
“What made you decide to teach?”
“Acting can be difficult,” she says, “especially in this region. We don’t have as many large equity houses in the region who can provide stable income, unless you’re willing to move around a lot and do touring shows.”
By many measures, theatre in Seattle is small but prospering: the collaborative, instructional nature of teaching means that there are no villains, no existential struggles. Each theater organization I contacted reported a rosy outlook, and had nothing bad to say. Seattle arts organizations are flush with cash today.
There’s the rub — while the organizations are succeeding, the professionals in the business are not.
But from the depths of penury emerges a deus ex machina: educating children, an alternative to non-theater day jobs. It tends to pay well, between $20-$25 per hour. Helping children participate in theater, rather than participating in it oneself, seems to be the only way many of the city’s theatrical adults can pay the rent.
The rising tide has reached Pierce County, where Sue Snyder of Tacoma Musical Playhouse says, “Theatre for young audiences is one of the fastest growing forms of theatre today.” She says this goes “hand in hand” with the rise in theater education, with families taking their kids to shows and then signing them up for classes.
Chelsea Husted of Broadway Bound, located in the U-District, reports that her organization is turning 20 this year, and its educational offerings have grown with the rest of the local industry. Shelby Parsons, Educational Outreach Director for Greenwood’s Taproot Theatre, says they have a similar story.
And with that growth in theatrical education comes more career opportunities for adults. Both Broadway Bound and Taproot Theater employ contractors throughout the year, ranging from writers, prop masters, costume designers, lighting and sound pros, and more.
Studio East has 14 full-time staff, and hires up to 45 every summer, to handle the crush of students.
Are these theater jobs desirable? “Most definitely,” says my Shrek costume-designing friend. “It constantly changes, it’s flexible, and it’s on your feet without being a barista. Entry-level qualifications are pretty low, and pay is comparatively high.”
The role of adults in all this is to work for kids, and to pay for plays and camps, augmenting the corporate, sanitized feeling of children’s theater. Themes like death, bloodshed, and abandonment that sustain children’s attention in movies are anathema to the fuzzy press release, the heartwarming play to be recorded for social media to the universal acclaim of friends.
Our tour of Studio East finally makes it inside “the house,” the main stage. There are 14 kids, ages six through ten, lined up onstage in makeshift costumes of tropical festivity. Christine Rattigan, stage manager, projects over the chatter: “Remember, kids, what do we say when you forget your lines, or something else goes wrong, and it’s not an emergency, and nobody’s hurt or sick?”
A chorus of seven or so answers: “The show must go on!”
“Remember,” says Christine, “the audience is our families and friends. They want to see us having fun!”
It’s t-minus 30 minutes to the kids’ performance — the culmination of a week’s worth of camp — and they’re bouncing around, with more energy than nerves.
“They’re not even the youngest kids we serve,” Rattigan tells me. “We have pre-schoolers, too.”
At t-minus 10 minutes, the parents start coming in. I speak briefly with Quinn and Becky, who very much look the part of Gen-X middle-class parents with relatively successful office jobs. Their daughter “does dance, gymnastics, and drama,” says Quinn, who is indeed a software engineer in Redmond. “I actually have a degree in theatre,” says Becky, “so we decided to sign her up for this course, as a trial for summer classes … It was massively successful. We’ve got a little diva.”
The show — a (very) abridged version of The Jungle Book — opens to an audience of around 40, comprising some 10 friends and 30 relatives, many with cameras. The vibe is more positive than Rudyard Kipling’s original, imperialist vision: no racist orangutans, no menacing snake. And the kids are more diverse: a little girl plays Mowgli, the male protagonist.
As for the acting, the boy playing Bagheera the Panther (marked chiefly by a black tail affixed to his rear) stumbles over his lines. It doesn’t matter at all. There’s little opportunity for acting the prima donna: when David, the pianist, strikes the first chords of “The Bare Necessities,” the entire cast comes onstage and executes the song and dance, with some self-consciousness and much joy.
The show lurches to a close, and the audience bursts into applause. The kids are happy, the parents are happy, and the educators are happy — and paid. Everyone’s character was sympathetic, their words encouraging, their motives family-friendly and obvious: ambiguity, tension and unhappiness have no place here.
Reality has been influenced, but not described. This is art as lived, and art as a living, in the new Seattle.
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CML has written for Gawker, The Daily Dot, Kotaku, Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, and several other publications. He maintains a website at cmlwrites.com and a Twitter at @CMLisawesome.
Photo credits: Photo of Recess Monkey by Shawn Anderson. Photo of Studio East production courtesy the author.
Correction: The photo of the play performance originally noted it was at Seattle Children’s Theater. It was in fact at Studio East.