Kip Fagan remembers the exact instant he realized how vital and immediate theatre could be. It was during high school—not all that long ago for the 25-year-old co-artistic director of Printer’s Devil, a Seattle alternative theatre that in the last four years has made a name for itself with its daring, challenging and stylistically innovative shows. Fagan, the then-self-described skateboarder and writer, went to see Sam Shepard’s Savage/Love at the Blue Barn Theatre in Omaha.
“It was a defining moment,” he recalls. “It was in a black box, with a mildewy smell. The audience was sitting on folding chairs and there were actors sweating it out on stage. It was intense.”
It’s that sense of intensity and relevance that Fagan, along with co-artistic director Paul Willis, 28, and their 12-member company, brings to Printer’s Devil. “I think their work is among the most exciting in Seattle right now,” says Gordon Edelstein, artistic director of Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre, which is talking with Printer’s Devil about possible future collaborations. “Their use of space is extremely exciting. And they have a kind of renegade energy and sophisticated technique that makes for a very vivid theatrical experience.”
As much praise as the group has received, perhaps more important to Fagan and Willis are the reactions of audience members who have never been to plays before and find something to connect with at the company’s shows.
It is, Fagan says, this passion to “make theatre that’s relevant for our peers, to attract new audiences” that drives the pair. They arrived in Seattle around 1994, Fagan having dropped out of Oberlin College and Willis out of the University of Oregon. Over beers in various bars, they discovered a shared disenchantment with the theatre they were seeing—particularly the separation between the audience and what was occurring on stage. “We wanted to see theatre that kicked ass,” Fagan says.
Their first collaboration was a well-received production of The Woods, David Mamet’s claustrophobic meditation on the nature of love. After that, the loose collective of artists organized into a group, with Fagan and Willis as artistic heads, and Jennifer Creegan as managing director. They named the group after the term for a printer’s apprentice—“the maniacal little guy who puts all the letters into the printing press late at night—the one who does the real work that the big printer doesn’t do,” Willis says.
On an annual budget of less than $50,000 a year, the group has managed to create everything from minimally staged one-person performance pieces to spectacular effects like indoor rainstorms. The end results are often visually arresting, aurally intriguing, enveloping events.
There was, for instance, the company’s rock-opera version of El Cid. Derived from the 12th-century Spanish epic poem, the anarchic, chaotic energy of musician Herbert Bergel’s absurdist adaptation pervaded the abandoned, gutted restaurant kitchen that served as stage. A giant mobile made of beer cans and clothes hangers dangled over the seating area; the actors crawled over the audience members, sometimes lying down in their laps.
Meanwhile, in Erin Cressida Wilson’s Hurricane, the parking garage of an abandoned restaurant became the receptacle for five hyper-realistic settings—from a claustrophobic jail cell (created by a crescendo of dripping water that finally threatened to engulf the lonely, crouched inmate) to a rainstorm—water streaming down through the top of the garage, stunningly back-lit by a spotlight.
“Our ambitions are always five steps ahead of our means,” says Willis, “And our imaginations are who knows how many steps ahead of our ambitions.”
In its first season, Printer’s Devil presented several plays that ended up on critics’ year-end “best” lists, including a vigorous, punchy staging of Eric Bogosian’s SubUrbia. Bogosian saw the production while in Seattle in 1996 for the annual Bumbershoot arts festival. “Most of the versions of SubUrbia that I’d seen were kind of shadows of what we had done at Lincoln Center,” says Bogosian. “Printer’s Devil came at it with such a different angle: irreverent, very energetic and with a looseness. They went further than other people and I saw things I hadn’t seen and felt things I hadn’t felt. What they were doing was fresh and valid.”
The works Fagan and Willis choose to present have to be at what they call a “boiling point,” plays that have to be presented onstage now—a moment later and the urgency would be gone.
Naomi Iizuka’s Skin, an adaptation of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck, was presented in the cavernous environs of a former naval station’s airplane hangar. The intense internal turmoil of the characters in Skin‘s first act were reflected in the closed-off space created by six big panels (the actors often appeared only in shadows). However, in the second act the panels flew up, and the claustrophobic atmosphere gave way to a large, boundless world, revealing the echoing emptiness of the hangar.
Despite the group’s fondness for newer and edgier forms of expression—the visual language of music videos, say, and the rhythms of pop culture jingles—it is the careful attention to language and performance that creates the real vitality in their projects. A case in point was last season’s Horrible Child by Lawrence Krauser, a darkly comedic portrait of a dysfunctional family recounted in Dr. Seuss-meets-Edward Gorey tones. During the first rehearsal, Willis spent several hours on the first page alone, dissecting the words, playing with the sounds of the syllables and the rhythm of the language. The result was a six-part symphony—four actors, a musician and movement—with every breath, word and gesture carefully choreographed.
Krauser’s play grew out of one of Printer’s Devil’s most ambitious projects, its annual Play Bonanza—workshop presentations of 12 new works in as many weeks. In its first year, the Bonanza attracted 13 submissions; last year, it received 80.
The company’s new season opened in February with the premiere of Seattle playwright Aaron Thomas’s North Street, a project that came out of the Bonanza, and the company is also looking to broaden its horizons by presenting classics: Fagan will be directing his adaptation of The Seagull in early summer, along with A Flock of Seagulls, his set of six experimental divergences inspired by Chekhov’s original. And this fall Willis will direct his own adaptation of Hedda Gabler.
“An unfortunate tendency with a new play is to make it seem better than it actually is by dressing it up in cool clothes,” says Fagan. “Doing the classics will be a good reminder that that kind of fibbing shouldn’t happen, that you should work on the play for its intrinsic value. It’s not ‘Hey, I want to direct The Seagull. Let’s see if I can pull it off.’ It’s ‘This is a play that I care about. How do I make our audiences feel the same way?'”
Janet I. Tu, a former acting theatre critic at the Seattle Times, is a reporter with the Northwest edition of the Wall Street Journal.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!