Never underestimate the inspiration that can be uncorked along with several bottles of wine. Two summers ago, local actor Paul Morgan Stetler and his wife, performer and playwright Stephanie Timm, bought a house next door to fellow thespians Hans Altwies and Amy Thone. The four discovered in vino veritas as other comrades joined them for late-night conversations that soon evolved into business meetings about the dearth of midsize theater companies in Seattle and how that could be addressed by using close friendships to professional advantage. “A lot of the process of working in regional theater is that you get stuck with strangers, they toss you in a room, and you have a very short period of time to get together and create an ensemble,” Stetler explains. “And we have this group of people that are incredibly talented and very smart and who have been wanting a better system.”
Their solution debuts this month when the lights go up on The Adding Machine, the first effort from New Century Theatre Company, the 11-member theatrical collective formed by Stetler, Timm, et al. Elmer Rice’s 1923 play—about an accountant named Mr. Zero made obsolete by new technology—rarely gets mounted despite its thematic relevance. Stetler, however, had been in a production at La Jolla Playhouse in California and convinced his cohorts that it merited their best efforts: 15 cast members; direction by John Langs, whose credits include a rousing King Lear for Seattle Shakespeare Company; scenic design from Jennifer Zeyl, whose resourceful work with Washington Ensemble Theatre helped put that collective on the map; and lighting courtesy of Geoff Korf, who heads the design program at the University of Washington.
Launching an ambitious staging with a new company in a discouraging financial landscape is just another part of the work. “I wonder if it would feel any less daunting if it wasn’t a bad climate,” says Altwies, who serves as NCTC’s co–artistic director with Stetler. Besides, the troupe has already garnered major support, not just from the community—the production budget came from donations—but from arts giants like ACT Theatre. The ensemble initially approached ACT, but their Falls Theatre space proved too costly. “Then they called us back,” Altwies recalls. “And they absolutely extended their hands and made it work. It was a big boost to us to realize that they thought enough of us that they were going to put that much out there.”
ACT’s gesture of faith in the company is well founded. NCTC’s ensemble overflows with artists in their prime, beginning with its leaders: Altwies wraps up a swaggering turn as a studly Athos in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Three Musketeers this month; Stetler’s role as a menacing man-child ruling the underworld highlighted ACT’s recent Eurydice. “We’re not doing this because we’re not getting work,” says Stetler. The goal, he stresses, is to create something for the city that lasts beyond just these founding members: “We come together, we get this going, but then it’s in place.” That Seattle’s the place is reason to raise a glass in celebration.