In 2014, when Mathew Wright accepted the job as artistic director of the ArtsWest playhouse, a nonprofit West Seattle community theater known for small but enterprising productions, he was excited—and surprised. A New Jersey native and recent grad of Temple University’s theater program, Wright had worked previously at Seattle Repertory Theatre and The 5th Avenue Theatre, but had expected to ease his way into the city’s theater scene over the next few years. But he jumped at the rare opportunity presented at ArtsWest.
Now in his third season, he’s enlivened the playhouse with contemporary and sometimes controversial productions, stirring up debate and increasing single-ticket sales by 150 percent since joining the team.
“He has been a tremendous asset to the theater and increased the diversity of talent we employ, as well as the production levels,” says Katie Koch, president of the ArtsWest board.
His debut season opened with an audience-inclusive staging of the Tony Award–winning musical American Idiot (an adaptation of rock band Green Day’s 2004 album of the same name). It was, he says, “by far the highest-grossing show that we’ve produced there.” The first season also included My Mañana Comes, a timely play about undocumented immigrants working at an upscale New York City restaurant intended to provoke discussion about living wages and immigration.
The response to the immersive American Idiot, says Wright, taught him that audiences want “to have a theater experience that is different from what we get with other media. They get really excited by something that is very alive and experiential, that often requires a breaking down of the fourth wall.”
Last season’s lineup mined more topical themes, including the plot of Milk Like Sugar, about a teen pregnancy pact that takes place in a disadvantaged urban area; and Frozen, about a serial killer who molests and murders seven young girls. Each of those plays sparked conversation and some discomfort, Wright says. With Frozen, “We had people who hated the content, but were grateful for the experience of seeing a story like that be told. That content is not there to shock; that content is there because stories like that happen in our culture.”
This year’s six-play season explores themes of identity, individuality and the cultural forces that often impose those constructs. It opens with Ayad Akhtar’s The Who and the What (September 7–October 1), about a Pakistani-American writer whose father and sister discover her novel in progress about women and Islam, sparking intergenerational and interfaith family dialogue. All but one of the season’s shows, the Tony Award–winning Kiss of the Spider Woman, have been written within the past three years and are premiering in Seattle at ArtsWest.
Three years in, Wright remains excited about what’s to come. “We’re small enough that we can afford to take risks. I’m really excited to see how Seattle reacts to the work that we’re going to put out this year.”
ArtsWest “I Am” season, 9/7–7/2018. Times and prices vary. ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery, West Seattle, 4711 California Ave. SW; 206.938.0963.