By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
It began life as a garage for taxis, the space at 409 7th Avenue South in the Chinatown-International District (ID). It began hosting art and theater events in the 1980s. It was formally designated Theatre Off Jackson (TOJ) in 1987. But for its next phase, as the COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift, depends very much on you.
The Reimagine TOJ Upstairs Project, devoted to remodeling the upstairs space at the Theatre, reaches out to the public, both in the ID and beyond, to imagine the best possible look and function for the upstairs space. Folks wishing to chime in can respond to the online survey at theatreoffjackson.org through April 30, midnight.
“Disappearing arts and culture spaces in Seattle is not a new thing and neither is gentrification,” explained Susan Lieu, a Seattle performance artist with a longstanding connection to the Theatre, and currently a consultant with the Reimagine project.
“With COVID closures, the TOJ board and staff spent much of the last year envisioning its future. The pandemic furthered their resolve to continue being of service to the neighborhood and the local artists who need space to create, produce, and perform their work.
“But to secure the longevity of the TOJ downstairs space, they [have] to secure the upstairs space. There are obvious things to improve the upstairs space, including enclosing the driveway, updating the building’s facade, renovating the bathrooms, and installing an HVAC system. These projects already have some seed funding from Historic South Downtown. But exactly who will use the space and how, while remaining an affordable and sustainable venue, has been the paramount question as TOJ starts to consider more extensive remodeling.”
The survey aims to reach a wide range of respondents, including, naturally, people who find a sense of belonging in the ID. But Lieu and TOJ Executive Director Patti West also hope to reach people interested in sustainable arts institutions—theatre, arts, and nonprofit organizations looking for a base, even pop-up food and drink businesses looking for a temporary base.
“I first worked at TOJ in 1989 on a show as a lighting technician,” West recalled. “I became a staff member of the Northwest Asian American Theatre (NWAAT) in the 1990s. When NWAAT closed operations in 2005, I was one of the organizers of a new business called Theatre Off Jackson (named after the theater space). We started the new business to save the theater space from closing.
My original job at TOJ (the business) was producing director. We started as an all-volunteer organization. As a cofounder, original duties included everything from getting the organization up and running, to tending bar, box office, marketing, and the list goes on.Over time, we expanded our staff, positions became modestly paid, and I was promoted to executive director.
My duties changed to include leading more strategic, long-term planning, and helping TOJ mature into a solid, sustainable organization. I do still occasionally get to run the box office!”
Since the survey has many target audiences, Lieu created the two-part survey to gather information about community needs and—for those interested in becoming partners in the space—to understand their specific requirements. As a nonprofit, TOJ wants to keep costs as low as possible to theatre, arts, and nonprofit organizations, which also means they need to make the numbers work for everyone without going under.
In addition to the survey, TOJ has already hosted two Zoom Town Hall meetings on the situation, and plans to hold another one on April 25, 2–3 p.m. Consult the TOJ homepage for details on how to join in.
TOJ hopes to use the results from the survey to negotiate a long-term lease for the space from their landlords, and continue fundraising for the decided-upon renovations.
“It’s difficult to look beyond this project, because our future hinges on securing our lease and getting the remodeling underway,” West concluded. “We’re excited to see where this project goes—it’s something I’ve been penciling out in one form or another for 15 years.
“We would love to be an active part of the neighborhood for years to come. In the short-term, we look forward to reopening, welcoming people back into the space, and seeing them around the ID before and after the shows.”
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.