Rent hikes, transit issues take center stage for Seattle theater scene

For decades, Seattle has been a magnet for theater people who want to play with new and weird ideas. Can it afford to stay that way amid the city’s dramatic growth?

Theater people are like rats — in the best possible way.

They, like reporters, run around the edges, use cunning and surprise, figure out how to thrive in places normal people wouldn’t consider habitable, then gobble up a fourth helping from the opening-night buffet table when they think nobody’s watching. From early French vaudeville to Shakespeare to theater-makers in the roil of new-wealth Seattle, they tend to find new ways to survive.

Seattle’s theater scene faces a legion of challenges: spiking rents that squeeze out affordable places to live, rehearse and perform; an increasingly crowded city; and worries that while the city becomes more expensive, and Seattle’s older donors continue to pass away, the nouveau riche won’t make up for the difference with arts-and-culture patronage.

But theater artists aren’t giving up yet.

“I don’t feel like we’re heading for the hills,” said John Langs, a longtime freelance director who’s worked around the country and has been leading ACT Theatre for the past three years. “We’re a creative lot — like cockroaches.”

Whomever you talk to, Seattle theater artists (at companies big and small) are walking a tightrope strung between optimism and despair: Rents have gone up 57 percent in the past six years, costing the average renter an extra $635 per month. The growing number of cars on the road, plus a public transit system that wasn’t prepared for the city’s sudden boom, makes getting to shows a challenge for both artists and audiences.

Pressure from rising rents

The big question: How can not-so-rich artists thrive in ever-richer Seattle?

Langs said he knows a lot of young artists who “live together, like young artists do it — three to a condo and we’re good to go.” But when those artists mature and want to start families, he added, that lifestyle won’t work anymore. However, he (and others, like longtime dance and theater photographer Tim Summers) say they still see younger artists coming here to explore their own ideas instead of moving to classic art destinations like New York or Chicago.


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