When a theatre falls in the urban forest, does it make a sound?
The answer, for the theatres we love, is yes. But sometimes it falls with a whimper—followed by a loud bang.
This is happening more and more across the country. And it just occurred in Seattle with the venerable, beloved ensemble Book-It Repertory Theatre. The loss was so unexpected by most of the press, the theatre community, and the company’s devoted fans that we are still struggling to understand what happened and what it means in the cultural scheme of things.
Clearly we are in a period when respected theatrical outfits around the country are fragile, due to a multiplicity of factors: post-pandemic box-office decline, funding woes, real estate problems, discombobulating shifts of leadership, fears that live theatre is no longer viable in an age of convenient, satisfying streaming, and lingering fear of disease.
In the case of Book-It, the crash happened so suddenly, and with no public warning. The company had just appointed an accomplished new interim artistic leader, local director Kelly Kitchens. It had just announced a full 2023-24 season. It was closing the current season with one of its most ambitious efforts yet, Solaris, adapted by David Grieg from a famed Polish sci-fi novel.
Since we don’t know all the whys of its demise (yet), all we can do at the moment is mourn the loss. And for Seattle, it is indeed a resounding loss, both to literacy (the company had valuable education programs and spurred people to read) and artistry.
Founded 33 years ago by a collective of actors and directors, and guided for decades by co-artistic directors Jane Jones and Myra Platt, Book-It was unique among Seattle troupes in its dedication to transferring modern and classic literature to the stage. (Platt and Jones retired from the company in 2020, and were replaced until recently by Gus Menary.)
What set Book-It apart was its idiosyncratic storytelling approach. The language of a prose work, whether by Herman Melville or Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Maya Angelou, was adapted to fit the dimensions of a production. But the adaptation did not change or edit the language, which was lifted verbatim from the page. The narration of the story was spoken, as well as the dialogue penned by the author. So the “he saids” and “she saids,” as well as descriptions of place and action, were not edited out but voiced by the performers.
Platt, Jones, and their many collaborators (including Peter Parnell, for their epic dramatization of the John Irving novel The Cider House Rules) became increasingly adept at incorporating a fiction author’s language gracefully and cogently. And the casts included some of the finest actors in Seattle’s talent pool.
As a critic for The Seattle Times, I saw the vast majority of Book-It’s 150 productions. The memories of the best stick with me. Among them the superb Cider House Rules treatment, admired by Irving himself; a glowing Pride and Prejudice (which went on to a production at Portland Center Stage); an absorbing The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, based on Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-winning novel about the invention of comic book superheroes; the hilarious Financial Lives of the Poets, a saga of the (then illegal) marijuana trade by Jess Walter, one of the many Washington State-based authors whose books were prime fodder for Book-It shows.
In the early 1990s, Book-It alum Susan Harloe, with JoAnne Winter, founded Word for Word, a San Francisco ensemble using a similar technique in its page-to-stage works. (Word for Word is now in its 30th season.)
There has been an outpouring of grief over the demise of Book-It Rep, and a lot of questions swirling: Why didn’t we all have any inkling that it was failing? Why wasn’t a public fundraising campaign mounted? Could the board of directors have fought harder before they laid off most of the staff and swiftly closed shop? Why the abrupt ending?
In a Seattle Times news story, Book-It board president Christine Stepherson blamed “diminished audience attendance, changes in funder priorities, and a lack of enough major donors, among other reasons” for the company’s ending. “We aren’t a theatre company that has a huge endowment,” she added. “We had really hoped that we could make it through all of this. We are just at a point where we don’t feel it’s responsible to have contracts with artists and move forward with such small margins.”
I’m hoping Book-It wasn’t a bellwether for post-pandemic theatre failure. Other companies in financial straits (like Chicago’s prominent Lookingglass Theatre) are taking a hiatus rather than pulling the plug. I’m still looking for answers, and wondering if there’s a way to prevent other sudden deaths of exceptional theatres. In the meantime, a tip of the hat to Book-It for turning on so many Seattleites to great literature—and exceptional theatre.
Misha Berson (she/her) is the former theatre critic of The Seattle Times and the author of several books on theatre, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination. She is currently a freelance writer and teacher, and a frequent contributor to American Theatre.
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