Looking East

What if our leaders designed a system to boost specific corners of the marketplace — say, your local theatres?

Illustration by Demian Johnston for City Arts

Taxpayers can expect their 2009 stimulus to come in the form of a bump in their weekly paychecks — “about eighty dollars per month,” says the Web site mainstream.com.

Eighty bucks a month? That don’t pay the mortgage. Maybe it could pay for cable, or eventually an iPhone. But what does that stimulate?

We need stimulation like what I saw in December at Seattle’s ACT: The Adding Machine — the first show put on by the brand-new New Century Theatre Company. It was fantastic, highlighted by Paul Morgan Stetler’s slumped portrayal of Mr. Zero, the alternately complacent and violently stubborn protagonist, who had me reeling in pity and disgust. The play challenged my habits as a writer, as a woman and as a voter. In two hours. I want everyone to experience that.

But not enough people in Seattle go to theatre. Once-thriving institutions drop dead: Empty Space Theatre, Tacoma Actors Guild, Seattle Fringe Festival. In times when folks must choose between heat and healthcare, how can they justify a fifteen- to forty-dollar theatre ticket?

I begin to fantasize about stimulus packages that would arrive on every American’s doorstep, wrapped in cheerful paper and bearing notes that read, in friendly, non-finance language: “Thank you for your patriotism! This voucher is good for any two customers at your local arts venue.” Some would need more guidance: “To be used only in the pursuit of enlightenment, as seen through the eyes of Brecht, Beethoven or Brontë.” Others might require force: “Please deliver to the nonprofit arts organization of your choice within twenty-four hours — or this box will self-destruct.”

What good do the arts do the ailing economy? Issaquah’s Village Theatre seems to illustrate how our investment in local arts benefits our local commerce. The theatre’s home, Front Street, is the quintessential picture of the “Main Street” that both President Obama and John McCain invoked incessantly in their campaigns. The mostly single-story businesses offer everything from perms to home insurance to pianos. It’s not the hub of gritty urban experimentation many Seattleites would prefer. But it’s nice. Nice is how I felt when I saw Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest at Village. It’s not rife with earth-shattering epiphanies. But it was well produced and good fun.

I was pleasantly surprised to see my new favorite actor, Stetler, playing John Worthing in Earnest — a far cry from his role as Mr. Zero. Turns out, Stetler has frequented VT’s non-musical casts for the last ten years.

But for an actor that just turned The Adding Machine, an edgy play most people hadn’t heard of, into a hit, how stimulating is this kind of work? “As much as the artist in me is really attracted to newer work,” Stetler replies, “I’ve done shows at Village that I’m really proud of, including A Man for All Seasons, Bus Stop and Room Service. I have a really strong affinity for some of the older, well-made plays. It’s a nice balance.”

I asked what Wilde’s play really has to offer today, besides laughs to a select crowd. “The language is so rich,” Stetler says. “I was joking around the other day that effortlessness is a pain in the ass. It’s hard to make those lines come across as if you were saying them off the top of your head.” He says the play couldn’t be more timely: “It’s a scathing attack on elitism. Wilde is very much making fun of these people. And that’s not a bad thing.”

I make a mental note to check my snobbery at the floating bridge.

Also not a bad thing: when a show plays at Village Theatre, it’s almost impossible to park along that quaint strip of shops. VT patrons pile in for dinner and drinks — and they window shop on the way back to their cars. Some of them for the first time. So far this season, 33.3 percent of single- ticket buyers came from Kent, Enumclaw, Puyallup, Sumner, Sequim and Seattle. This has got to be potential stimulus. After all, arts audiences help generate $166.2 billion in economic activity every year, according to the NEA.

And drama activities give a boost to kids in school (as this former high-school thespian knows). If our local theatres survive this recession on account of a combination of national and grassroots efforts, we will all be much stronger for it. Maybe more than we realize.

A basic membership at Village Theatre only costs seventy-five dollars. If you haven’t already, get over there and start stimulating. •