I live in Tacoma, Washington. I love this town. The jewel of the South Puget Sound, the City of Destiny, Thrice All-American: Tacoma. Fabulized in song by local girl Neko Case and the Steve Miller Band. We have an arena covered by a dome. We have a revitalized downtown, light-rail, a convention center, fantastic restaurants, safe neighborhoods, wonderful public parks including a Zoo and Aquarium on beautiful Point Defiance. We have professional sports (Go Rainiers!). We have culture: The Museum of Glass, Tacoma Symphony Orchestra, Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, Tacoma Art Museum and, for the love of Mike, a THEATER DISTRICT.
And yet, to continue my work in the arts, I need to drive at least 35 miles each way (as the crow flies) to Seattle. This commute isn’t a joke. I-5 is a mess. It’s dangerous. Due to the irregular hours required for theatrical rehearsal and performance, often I’m travelling through daytime rush-hour, or late at night, through all kinds of our lovely local weather.
Tacoma, despite having a THEATER DISTRICT, cannot apparently support professional actors. (Let’s not now get into a fight over what makes one a ‘professional’ actor. We can do that, but I’ll win. It’s my blog.) Tacoma did, at one time, support local and regional actors through the work of the lost and lamented Tacoma Actor’s Guild. However, since its closure, Tacoma has been without professional theatre. I know I’m not alone in my current mode of work. There are, I’m sure, more than a few of us making the journey to professional opportunities in Seattle. In fact, one of us living in Tacoma is not only one of the workingest actors in Seattle, but he’s artistic director of one of Seattle’s more ambitious musical theatre companies.
Both he and I are (proud) members of the Actor’s Equity Association, the professional union of Actors and Stage Managers. We are not permitted, outside of certain exceptions, to work at theatres who are not able to provide for union contracts for their actors. These contracts provide for a living wage, pension contributions, give eligibility for union healthcare, and stipulate safe and fair working conditions. They’re important. Unions. Living wages. Pursuit of these things has forced local Tacoma talent far afield, or forced them to accept less than suitable compensation for their hard and valuable work.
Are there theatres in this town? Absolutely. There are community theatres. They’re all thriving to one capacity or another. Tacoma Little Theatre has been around for nearly a hundred years. Lakewood Playhouse has thrived thanks to tireless artistic directors and a devoted audience. And Tacoma Musical Playhouse continues to appeal to its audience. Sure, there’s a whole THEATER DISTRICT. Are any of the proud edifices in this district housing local Theatre Companies? Troupes of actors and creatives seeking to tell stories that resonate with the local populace? Reaching out into the community to foster the importance of narrative, theatrical storytelling as an agent for change, reflection, discussion? Nope.
Is that a problem? Depends on who you ask. Theatre just isn’t some people’s thing. They got dragged to some godawful production of Arsenic and Old Lace when they were in junior high, and have never stepped into a theatre since. I don’t blame them. I’ve seen theatre change people’s minds and hearts. I’ve seen it entertain. I’ve seen theatre that uplifts those with their souls weighed down through repression, through trauma. I’ve seen theatre set prisoners free, if even for a few stolen minutes, from the confines of their cells. Storytelling has power. It is one of the primary ways we instill values, and one of the best ways to present our ideas; ideals. When we tell a story to a group, and that group shares in the experience, in the same place, at the same time, breathing the same air: revolution of thought, outrage, healing, laughter. So much becomes possible.
I’m tired of commuting to be a part of the social work of theatre in someone else’s community. It’s wonderful work. It’s valuable to the communities in which it’s present. It adds another vibrant strand to the fabric of the artistic community of this neighborhood/city/state/nation/planet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to have to travel to do it, and I’ll enjoy my time in rehearsal and performance, and I’ll be happy to join with arts organizations to make a difference in Seattle, tell stories, and get people to feel and think. I just want to be able to do it in my home town. To bring my talent and passion to my neighborhood, and not starve in order to do so.
Fair warning: In the coming days and weeks, I might be writing more about this.