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Can Seattle Support A Fringe Theater Movement?

Instagram Photo/TheEnsemble
Washington Ensemble Theatre playbills from the past decade.

Seattle’s Fringe Festival starts this week. It features local companies and artists, but the festival is also drawing performers from around the world. 

The great recession hit small arts groups hard; the festival was on hiatus for several years after its 2003 season and returned just last year.  How did Seattle’s fringe community fare?  Seattle Times theater critic Misha Berson shares some perspective on the health of local companies with Marcie Sillman.

Interview edited for clarity.

What is a fringe festival?

The fringe festival is a movement. Edinburgh is the mother of all fringe festivals. Victoria and Vancouver also host big festivals. The festivals depend on artists themselves to get them off the ground and rolling.

For a while in Seattle, in the '90s, it was a big thing. It had lots of venues and commercial backing. But it's a hard thing to keep going when artists also have their own companies to run.

What makes Seattle a hotspot for fringe theater?

Seattle is an interesting ecosphere at the moment — we have a lot of artists coming out of Cornish and the University of Washington who are equipped and excited to do their own work. They're not running off to get commercial jobs in LA or New York.

Some companies have really sustained themselves over the past decade. It's the 10th anniversary of Washington Ensemble Theatre, which started as a student project at the UW. They're moving into a new arts space, 12th Avenue Arts, soon.

Many actors at Seattle Repertory Theatre and other big houses have their own smaller companies that are creating work on the side, like New Century Theatre Company. What's fascinating right now is it's actually difficult to define what is a fringe company and what isn't a fringe company.

What about the middle? What's between the fringe and the big company?

Midsize theaters may offer a nice stepping stone from small to large theaters, but it's still really difficult for an actor to make a living in Seattle. But we have seen the successes of Book-It Rep, Seattle Shakespeare, Taproot Theatre, among others. We have theaters that have come into fruition as midsize theaters — they may or may not have equity contracts, and it's not a huge payday for anybody, but it's a way for actors to move from very small theaters up to large theaters. And they're doing work you wont see anywhere else.

Produced for the Web by Jenna Montgomery.