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WET Dives Into the Deep End
When UW School of Drama Professor Jon Jory asked his students to create a fictional theatre company—planning everything from location to budget to selection of plays—the assignment was ambitious. But his students took it a step further. Within a year they were planning a real theatre company.
Just weeks after their graduation in May 2004, the students founded Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET). By the end of its first season, WET had been voted “Best of Fringe Theatre” by readers of The Seattle Weekly. Now in its third season, the theatre is still going strong.
How did a group of 11 newly minted drama graduates manage such a feat? The knowledge gained in Jory’s class helped, as did serendipity—a theatre space became available at the right moment. But perhaps most important, the alumni were fearless and naive, ready to dive in with abandon.
“The learning curve has been very steep,” admits Jessica Trundy, a founding member who earned her M.F.A. in lighting design. “When I think back on our first meeting about this, I just laugh. We had no idea what we were getting into.”
Ambitious Plan Emerged from Course
It could be argued that the graduate students in Jon Jory’s regional theatre course did have an inkling of what they were getting into. After all, they’d spent months working together to create a fully functioning—albeit imaginary—theatre company. They chose the theatre’s location, wrote a mission statement,
selected productions for its first season, and strategized a subscription campaign.
The class’s chosen location for the fictitious theatre? Seattle. “I think that disappointed Jon,” recalls Marya Sea Kaminski with a laugh.
For Kaminski, the class’s emphasis on collaboration was perhaps the most valuable lesson. “We were a disparate group. We had very different aesthetics
and goals, but we did it. And when we made the final presentation to School of Drama faculty and students, the response was incredible. People said, ‘You should really do this. You should start a theatre.’”
The idea took hold. A year after taking Jory’s course, with graduation looming, some of the students were still intrigued by the possibility. When a faculty member told them about an available theatre space on Seattle’s Capitol Hill,
they decided to go for it. “Right away, we said, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’” recalls Marc Kenison. “It just seemed so clear to us.”
In the end, four students from Jory’s class committed to starting a theatre. They spread the word to School of Drama classmates; four graduate designers and three undergraduate actors signed on. All contributed start-up capital to cover rent, a lighting system, and other expenses until the theatre became self-sustaining. WET was becoming a reality.
That’s when the hard work began.
Learning on the Job
The first challenge was to transform the theatre space. It was an empty shell with no seats—the previous tenants had removed them—and no stage. When a remodeled horse stadium in Anacortes offered its old seats, free of charge, WET members headed north with a rented truck. “Then we discovered we had to take all of their seats—four times more than we needed,” recalls Kenison with a groan. “For a while, the theatre was just a chair warehouse. We picked the best seats and eventually gave away the rest.”
While the ensemble overhauled the physical space, they also planned their first season. The students had graduated in May; their ambitious goal was to open their first show in October. Kenison remembers some pretty wild conversations during that time. “We asked each other, ‘How many plays should we do?’ ‘How about four?’ ‘How long should they run?’ ‘How about four weeks?’ We realized we could do whatever we wanted.”
What they wanted most was to direct, design, and perform in theatre productions. But with no funds for staff, everyone took on administrative roles as well, from running the box office to seeking publicity. They faced new challenges at every turn.
“When we started, Jon Jory told us, ‘If you do this for a year, they could parachute you into Cambodia and you’d say, ‘Dude, I started a theatre company. This is no problem,’” says Kaminski.
Joking aside, the hard work took its toll that first season. “Several of us broke up with our significant others,” says Kaminski. “We started referring to the theatre as Washington Break-Up Theatre. But it was also a great experience. It was all reinventing the wheel.”
Emphasis on “Ensemble”
Since WET’s inaugural season, things have settled down a bit. Ensemble members are more comfortable with their administrative responsibilities. They have more lead time to plan their productions. And the ensemble has grown to twelve members and three associate members, reducing the individual load.
But WET’s core values have not changed. From the beginning, its members have committed to working as an ensemble. All major decisions—including the choice of plays and the selection of actors and designers for each production—have been made by consensus. “We have to agree on the decisions we make,” says Kenison. “Everyone in the room has a vote.” This is in stark contrast to most theatres, even those labeled ensemble theatres. “At other small theatre companies, there are one or two people really pushing things forward,” says Trundy. “Here everyone has an equal say, an equal investment, and an equal commitment.”
For WET’s set and lighting designers, the democratic approach has been particularly gratifying, since most theatre companies do not include designers in discussions of acting or scripts. “We’re the only company we know of that includes designers in all decision making,” says Trundy. “Actors are part of the design discussion and designers get to be part of the acting discussion. And you see it in the performances. The work is a lot more cohesive.”
Since all WET members also hold other jobs to make ends meet, the company has learned to streamline the consensus process. For each upcoming production, a weekly showing is scheduled to allow the whole company to view a rehearsal and offer feedback. “It’s like a touchstone, a pulse, so we’re all tied to every production even if we’re not in it,” says Elise Hunt, who joined the company in its second year.
For seasoned WET members, this give and take has become second nature. For new arrivals or guest directors, all the input can take some getting used to. “It can be hard for a guest director at first,” says Kaminski, a director herself. “But it has become clear that this approach works best for us. It can be overwhelming, but the support of twelve people can also be overwhelming in a good way.”
The greatest challenge for newcomers may be just following the discussion. Ensemble members, after working closely for years, have developed their own vocabulary, says Hunt. “We have two hours to deal with all our artistic decisions for the week,” she explains. “It just rolls. For a guest artist or director, it can be hard to follow. There’s a certain amount of translation required.”
Kaminski admits that the uninitiated need time to get used to WET’s approach. “But people who get exposed to it want more,” she says. “That kind of energy around a room makes things happen.”
Katjana Vadeboncoeur, a guest director last season, remembers being impressed by the company’s cohesiveness. “There is an amazing sense of critical mass,” she says. “What I noticed first was how the energy of each company member was willing all the members forward. Everybody puts in 100 percent effort.” Vadeboncoeur was such a good fit with WET that she joined the ensemble this year.
Reaching for . . . the Moon?
Now that Washington Ensemble Theatre is well established, company members are continuing to seek new challenges. This year, in addition to its four mainstage productions, the company has added solo shows with shorter runs, classes for high school students, and workshopping of new plays.
Then there’s the ongoing challenge of selecting compelling plays. “As WET matures, our aesthetic changes,” says Kaminski. “This year we’ve sought out new playwrights. When we look at scripts, we are always searching for challenging roles for our actors and interesting challenges for our designers. None of us wants to do something easy.”
Before long, WET may tackle yet another challenge: finding a larger space. The current theatre, with 49 seats, has been a perfect venue for a young company. But given the cost of mounting a play, more seats would provide welcome revenue. And with many of WET’s performances being sold out, more seats would mean fewer people turned away. The idea is brewing, but no one is ready for that change just yet.
“We know we will need to be in a larger space at some point,” says Hunt, “but the intimacy of this stage and the relationship with the audience is special. The energy is tight and contained. When it’s time to expand, it’s going to be important to keep that tight energy.”
Like every other challenge WET has faced, this one will be approached as an ensemble, with every member committing to the decision and then jumping in fearlessly, as they always do.
“Actually, we were just talking about this, and we’ve decided you really can’t think too big,” says Kaminski. “We’re envisioning a WET franchise in every city. Or maybe WET being the first theatre on the moon. We say, ‘Bring it on!’”
To learn more about Washington Ensemble Theatre, visit www.washingtonensemble.org.