The end of fringe in Belltown: You're invited to a moving party for Annex Theatre
Seattle Times theater critic
There will be a big shindig in a second-floor loft on Fourth Avenue this weekend. We're all invited.
The 2,000-square-foot party space will be devoid of furniture. The wine won't be vintage and the eats won't be gourmet.
But scores of theater artists, fans and friends are expected at the 24-hour soiree, some jetting in from far away. They'll be marking the end of an era: the exit of one of Seattle's most prolific, persistent alternative troupes, Annex Theatre, from the downtown digs that has housed its freewheeling shows since 1988.
But this reunion bash is not a wake, stresses current Annex artistic head Bret Fetzer. The company has already obtained new office space. And until it finds another permanent stage, the "nomadic" ensemble will produce plays and its cabaret series ("Spin the Bottle") in other venues.
Yet Annex's exit from Fourth Avenue is more than the end of one chapter in one theater's life. It also represents the last exodus of fringe theater from Belltown and environs - an area which only a few years ago boasted an array of outlets for offbeat performance.
One by one, all have closed, driven out by high rent, low patronage, gentrification and/or burnout - literally, in the case of Speakeasy Café, which lost its home in a recent fire.
Annex's building will soon be razed by its owners, with a new mixed-use hotel and retail complex slated to take its place. But Fetzer says his troupe was ready to move on anyway: "The location was starting to kill us. Belltown is no longer a place where people go for something funky and off-kilter. It's now about condos and upscale restaurants. And parking is terrible."
Gone, too, notes veteran Annex actor-director Ed Hawkins, are the "greasy spoons and pubs where we used to go during breaks and after shows. Now the street is dead after 6 p.m. I mean, nobody shopping at Bed, Bath and Beyond says, `Gee, I'd love to see some fringe theater tonight.'"
Is this a dark harbinger for Seattle's overall fringe scene? Certainly, the climate has shifted since 1988, when some arty, eager kids in their 20s launched Annex's first season on Fourth Avenue.
Several had grown up together on Bainbridge Island. Others migrated here, along with a bevy of other hip, well-educated, young creatives, drawn to Seattle's grungy-cool image.
The Annexers soon won praise for their original, audacious fare and jolting, low-budget theatricality. In 1989 alone, the troupe mounted 22 shows.
Annex tackled new plays by inventive writers (Fetzer, Jeff Resta, Naomi Iizuka, Erik Ehn), loopy musical epics by house composer Chris Jeffries ("I See London, I See France") and kinky versions of "classics" - i.e., a campy take on "The Women."
Patrons drawn to the flexible, 100-seat, upstairs theater didn't flinch at nudity, profanity or scruffy experimentation. And tickets were dirt cheap.
The Annex crew became something of a cult, hitting a creative peak in the mid-90s with a nonstop barrage of theater that could be misfired or exhilarating, but was always gutsy.
The company boasted up to 90 members at a time, most working for carfare or free beers. But to magnetic young talents like Jillian Armenante (who arrived in Seattle in 1988 with $8 to her name), big paydays were hardly the point. Armenante sold cinnamon buns or worked clerical jobs by day - but her nights belonged to Annex.
"I went to the Annex University graduate program," she jokes. "Nowhere else could I have gotten the practical experience I had there. I can hang and focus a light, design a poster, build a set. All of us did everything and got encouragement to try anything."
A magnetic performer and solid director, Armenante eventually "graduated" to bigger stages, shining in Seattle Repertory Theatre's "The Cider House Rules." She has played opposite Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie in "Girl, Interrupted," and is now a regular on TV's "Judging Amy." But she insists it was Annex that honed her gifts.
"I feel lucky now when I'm able to work with actors as good as the ones I knew at Annex. The work was so vital, the stakes so high. There was never the word 'no' in our vocabulary. People just said, 'Yes, I can do that!' - whether it meant eating fire, taking pratfalls or pulling your pants down."
By the mid-90s, though, Armenante and cohorts began drifting to greener pastures. Several, including former artistic director Allison Narver, went on to drama grad school at Yale University.
Today Narver runs Seattle's Empty Space Theatre. Annex comrade Mark Lutwak heads the Honolulu Theatre for Youth. John Sylvain created Sacred Fools Theatre in Los Angeles (aka "Annex Theatre South").
Other alums include playwright Peter Buchman, whose screenwriting credits include "Jurassic Park III," and Paul Giamatti, who has excelled in such movies as "The Truman Show" and "Man on the Moon."
The list of accomplished ex-Annexites goes on and on. "We have an amazing national network now," says Narver. "Our connection didn't stop at Fourth Avenue. It extends across the country."
Such migratory dispersions are common in the arts. But has the Annex talent drain, along with rising Seattle rents and arts competition, done in our own fringe scene?
Yes and no. True, numerous small companies have folded in recent years. But others have dug in, and stayed viable - Capitol Hill's Theater Schmeater and Theatre Babylon, for instance.
More than 80 local troupes came out of the woodwork to perform in this year's well-attended Seattle Fringe Theatre Festival. Festival director Kibby Munson observes, "It's heartening to see these people just doing work they love, and collaborating to find solutions to common problems."
For Annex to endure, Fetzer says, it must keep pulling in fresh, young talent and join with other homeless troupes to find space.
"We're looking for a building in Seattle that we can turn into a kind of theater multiplex with other arts groups," he reports. "That's a big, three- to five-year project, but I think there's support for it."
But Fetzer knows Annex can never recapture those heady start-up days and boogie nights on Fourth Avenue. "We'll have to shift from the frenzied, explosive activity of the mid-90s, into a more consolidated mode," he reflects. "The companies that survive have to become more institutional, without losing their flexibility and identity. It's a move away from frantic youth, into young adulthood."
Such transitions can be bittersweet - as the Annex's moving-on party is bound to be. "I keep reminding myself it's not the theater, but the amazing, talented people within it that are important," Armenante says. "Annex was a home for orphans. Now we've grown up, but we're still best friends."