Seattle Now & Then: The Empty Space Theatre, 1970

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN 1: A 1970 cast photo from the production of “The Wax Monkey and Other Tales.” This company-created confection received its world premiere during the Empty Space’s first season. The cast included John Kauffman, John Avinger, Jim Royce, Dan Mahar, Joe Baltz, Pat Campbell, John Clark, Liz Briggs Tom Spiller, Lois Salisbury and Lee Shallat
NOW 1: Several Empty Space performers assemble in Post Alley below Pike Place Market to re-create M. Burke Walker’s original cast photo: (clockwise from lower left) M. Burke Walker, R. Hamilton Wright, Rex McDowell, Tom Spiller, Jim Royce, Lori Larson, John Clark and Kurt Beattie. Spiller, Clark, and Royce also appear in the 1970 photo.

(Published in The Seattle Times online on Sept. 1, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Sept. 4, 2022)

In the after-hours during the early 1970s, the Pike Place Market neighborhood was run-down and gritty, even dangerous. Rex McDowell, a young actor who found digs off Post Alley below the Market, kept a knife near his front entrance to thwart would-be intruders. “When they’d bang on our double doors or try to break in, we’d stick the long blade into the gap and waggle it up and down to frighten them off.”

Rent was cheap and youth fearless.

Where Post Alley makes a sharp turn uphill and to the east (just beyond today’s “gum wall”), was wedged a tiny storefront. Reputedly a former speakeasy, it was first home to Seattle’s legendary, 50-seat Empty Space Theatre.

Fresh from the University of Washington theater program, founder M. Burke Walker sought to build a new and vibrant company featuring edgier, often experimental voices. In the underbelly of the then-untouristed Market, the minuscule stage became a hothouse of creative ferment while its somewhat unsavory setting kept costs low.

The seminal 1968 book “The Empty Space” by British stage director Peter Brook triggered the troupe’s name and offered keen theatrical philosophy. “I can take an empty space,” he wrote, “and call it a bare stage.” For a young company cobbling together budget-conscious productions, austerity was a welcome challenge.

“It was the best training ground for the best theater artists this town has ever known,” says musician-composer John Engerman.

“From the start, it was a great ensemble,” adds fellow company member Kurt Beattie, now artistic director emeritus of ACT Theatre. “Great ensembles make great theatre.”

The company also played a vital role in Seattle theater, says playwright Carl Sander: “The Seattle Rep was the living room, ACT was the dining room, but the Empty Space was the kitchen.”

The Space created and presented hundreds of celebrated productions over more than three decades while migrating to Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square and finally Fremont. Though the final curtain fell in 2006, Space alumni continue to serve as chefs de cuisine of Seattle theatre whose savory fare still inspires.

On a roasty July evening, more than 150 Empty Spacers gathered at Seattle Center’s Cornish Theatre to celebrate the company’s Covid-delayed 50th reunion. They included Walker, fellow founder Jim Royce, and other Seattle theater luminaries, sans one beloved ensemble member. Renowned actor John Aylward, who had hoped to attend, died on May 16 at age 75.

THEN 2: Actor John Aylward (1948-2022), a founding member of the Empty Space’s ensemble, went on to work extensively in film and television, perhaps most prominently in “ER” and “The West Wing.”

“For John,” memorialized Walker in words that readily apply to the Empty Space itself, “play was always a verb first and a noun second.”


A few photo from the reunion:

NOW 2: At the Empty Space’s 50th Reunion, actor Kevin Loomis holds forth, accompanied by musician/composer John Engerman.
NOW 3: Chanteuse Joanne Klein offers up musical delights.
NOW 4: Space regulars R. Hamilton Wright (left) and Rex McDowall sing “Burnt Angel.”
NOW 5: Singing a showstopper from “They Came from Way Out There,” Jayne Muirhead, Lori Larson, R. Hamilton Wright, and Rex McDowall.

2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Empty Space Theatre, 1970”

  1. I loved the Empty Space. I recall a great production of Sam Shepard’s Tooth of Crime. John Kaufman was a year ahead of me at Cleveland High, and he was a truly inspiring actor. Thanks for the memories.

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