Seattle U partnership gives theater second chance

SEATTLE — Last fall, Seattle’s scrappy Empty Space Theater was fighting for its life. Next June, the nonprofit company will begin its 37th season in the brand-new $6.75 million Lee Center for the Performing Arts.

The agent of this dramatic reversal of fortune? Seattle U., which on Sept. 27 announced a partnership that will establish Empty Space as the city’s only theater-in-residence at a four-year college.

Similar to the arrangement between La Jolla Playhouse and the U. of California at San Diego, the deal means rent-free housing and staff support for the beleaguered midsize theater. Seattle U., in turn, will gain internships and other professional opportunities for its students.

However, Empty Space will have to move from its current home in Fremont — one of Seattle’s artsiest neighborhoods — to the less culturally friendly First Hill, also called Pill Hill for its preponderance of hospitals and medical facilities.

With its rent covered, and a new pool of staff and student labor to draw on, Empty Space stands to save tens of thousands of dollars per year. Empty Space artistic director Allison Narver may have seen the offer as the only way to assure the long-term survival of the theater, which is not as well funded as Seattle’s Big Three (Seattle Repertory Theater, ACT Theater and Intiman Theater), but more expensive to operate than fly-by-night fringe operations.

Existing in the netherworld of midsize theaters (with an annual budget of under $1 million), Empty Space is no stranger to near-death experiences. In the early 1980s, after moving from a rudimentary black box on Seattle’s Capitol Hill into slick new digs in historic Pioneer Square, the theater hit money trouble and suspended operations. It reappeared in Fremont in the early ’90s, but lost its way artistically and financially later that decade. In a do-or-die effort last fall and winter, the Space raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to stave off the grim reaper.

Now, with Narver at its helm, new managing director Melanie Matthews handling the business end and the pressures of paying rent behind it, Empty Space looks poised to regain some of the glory of its early-’70s heyday.

Named after Peter Brook’s famous dictum (“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage”), the Space took on the city’s theatrical establishment with sizzling productions of works by important contemporary authors like Sam Shepard and David Mamet. Over the years, it’s remained a prime incubator of local acting and directing talent.

Now, the Space is presenting one of its last shows in its current home — a well-reviewed production of Bryony Lavery’s “Frozen,” directed by Chay Yew.

Will the theater continue to present controversial work at Seattle U., a Jesuit institution?

“Seattle University has a huge investment in issues of social justice and an open-mindedness that is wonderful,” Narver says.

“It was important to both us and them that we remain autonomous bodies,” she adds. “We have complete freedom in our programming choices. Certainly, we’re not going to do anything to intentionally offend their Jesuit mission, but we’re known for challenging work and for taking risks, and SU knew that going into this.”

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