Sunday, May 20, 2018

Culture Dose: Q & A with AJ Epstein

Getting the scoop from a successful Seattle theater entrepreneur

Seattleite recently chatted with AJ Epstein, who owns and operates Fremont’s West of Lenin, a modern 88-seat black box theater and studio space that features programming that ranges from in-house and guest produced plays to musical events and readings.

This month, West of Lenin welcomes “MASTER HAROLD”… and the boys, a play by Athol Fugard that runs from March 28 through April 21. Celebrated director and Gregory A. Falls Sustained Achievement Award-winner Burke Walker returns to Seattle for this coming-of-age story about a seventeen-year-old white boy living in apartheid South Africa in the 1950s. For more information on the venue and its programming, visit



Seattleite: What was your main motivation for opening West of Lenin in 2011? How did you choose its location?

AJ Epstein: I had been looking for a commercial/warehouse building that would be large enough to have my offices and a well-equipped private studio, as well as spaces that I could rent out. Finding the former Warden Fluidynamics building in Fremont was really a coincidence. After getting started on the planning and permitting for the project, I ‘woke up’ and realized that the private studio I was building for my light art and photography work would make a terrific black box theatre with very little change to the plans. It’s been really great to have the community buy-in as excitedly as they have.

S: For those who’ve never been, how would you describe a theater experience in this space?

AJE: It’s intimate. It’s comfortable. My goal was to make the space well-equipped and comfortable, not only for the audience, but for the productions renting the space. While I cut my teeth in low ceiling basement fringe theaters, I wanted to have a space that was the same scale, but would readily convey the level of quality and high-production values that we bring to our shows –right when you walk in.

S: What do you personally view as your proudest accomplishments at this venue thus far?

AJE: It’s a list, preceded by some context: Our staff size only gives us enough bandwidth to produce a few projects a year in-house. Everything else is rentals that I invite/curate. So here’s what I’m proud of: A. The community seems really excited about what we’re doing here in Fremont. B. That in less than two years, some of my favorite artists have created new work/presented/performed on our modest stage. Paul Budraitis and The Splinter Group (The Salesman is Dead, Long Live The Salesman); Cafe Nordo (To Savor Tomorrow, [which was set in 1962, the year our building was originally constructed]); Kevin Joyce (A Pale and Lovely Place); Susan Voelz (Pali Chant Suite) Mark Siano/Tommy Smith, et al (White Hot); Dayna Hansen (workshop of The Clay Duke); Sandbox Radio; Wayne Rawley (Beating up Bachman) ; and of course the show I directed last fall – Tommy Smith’s Demon Dreams was a tremendous amount of work for everyone, but it really paid off, and I’m thrilled to have that in my quiver.

S: Of the many hats you wear (producer, director, lighting designer), is there one role in which you feel most at home?

AJE: I feel most at home when I’ve put together a great team and we’re firing on all cylinders. I feel very lucky to have been able to develop such broad and deep skill bases across several disciplines, so really there’s not any one thing I like doing better. It really comes down to how and what aspect of a project appeals to a specific interest of mine in how I choose to apply a skill towards that project.

S: Can you explain the process for bringing a show like “MASTER HAROLD”… and the boys to West of Lenin? How and why was it selected?

AJE: Burke and I have been talking about doing a project together for almost 10 years. Once I had WofL open, I invited him to come out to see it, and then I invited him to think about what some of his dream projects might be, and Master Harold came out of his mouth immediately. We did look at a number of other possibilities, but Fugard was always in the discussions. I have to admit that my desire is to have West of Lenin be known for doing new work, but the idea behind doing MH is master artists doing REALLY TIGHT productions of classic works. And having Burke, G.Val, Kevin and now James on board for Master Harold makes me feel VERY HONORED! And, we’re also now thinking about creating a “Masterworks in an intimate space” series.

S: Please talk a bit about the important theater figures who will return to Seattle for this production.

AJE: Well, The Empty Space was incredibly important to me. So to have Burke coming back to Seattle to work in MY space is beyond an honor. That we were able to cast G. Val and Kevin right off the bat, is a grand alignment of talent… Kismet if you will.

S: What’s on tap for West of Lenin for the remainder of 2013?

AJE: We’re going to be doing some development work on new plays, starting with a new Scot Augustson piece. We’re going to be doing another film series in the spring. We’ve got one of the hits from last year’s Fringe Festival doing a sit down run, and I might just be crazy enough to attempt a musical over the summer. We’ll keep you posted.


About Corinne Whiting

Corinne, an east coast native who relocated here from the other Washington in 2011, was bit by the travel bug early on. She lived in Strasbourg, France (during her junior year at Georgetown University) and in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she got a masters degree in Cultural Studies. She feels very grateful to have explored incredible spots on our globe ranging from Bolivia and Egypt to Turkey and China, but there are passport pages yet to fill (and travel tales yet to be written!). After serving as associate editor at Where magazine in D.C. for five years, Corinne has embarked on a new adventure here in the PNW as a freelance writer and photographer, contributing to publications like National Geographic Traveler, the Alaska Airlines in-flight magazine, Amtrak's OnTrak, 1889 Washington, 1859 Oregon, Visit Seattle and so on. She loves exploring this incredible corner of the country while debunking the rain myths, upping her coffee quotient, hearing heaps of live music and finding her Zen near the water as often as possible.
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