The stage at Interplayers Theatre typically goes dark for the summer season.
But tonight it will be lit up for a musical production of a different sort, one that shines the spotlight on local singer-songwriters and acoustic musicians.
Comrades in Arts is a partnership between local music and theater in an effort to add more support and sustainability for local performance art.
The curtain raises on the first installment of the Comrades in Arts at Interplayers with a showcase of three area artists – folk-jazz singer/guitarist and mandolinist Janet Johnson, indie-folk chanteuse Stephanie Hatzinikolis, and melodic fingerstyle guitarist Tim Platt.
The money collected from the $10 cover is split between the venue and the artists for a win-win that raises some funds for Interplayers while pushing for more substantial compensation for local musicians, said the event’s coordinator, Pat Coast, who has for years led a popular blues band while also appearing as a solo singer-songwriter around the region.
“We’re doing a 60/40 split with the artists and the theater so each artist gets 20 percent. We’re trying to get them paid well for what they do,” Coast said. “Anywhere else they are lucky to get $6 to $75 for a two to three hour ride.”
Coast came up with the idea for an artistic alliance between music and theater after he performed at a successful fundraiser for Interplayers. He said he’s tired of seeing artists short-selling their work for subpar pay, if any at all, especially during a turbulent economic climate in an industry where everyone wants it free.
“My fellow acoustic artists, along with jazz players, get the least amount of exposure and respect of any musical genre,” Coast said. “They’re always playing coffee shops and wine bars for $50 just to be background music while people are drinking wine. There are a lot of great songwriters in this town and this is a way to give them some exposure by playing in a venue where people are listening to them, and at the same time the theater can make some money.”
This is Coast’s first attempt at producing a show. He said he’s not taking any money on this show, although he is a featured artist during the August installment of Comrades in Arts. There are two initial Comrades in Arts shows this summer. If they’re successful Coast said he envisions twice as many next year.
“I just want to see a venue develop where the audience is there to see the artist play,” he said. “It’s an intimate little theater. The stage is surrounded by tiered seating on three sides. There’s no seat that’s 20 feet from the stage. It’s stands to be a good deal for everybody. We’re shooting for equity for everyone.”
Janet Johnson has been performing her distinct blend of jazzed up folk for the better part of 15 years. She studied commercial jazz, improvisational jazz, big band, arranging and audio engineering in college. Johnson gained even more performing experience when she did a stint in Australia. She’s opened for acts such as Adrian Legg and The Portland Cello Project at The Bing Crosby Theater. Now that her kids are grown and she’s an empty nester, Johnson has been seeking more opportunities to play, but it’s difficult to find gigs where she isn’t tied to Top 40 covers.
“I call it wallpaper music. The music is kind of in the background. Groups float in and out of watching. It’s my job to interact with as many people as I can without disturbing their experience at the wine bar,” said Johnson, who released her new “Paradox” EP last month. “When people go to wine bars and restaurants they expect to hear music they’ve heard before so I play a large selection of covers. They’re arranged so they fit me specifically. I always try to mix original in where appropriate. (Comrades in Arts) will be an opportunity to do all original songs and talk about them and explain how and why I wrote them.”
The Comrades in Arts movement also serves as a sort of artist consortium where the cohorts share information on venues that support live acoustic music around the region, as far as Central Washington and in corners as close as Coeur d’Alene. Translation: Paying gigs.
Stephanie Hatzinikolis has only begun performing live over the past couple of years but Johnson recommended her to Coast, who in turn helped Johnson land a gig in Wenatchee.
“The whole setting at Interplayers is more intimate and relatable versus venues where there’s a lot of TVs and loud talking. People will be there for the music,” said Hatzinikolis, who releases her debut album at the end of the month at The Vault. “I like to play intimate venues but anything works… but I have moved away from playing sports bars.”
Coast said if the Comrades in Arms becomes an ongoing affair he’d like to add jazz musicians to the mix and experiment with songwriter circles where a group of musicians gather campfire-style and take turns performing songs and sharing stories about their origins.
“This is like a family where we basically help each other out in a genre that’s so fragmented,” Coast said. “There are lots of little tiny places to play but you have to really dig to find them. But I’ve noticed acoustic artists aren’t as protective of their turf as other genres. We work together like a co-op.”