Scrappy, subversive Washington Ensemble Theatre turns 20

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It seems incongruous to think of the scrappy, subversive Washington Ensemble Theatre as nudging up against elder statesman status in the Seattle theater scene, but numbers don’t lie. WET turns 20 this year, an occasion that will be marked by a production, running April 26-May 13, of “Scrambling the Goose,” a new collection of dozens of short plays presented in a different order every night, as determined by the audience.

Sounds ambitious. Sounds risky. Sounds like WET, a company that’s shape-shifted many times over but retained a consistent ethos of playful experimentation and striking design work. 

With an ensemble full of new members, it felt right to do this kind of work now, said Amber Tanaka, the show’s curator and the company’s marketing manager.

“It really grows an ensemble together, because you’re working so intimately with each other, writing, directing, acting,” Tanaka said. “I think this is a great way for us to get to know each other and see what kind of artistic goals we want to share.”

The pathway that would eventually lead to “Scrambling the Goose” — and its assemblage of surreal, silly and serene micro-plays — began two decades ago in a University of Washington School of Drama classroom, where MFA students were tasked with inventing a fake theater company. 

Post-graduation, a group of them did it for real, establishing WET in 2004 and creating what would become a launchpad for theater artists and administrators. Among the co-founders: Jennifer Zeyl, now artistic director of Intiman Theatre; Marc Kenison, who went on to create burlesque performance art icon Waxie Moon; and Marya Sea Kaminski, current artistic director of Pittsburgh Public Theater and former associate artistic director of Seattle Rep.

“We had no idea that we were going to build this sort of container that would continue to be an incubator for artists beyond us,” Kaminski said. “It’s probably my proudest achievement. Every city needs a WET — this sort of liminal space where emerging artists can flex.”

Samie Spring Detzer, who joined WET in 2012 and later became its artistic director until 2020, wanted WET to be the kind of place where artists could cut their teeth and learn many aspects of making theater.

“I wanted to always prioritize a space where people got to find their personal creative voice,” Detzer said. “And to share creative autonomy requires a kind of comfortability with change that you can’t have with a larger theater.”

A 501(c)(3) nonprofit, WET has generally consisted of 10-15 nonunion ensemble members, most of whom are in their 20s or 30s. Even as leadership models shifted, sometimes including up to four co-artistic directors, the company has taken the “ensemble” in its name seriously, with decisions of what plays to stage made collectively.

Across its history, WET has programmed cutting-edge new work by renowned playwrights: Adam Rapp’s “Finer Noble Gases,” directed by Kaminski and featuring a cast that learned to play music to portray the show’s rock band characters. Alice Birch’s “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.,” a bracing feminist comedy with no character descriptions and no stage directions, starring Detzer and directed by Bobbin Ramsey. Young Jean Lee’s Broadway-bound satire “Straight White Men,” directed by Sara Porkalob.

The company moved from a compact storefront on 19th Avenue East on Capitol Hill to 12th Avenue Arts in 2013, giving WET a bigger canvas for its elaborate design work, like Tristan Roberson’s modular, LED-permeated set and lighting for “Teh Internet is Serious Business,” a propulsive riot of movement about internet hacker culture directed by Wayne Rawley that was a milestone in size and scope for the company.

But as Detzer and her collaborator, managing director Jeffrey Azevedo, thought about the future of WET, they came to a crossroads: Should WET look to become a larger, more professional organization? They increased artist and administrator stipends during their tenure, but the company was still powered by a lot of volunteer hours, Detzer said.

“No one in the history of WET has ever been paid appropriately,” she said. “But what WET offered to everyone, to me, has a value — an investment in their creative voice, their aesthetic, their creative future.”

Current managing director Maria Manness has grappled with the same thoughts, noting that a shift to an hourly pay structure is the kind of change that would require significant investment and a potential rupture of the nimbleness that helped the company survive the pandemic. WET typically pays $500 per artistic role for a mainstage production.

“Artists should be paid what they’re worth, and also, the only people who are allowed to make art shouldn’t just be the people who can pay artists what they’re worth,” Manness said. 

WET’s revenue primarily comes from donations and grants, covering 76% of this year’s $180,000 operating budget, Manness said. Ticket sales and other program income covers most of the rest, with a small budgeted deficit.

Even if a pandemic hadn’t upended theater at large, WET would’ve morphed again in 2020 when new artistic leadership took over. Manness, who’s been part of the ensemble since 2014, is now the last link between the past and present eras of the company. But WET persists.

“WET is who is in the room,” Manness said. “It has some through lines because it draws similar people together but the company is constantly changing with new generations.” 

What hasn’t changed: WET remains full of multifaceted artists who want to try new things outside of a standard theater framework, Manness said. But the new members of the ensemble are interested in prioritizing local work. Enter “Scrambling the Goose,” where each of the 30 plays has been written and devised by the people in the room. 

That feeling that WET provides of being in the room together, trying new things and making art with your collaborators still fuels Kaminski.

“I honestly think WET has single-handedly shaped my worldview on theater and on creativity and on what art feels like at its best,” she said. “I think it has blessed me with a fearlessness that: When in doubt, rely on the people around you. And I think it’s also ruined me because I’m always chasing the effusive joy of making great theater with your best friends.”

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