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Seattle stages size up damage

Show-must-go-on spirit pervades

SEATTLE — At 10:53 a.m. on Feb. 28, Bartlett Sher, the new artistic director of Seattle’s Intiman Theater, was sitting in a production meeting, anticipating the day’s rehearsal of “Cymbeline.” His 9-week-old daughter was slung about his torso in a baby carrier.

A minute later, he was racing out of the building, baby in tow, onto the grounds of the Seattle Center — the parklike campus in downtown Seattle built for the 1962 World’s Fair. The ground was heaving underneath his feet, and he could hear the screeching of the Space Needle as its supports strained against the motion of the earth.

“I’m from San Francisco,” says Sher, “and I’ve been in a lot of earthquakes, but this was absolutely the worst one I’ve ever been in.”

By all measures, Seattle’s recent earthquake was a big one, magnitude 6.8 — bigger than a 6.5 jolt that killed six people in the Northwest in 1965, and almost as big as a 7.1 quake that killed eight in 1949. Early reports indicated that this year’s temblor claimed no lives, but damages to buildings and roads have been estimated at over $2 billion.

And yet, even as Seattleites faced their worst fears, a show-must-go-on spirit prevailed at most of the city’s theaters.

At Intiman, actors arriving for a noon rehearsal of “Cymbeline” gathered on the lawn outside the theater and began running through songs from the production. Stage manager Wendiana Walker marked out the dimensions of the stage on the grass, and act five was under way.

Three other local theaters — Empty Space, the Paramount and A Contemporary Theater — evacuated briefly, called in engineers to inspect for damage and opened again in time for business that very night.

Empty Space sustained minor cosmetic damages in its lobby from a neighboring building’s broken water pipe, but the opening-night crowd for Jose Rivera’s “References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot” didn’t seem to mind. “We had a full house,” says Ben Keylin, director of marketing and public relations. “People were in a pretty good mood.”

The Paramount — a grand old theater listed on the national historic register — also suffered only minor cosmetic damage. “The theater was built as a bomb shelter in the 1920s,” says director of marketing and communications Patrick Harrison. “Its girders go down more than 60 feet into the ground.” The building was also seismically retrofitted during a major renovation five years ago.

The night of the earthquake, the Paramount’s production of “The Civil War” went ahead as scheduled, and all but about 50 ticket-holders showed up.

A Contemporary Theater, which resides nearby in another historic 1920s structure (the Eagles Auditorium), also reopened immediately for its latenight show, “Late Nite Catechism.”

When ACT’s building was renovated in 1996, “a couple of million dollars” was spent on earthquake preparations, according to managing director Jim Loder. Consequently, “The original terra-cotta detailing, the carved eagles on the facade, and inside, a lot of plaster work, were all undamaged,” Loder reports. “In the Allen Theater (one of three performance spaces in the building), a large lighting array was swinging pretty good, but fortunately for us, it was designed to absorb the shock.”

Some minor cracks and cosmetic damage will cost perhaps $50,000 to $60,000 to repair, but Loder says everyone at ACT feels lucky.

Unfortunately, the city’s other historic 1920s-era stage — the 5th Avenue Theater — didn’t fare as well.

The 5th Avenue’s lobby and auditorium are decorated with elaborate, colorful filigree, patterns and dragons inspired by Beijing’s Forbidden City. Ordinarily, such details might be made of wood, but the 5th Avenue’s were made of plaster in the wake of the great Seattle Fire of 1889.

The earthquake wreaked havoc on the plaster, says Tracy Wickersham, director of marketing and public relations. Crews were working around the clock to net and wire the ceilings and decorative pillars, so things could be stabilized enough to open “1776” just a day behind schedule, on March 7.

Stabilization alone may cost the theater $75,000, Wickersham says. Actual repairs will cost much more, and the theater has no earthquake insurance.

“We did apply for the insurance, but we were turned down due to the age of the building,” Wickersham reports. “We will be investigating whether we can get any relief through FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), and continuing with plans to retrofit the building.”

Staff of 5th Avenue was relieved that the building proved structurally sound, but the damage to the interior is still disconcerting. “It’s painful to see this happen in our beautiful theater,” Wickersham says.

Two theaters that share the Seattle Center campus with Intiman were spared such pain — Seattle Repertory Theater and Seattle Children’s Theater.

Both were in the middle of school performances when the temblor struck. In both houses, children calmly stayed in their seats for the duration of the rumbling, and then followed the directions of teachers and staff members to file outdoors in an orderly manner.

“Children are more likely to look to adults for direction in a situation like this,” the Rep’s public relations manager, Jeff Fickes, observes. “Adults tend to take things into their own hands.”

At SCT, some children who had been watching a production of “Winnie the Pooh” chalked up the disruption to Tigger, who had just made his entrance. “They thought he was the one making the stage bounce,” according to public relations manager Taryn Essinger.

The Rep and SCT were inspected by engineers and pronounced sound. So was their neighbor, Intiman, to the surprise (and relief) of some staff members.

“The theater was built as a temporary structure for the 1962 World’s Fair and it is due for a retrofit,” production manager David Milligan says. “It’s got brick walls and 30-foot-high glass walls that could be dangerous. But it made it through the ’65 quake and it made it through this one.”

The theater’s only worry now is whether it will be able to retrieve its props for a production of “Raisin in the Sun” that’s scheduled to open after “Cymbeline.” They’re stored in the same building that houses Starbucks’ national headquarters in South Seattle — one of the worst-hit buildings in the region.

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