New theater will offer free space for performers

By CHRIS LOPAZE, UW News Lab

The Pocket Theater will be small in size, but the idea is big.

Clayton Weller, a local theater producer and comedian, has created a Kickstarter project to fund a small performing arts venue called The Pocket Theater. Performers from any art form — comedy, music, theater and so forth — would be able to perform without paying any fee. The theater’s location is still being determined. Weller said he is looking for a space in Ballard, Fremont or Queen Anne that would be safe and easy to find.

The Pocket Theater will only have a 30-seat maximum; Weller hopes to open it this October. “It’s intentionally small to facilitate audiences feeling good about themselves and performers feeling good about themselves,” Weller said.

Besides facing an emotional risk, most performers face a substantial financial risk when trying to put on shows, according to Weller. The idea for the project originated as a way to make it easier for artists. “Why would anyone do this? A good situation is for artists to break even and that’s crazy to me,” Weller said.

The theater will focus more on consistency than a boom or bust mentality of having to put on big shows, according to Weller. He said even the most inexperienced performer can bring in 10 people per show, which is sustainable under the theater’s business model.

Weller received opinions from those in the performing arts community about his idea before moving forward with it. He considered traditional fund-raising methods, which could take a long time, but decided that Kickstarter was the best option after doing research on successful Kickstarter projects.

The $8,000 minimum goal was reached the first day. Three days later, it reached $15,000, his real minimum goal, and now it’s close to reaching $25,000.

This project has received national attention from comedian and actor T.J. Miller (from “Cloverfield”). Weller said he and Miller have talked on the phone and Miller expressed a desire to perform there and donated to the project.

On May 2, Miller, username @nottjmiller, tweeted, “As a mediocre film comedian, standup comic, improviser and one-woman-show performer, I am excited at the prospect!” and included a link to the Kickstarter page.

Local people in the community have endorsed it as well. Emmett Montgomery is a local stand-up comedian and the producer of “Weird and Awesome with Emmett Montgomery,” a monthly show at the Annex Theatre. He has seen the shift from comedy clubs to more independent comic-run shows since he started eight years ago. This shift has been facilitated by technology changes, including self-publishing on YouTube and elsewhere online.

“I’m excited about [the Pocket Theater],” Montgomery said. “We haven’t really had an option or model like this for a while. Ever, actually.”

His first “Weird and Awesome” show had only seven people attend; now he said he consistently brings in 50. He said building an audience is important to a comic’s success. “The best shows are when everyone has a stake in it, including the audience,” Montgomery said. “If people get invested in this theater, they’re going to want to see it do well.”

While there are many open mics in Seattle, there are few venues to put on showcases for finished work and get to the next level, and the Pocket Theater is a venue that can fill that void, Montgomery said. Andrew McMasters is one of the co-founders of Jet City Improv. Instead of Seattle having only several large improv theaters, he would like to see smaller groups become more numerous, which is already starting to happen.

McMasters said there is a lack of small theaters suited for allowing performers to try out new things and large theaters are not suitable for that kind of performance. “So when it came up that Clayton was looking at starting something that was going to be not only free for performers to be able to get into but accessible, I’m 100 percent behind it,” he said.

The Pocket Theater might become a space for both seasoned, professional performers to try more experimental material, and beginners to use as a stepping stone to build up audience and reputation, he said. “I love the idea of making a conglomerate space where people can actually learn form each other, see what other people are doing, and get out of their individual silos,” McMasters said. Seattle has more working actors per capita than any other city in the country and continues to expand, he added.

“Something like the Pocket Theater just continues to grow [the community]. It’s more opportunities for people to say I’m going to create my own work, and that is the important factor of what really builds a community. … And basically what Clayton is doing, is providing that for them,” McMasters said.

Weller said the Seattle art scene has numerous artists from all the performing arts that remain in their niches and have limited interaction with those in other disciplines. “My goal with The Pocket is to kind of make a clubhouse and all these people can come together,” Weller said.

Besides a stage for shows and rehearsals, the Pocket will also offer classes. Weller said any national headliner flying in to perform would be encouraged to also lead a workshop, usually about a topic not covered like how to tour, or to engage with the local community.

“Education is the best way to build audiences,” Weller said. “There is no better fan than the person who knows what’s going on.” While building up the community in Seattle is important, Weller would like to see the Pocket recognized nationally.

“The hope with that is they will go back out to the world and say, Hey, Seattle’s got some really cool stuff going on,” Weller said. “You should watch out for Seattle.”

(CHRIS LOPAZE is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.)

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