AJ Epstein doesn’t know quite what to call himself. The 40-year-old producer/director/lighting designer, who in June opened live theater venue West of Lenin in Fremont, has jokingly labeled himself “Responsible Party” and “El Presidente,” and has recently enjoyed the ring of “Arts Entrepreneur.” After verbally volleying all these options, he decides: “I’m an artist and a businessman. And I’m the proprietor of West of Lenin.”
Part of the reason Epstein resists pinning himself down with a designation is that he simply possesses too many. He runs a production company called The Ethereal Mutt, and has produced acclaimed fringe theater shows nationally, including for Seattle luminaries (such as Mike Daisey, How Theater Failed America; Keri Healy, Parrot Fever; and Scot Auguston, Brent or Brenda?), as well as local indie films (Lynn Shelton’s We Go Way Back and Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain).
He’s also served as director and lighting designer for performances at a multitude of Seattle theaters. And in 1995, “for whatever it’s worth,” he adds, he was the first person ever to video broadcast a play live on the Internet. “I wish there was at least some kind of plaque for that,” he laments.
Such a plaque would certainly look handsome on the wall of his new “Emutt” office, ensconced in the light-filled space directly above West of Lenin (the name comes from the theater’s location—a five-minute walk west of Fremont’s famous statue).
In 2009, Epstein bought the two-story building (built in 1962 and formerly home to Warden Fluid Dynamics) as an investment, planning to use part of the space for his office and production studio, and rent out the rest. But during renovations, he realized that the planned studio was the perfect space for a small, experimental theater.
Given Annex Theatre, Theater Schmeater, Theatre Off Jackson and others, might Seattle already have enough fringe theater venues? “No,” Epstein answers, without a moment’s hesitation. He says that in addition to “hippie anarchist artists,” Fremont houses “a lot of low-key arts patrons…and they haven’t had a reason to walk down the hill since 2005 [when Empty Space Theatre departed].” Citywide, he believes, “Seattle is at the forefront of defining fringe theater—I think there aren’t enough theater spaces in town.”
That said, he acknowledges the difficulties of opening a theater in the current economy. “The only way this can work is as a mixed-use space,” he emphasizes. Epstein’s tenants will help offset the costs of running West of Lenin, which he will use to produce and curate shows, and rent to interested parties.
He designed the black box theater to be as flexible as possible. When set up in proscenium style (rows of pitched seats all facing the stage), it holds 88 people. But Epstein points out that it “takes four people five hours” to completely rearrange the room (thanks to movable risers and individual chairs). He’s already using the space as a “micro cinema,” and is open to using it for special events. But he’s clear that West of Lenin’s primary purpose is for live performance.
Epstein was drawn to theater after a childhood spent in Los Angeles, where his grandfather and father ran the iconic Pickwick Bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard. But it was his uncle Eugene, a radio astronomer (an astronomer who studies celestial bodies via radio frequencies), who drew Epstein to his current work, if in a roundabout way.
Eugene Epstein was a collector of “Lumia,” the avant-garde, silent “light compositions” pioneered by Thomas Wilfred in the 1920s. Created with Wilfred’s “Clavilux,” a mechanical instrument that projects light, Lumia look like shifting multi-colored flames or aurora borealis set against a black background. (Wilfred’s Lumia were prominently featured in Terrence Malick’s new film, Tree of Life, on which Eugene and AJ were consultants.) One of Epstein’s other roles is serving as a preeminent restorer of this kinetic light art.
“Being exposed to [Lumia] early on heavily influenced me and my interest in lighting,” says Epstein. He explains that as a kid, after he gave up on becoming an astronaut, “I decided to be a rock ’n’ roll lighting guy.” This led him to study all aspects of theater in college, and later, to tours with bands as, indeed, a rock ’n’ roll lighting guy. He landed in Seattle in 1998 in search of theater work and says, “Within 45 minutes of arriving, I was up on a ladder backstage at the [now defunct] Nippon Kan Theater.”
Rest assured that Epstein has a pretty sweet lighting setup at West of Lenin. And he’s hoping it gets used adventurously. “I’m interested in cracking the nut in a different way,” he says. “I really want to use this space as a black box theater,” meaning in experimental, innovative ways, “not just for presentations.” He’s off to a good start.
This month, programming includes Sky White Tiger, a five-piece psych-pop band (10/5),Sandbox Radio Theater Live, featuring new plays, poetry and music by local actors (10/10), andCafé Nordo, which blends performance with obscure food knowledge and eating (10/28–11/20). In fact, one might conceptualize West of Lenin as a black space, enlivened by ever-shifting projections of light and color.
West of Lenin
203 N 36th St.
PHOTO CREDIT: ADAM REITANO