Think Bigger

Anyone whose been watching Seattle Immersive Theatre’s trajectory over the last two and half years can probably tell that this company doesn’t give a shit about doing theatre the way anyone else thinks it should be done. And that’s a great thing.

Each of their shows has gotten progressively grander in scope and ambition; from Strange Snow, set in a suburban living room in North Seattle, to Supraliminal, which began at South Seattle Community College before taking audience members by bus to the Georgetown Steam Plant as part of a paranormal investigation. Dump Site transformed a SoDo warehouse into a tangled warren of rooms (and the mind of a serial killer), and Listening Glass put the audience inside a police procedural.

Earlier this year, the company secured a four-year option on a 15,000 square-foot space in Lower Queen Anne—the former Tower Records that became Silver Platters before going empty in June of 2013.

“We’ve been running around with our heads cut off since we signed the lease,” says associate artistic director Amy Baldwin from inside the behemoth space during their spring run of Romeo and Juliet—a gargantuan undertaking that opened just a month after they got the keys to the building.

Baldwin and SIT founder and artistic director Paul Thomas were great friends and theatre lovers in high school in Battle Ground, Wash., before life’s obligations took them into other fields—Thomas is a tattoo artist and Baldwin worked for more than a decade in the fashion industry. A few years ago, when life started giving him a bit more breathing room, Thomas decided to jump back in. Baldwin joined his team soon after.

Thomas, Baldwin and their five company members all do a lot more than their job titles suggest. Which is to say, they all do everything. Their years away from the theatre world are working in their favor, free as they are from any that’s-just-the-way-it’s-done mentality. “Business as usual just isn’t going to work, and I mean that on all sort of different levels in theatre,” Thomas says.

For starters, their financial model. SIT is a nonprofit, but every show has financial backers, who are paid back with a small return on investment. Paying actors is a priority, even when Thomas and Baldwin aren’t making anything. “We’ve been around for two and a half years, and in that entire time we’ve taken a total of $1,800 in donations, and zero grants,” he says. “One hundred percent of my savings, and a good chunk of Amy’s. Everything I have, I’ve sunk into this. I think if you’re not going to do that then what are you doing? If you aren’t risking everything, then it’s a hobby. This is not a hobby to me.”

That model may be shifting, but only in service of keeping their massive (and expensive) space active. A full-time grant writer may become necessary to fuel their future plans, because they’re thinking big. Their latest show, the spiritualism-centered The Place Between, is running through June 11, and they just held auditions for a production of the The Turn of the Screw. For starters.

“There’s stuff coming up that’s just going to be mind-bogglingly beautiful,” Thomas says. The company has several commissioned scripts in the early stages of development, which is important because it’s hard to take an existing work and re-configure it to suit an immersive storytelling experience. The playwrights collaborate closely with the artistic staff; the writer dreams up the story and the SIT team (aided by a boatload of volunteers, at times), brings that world to walkable, touchable life.

There’s a piece set in Westerbork, a concentration camp near Amsterdam run by an arts-mad commandant who made sure that all the Jewish entertainers ended up under his control, so he could force them to perform. Then there’s a piece about a survivor of Jonestown, who returns to the states and ends up in a psych ward after attempting suicide. Then one about Rasputin that will have SIT transforming their building into the Winter Palace. Also, Thomas says, “There’s a circus tent in Ireland I’ve been wanting to buy, because there’s this crazy musical I want to have these three crazy writers write.”

Since the company is making many decisions on the fly, it’s hard to say when any of these shows will come to fruition. Thomas and Baldwin make a decisive, nimble team, able to to program instinctively and responsively instead of programming years ahead of time. In the meantime, they have other ideas to keep the space active, from hosting corporate events to opening a cozy coffee shop—perhaps a little performance space that could remain open even when the bigger shows are in transition.

Down the road, Thomas would like to build ever-bigger and better shows and perhaps stop working around-the-clock for practically free, but he has no intention of really expanding the infrastructure of the company itself. “We’ll definitely bring more people in, but no one is ever going to do just one thing or have one title,” Thomas says. “That can’t happen.”

“And we don’t want it to happen because part of the passion that we feel for this theatre is in the sense that it’s ours, we did it, we made it, we built it,” says Baldwin. “We didn’t tell someone to paint that wall, we did it ourselves. And there’s a real sense of satisfaction that comes with that.”

“I don’t think that specialization really serves any greater purpose in the theatre world,” Thomas adds. “You shouldn’t do just one thing. I think it makes us stronger, and allows us to shift things a lot faster. We can turn on a dime around here, and that’s strength. So yeah, it’ll be business as usual, but maybe someone gets paid.”