Steven Dietz is so personable he doesn’t need an icebreaker. When I called him
to talk about the upcoming production of Dracula
at ACT Theatre, the first thing he wanted to talk about was my area code, a
holdover from my Southern California hometown. I joked that I’d probably carry
that area code with me for the rest of my life. And he echoed the same
good as Austin has been to us, it’s always nice to see that 206 on my area
code,” Dietz said. “I’ve had such profound good fortune in Seattle. I’ve been
very lucky there. I’m always glad to get back to Seattle through all those
changes, through all the hardships.” We talked about everything from his
process of re-adapting Dracula to his passion for making room for the next
generation of playwrights, but one thing rang through every moment of our
conversation: Steven Dietz truly loves Seattle.
Danielle Mohlman: You originally wrote this adaptation of Dracula in 1994, but this production at ACT Theatre is being billed as a re-adaptation of your own play. What did that process look like for you? What does it mean to re-adapt your own play?
Steven Dietz: It’s funny. I have the script of the other adaptation here because I was trying to steal my own previous playwright’s note. (Laughs.) I wrote that adaptation of Dracula 25 years ago. It premiered at the Arizona Theatre Company in 1995 with a lot of Seattle connections—directed by David Goldstein, actors like David Pichette, Suzanne Bouchard and Peter Silbert. Bill Forrester did the set. So, I had all these amazing Seattle connections working on the premiere. And god bless that Dracula play. It’s been very good to me. And it’s not going away. That adaptation will remain in the Dramatists Play Service catalogue and will keep getting produced.
And what got us to this production at ACT is that John Langs wanted to do a show of mine. He knew I was coming up on the 30th anniversary of me coming to Seattle and the production of God’s Country in 1988. So, he said, “I want to do Dracula.” And John is a fantastic director and he’s also a fantastic showman. So, a piece like Dracula just hits all the sweet spots for him. And what I said to John is, “I think what I’d like to do, is go back to my existing adaptation and make another version.” I wanted to streamline it, tighten it. I’m a better storyteller now and I wanted to see if I could just squeeze it and shape it a little bit more.
best analogy I can give you is this: when I wrote the original adaptation, I
was sitting at my computer and to the left I had Bram Stoker’s book. This time,
I was sitting at my desk and to my left I had my own published play.
One thing that
really stood out to me last time we spoke is how much you love Seattle actors.
So, I have to know: what excites you about this Dracula cast in particular?
A handful of those actors are folks that I’ve worked with. Arjun Pande is just a unicorn, right? There’s not another Arjun. Like, what the heck? And most of my experience, of course, with Basil Harris is doing these multiple productions of Go, Dog, Go!We’ve done it at the Seattle Children’s Theatre and so many other places. So, they’re actors I really admire.
seems to find these actors—and Seattle seems to produce these actors—that have emotional
power, but with a performative edge. There’s a particular style rooted in just
enough psychological realism. But there’s a performative edge that’s not navel-gazing.
Seattle actors don’t, you know, have the same reputation as Chicago actors
being sort of brawling actors. This is a little too black and white, I know.
But Seattle actors—their performances don’t go down inside their character.
They go out and they’re elastic and they’re effervescent. I use this phrase
when I direct in other cities: “As we say in Seattle, better strong and wrong
than slight and right.” Give me strong and wrong. We can work with that. We can
settle that up later. There’s a lack of caution among so many Seattle actors
and I just adore it.
Switching gears off Dracula for a little bit—
please. I need a break! (Laughs)
In addition to all
of these long-term collaborations you have with ACT, Seattle Children’s
Theatre, Seattle Rep and others, you
also recently joined the nominating committee for the Emerald Prize at Seattle
Public Theater. How does championing emerging playwrights factor into your life
and your career?
I’ve been lucky enough to teach playwriting and directing masterclasses for years—even before having the full-time appointment at UT Austin. I was the very fortunate recipient early on in my career of mentorship from writers who were a little bit ahead of me in terms of age. August Wilson, Lee Blessing, Barbara Field. The mentorship I received from them, just by example, was crucial to me becoming a playwright. And I think we may be in a golden age of playwriting. I think we absolutely have a wealth of young and emerging talent.
I take the responsibility very seriously. Those of us who have been fortunate
enough to make our living in this business have to make room for other writers.
Our legacy will be: how did we leave the theatre? And who did we leave the
I think it’s our responsibility to foster that and curate that and not just
wring it out like a sponge—or pull up the drawbridge behind us. I’m borrowing
this art form. I don’t own this. I’m just passing through. With my MFA
playwriting students, I loved when they had better ideas than mine—and more
I think the Emerald Prize is great. All of those awards out there are signals
that the field is hungry for new work. But I don’t think it’s enough. It’s my
hope that there are six, eight, ten Seattle playwrights who will get to have
these ongoing relationships with the same theatres that I have. And how that
happens is a much harder conversation. But one way it can happen is for those
of us in a more senior position to make some noise about emerging writers. I
just hope the next generation blows my generation out of the water.
Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based
playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where
she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to
the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be
found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on
the Quirk Books blog.
When John Turman moved to Seattle in 2015, hosting the Tiny Tots concert series was the furthest thing from his mind. He’d just graduated from Rice University and, after deciding to turn down a principal horn position at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, joined the horn section at the Seattle Symphony.
Now entering his fifth season with the Symphony and
his second season as the Tiny Tots concert series host, this Austin native is
happy to now call Seattle home. “There’s just an action and activism that I
feel here in Seattle,” Turman said. “And politically, it’s amazing. I hear more
voices here than anywhere else.”
I had the pleasure of speaking with Turman just before the
start of the 2019-20 Seattle Symphony season about his role as a host, and how
that role has deepened his understanding of early childhood education.
Danielle Mohlman: The Tiny Tots concerts are geared toward children
ages zero to five, a demographic typically left out of symphony performances.
How did you become involved in this concert series as a host? What drew you
into this age group?
John Turman: When Amy Heald, our associate director of collaborative
learning, joined the Seattle Symphony a couple of years ago, she said “Let’s
bring some of these Symphony musicians onstage for these kids.” It was an age
we were kind of missing out on. Because they absolutely can understand and have
fun and recognize the musicians. And we really wanted to change things up with
our Tiny Tots programming, so we kind of scrapped the entire thing and started
from the ground up. And we started writing our own scripts. Our main thing is
it’s all based on really great music. We wanted to program some pieces with
substantial weight in the classical cannon—because there are so many pieces
that not only the kids can enjoy, but the parents as well.
knowing that learning classical music early on helps with complex processing
later in life. And not pandering and saying that this is “children’s music.”
Because all music can be children’s music.
Exactly. It’s this cognitive development cycle that Amy [Heald] educated me about when she brought me on to host. Danielle Kuhlmann was the first host of this structure of Tiny Tots that we’re using right now. We had a woodwind quintet play a show and then Danielle read a book to go along with this composition. And then the next year, Amy approached me and asked if I wanted to host. And I said yes, of course.
I love music education and I come from a background, you know, Texas high school—really solid music educators. I’ve known a lot of great educators throughout my life and I’m very grateful and privileged to have had that. And so I’m really excited to give that back in this way. I’m still performing and people know that I play in the Symphony and that’s part of the fun. I’m like the friend who says, “Here’s what things are really like in the Symphony.” And these kids are all zero to five and I’m like, “You guys belong here just as much as the adults do.”
So Amy and I started brainstorming. It was her idea to do standard
chamber music pieces, so we have a woodwind quintet for one show, a brass
quintet for another, a percussion trio and a string quartet. And the final
concert is a big chamber orchestra.
it all together.
Yeah, exactly. So now we have this whole program where the kids will
see every instrument represented on stage throughout the Tiny Tots series.
Which is so much different than what we were doing before. And we’re so excited
because people really do enjoy that. They enjoy taking their kids to see a show
for thirty minutes and they enjoy the programming. And I hope they enjoy the
characters that we get introduced to. I’m usually always wearing some type of
sequined garment—something that’s visually appealing. Stimuli is a big thing in
their life right now. Sequins are golden. Sequins are the key here.
gears a little bit: when did you first discover your passion for music. Do you
remember how old you were?
I do. I remember the exact moment. It was when my Grandpa Tom took me
into the music store in Austin, Texas and bought me a three-quarter size
classical guitar. I was seven. And I thought, “Oh yeah, I’m Stevie Ray Vaughan
over here.” And then he bought me a guitar book. And it was just when I was
learning how to read, so I learned how to tune the guitar myself, and I learned
how to read the first three lines of the treble clef. That moment of getting
that guitar and making sound on my own for the first time was something that
really, really drove home that I wanted to do this. I wanted to learn this. And
both my parents were in the Longhorn Band [at the University of Texas, Austin] that’s
how they met.
Yeah. And then band started for me in sixth grade. And at the
instrument petting zoo, the shortest line was for the French horn. And I
thought it was really cool. And my Aunt Betty Lou said, “You know, John, this
is the most challenging instrument in the orchestra.” And I said, “Oh I can’t
back down from a challenge.” And I had some incredible music educators. My band
director got me a CD of the Canadian Brass and The Planets.
Oh, I love
Right? It just kind of triggered my hunger. It really just activated
the nerd inside. I loved organizing chamber music ensembles with my friends.
And then I was drum major in high school and I loved being that kind of role
model for band kids. And, you know, being in band is hard. Being in high school
is hard. And I was happy to be a friend and mentor to a lot of people through
Danielle Mohlman is a
Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to
Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports
and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s
work can also be found in American
Theatre, The Dramatist and on the
Quirk Books blog.
When Indecent opened at Seattle Rep on September 20, it marked a pretty significant first: the first time this theatre has produced a play by Paula Vogel. Vogel, who’s arguably one of the most prolific and produced contemporary playwrights of our time, has been seen in recent years at Taproot Theatre Company (A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration, December 2017) and Strawberry Theatre Workshop (How I Learned to Drive, June 2018). But as I combed through Seattle Rep’s production history, it became more and more clear that Paula Vogel’s Seattle Rep debut is long overdue.
Indecent, which was the seventh-most produced play in the country during the 2018-19 season, according to the Theatre Communications Group—and is likely to remain in the top ten this season as well—explores the storied production history of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance. Vengeance, which was first read at a salon in Poland in 1906, was met with fear and animosity from the start. The Jewish patrons of the arts in Poland refused to support a play that showed Jews behaving immorally—communing with prostitutes and desecrating the Torah, to start.
In an imagined
meeting between stage manager Lemml and playwright Eugene O’Neill, one that
alludes to O’Neill’s actual defense of God
of Vengeance in an obscenity case, Vogel writes, “They’re gonna claim
they’re closing it because of Homosexualis.
That’s bunk. They’re closing it because the play shows that every religion—even
Jews—sell God for a price.” Because, you see, God of Vengeance was the first Broadway play to feature a romantic
scene between two women.
Rabbi Dana A. Benson, director of youth and family learning at Temple Beth Am and an avid theatre fan, was kind enough to speak with me about the themes of Indecent and what it means to have queer Jewish representation onstage at Seattle Rep. Because so much of the play is about identity, we began with hers.
“Ultimately, if we wanted to go along the Game of Thrones lines of naming ones identities as part of a
title,” Rabbi Benson said, “mine might read: Rabbi Dana Benson, Hufflepuff,
soft Butch, partner of roller derby playing librarian, daughter of
Jewish-Hungarian lineage, child of compassionate and kind parents, singer of
Broadway, creator of spiritually accessible learning opportunities, hoper for a
better world, and willing mentor and guide for all learners—especially those
who feel wayward—as they grow into their best self.”
Temple Beth Am is
considered a Welcoming Synagogue, meaning they’re not only actively creating
inclusive space for LGBTQIA+ folks, they’re also striving for a truly diverse
leadership—from the synagogue’s staff and board to their student leaders. Rabbi
Benson admitted that there’s still work to do, but that Temple Beth Am is
committed to putting in that work every day.
One of the central
plot points of Indecent is that the
Jewish gatekeepers in early 1900s theatre refused to support Sholem Asch on God of Vengeance’s production. Not only
did they disapprove of the female love interests—a moment played for laughs in
Vogel’s script as the men in the initial 1906 salon reading keep refusing to
read the female roles—they were scandalized by the final moment of the play: a
desecration of the Torah. And while Asch’s contemporaries are certainly pleased
that he’s writing Jewish plays—and in Yiddish!—they cannot bring themselves to
support theatre where Jews are portrayed as anything less than perfect. “Why
must every Jew onstage be a paragon?!!” Asch exclaims, angry at the very
“…I still think there is still this sense of pressure, with none of us wanting to do something that would reflect badly on the Jewish people. That’s very much true of our tradition.”
Rabbi Benson shared
that this conversation surrounding “immoral” Jewish characters being considered
anti-Semitic is still very much alive today. “I think it’s less about anti-Semitism
as it is about portraying other Jews badly,” Rabbi Benson said. “There is this
concern about how we are portraying ourselves because it may not be understood
outside our own community. I think this goes back to, you know the reference in
Wet Hot American Summer, and jokes
that are missed and jokes that are in-group and the way that they’re coded for
us to see or hear. Or Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm—or Seinfeld.
At what point is it humorous? Is it fun? Is it a laugh that’s both in-group
as well as transcendent?”
Rabbi Benson thinks
that the modern concern of any one Jewish character’s portrayal is more about
it being “bad for Judaism.” “I shouldn’t speak on behalf of the Jewish
community,” Rabbi Benson said, “but I still think there is still this sense of
pressure, with none of us wanting to do something that would reflect badly on
the Jewish people. That’s very much true of our tradition.”
Andi Alhadeff, who
plays Chana, and Cheyenne Casebier, who plays Halina, were at the very
beginning of their rehearsal process when we spoke about the central themes of Indecent. But it was clear that the play
had hit a visceral chord for both actors.
“I love that this play celebrates community, love and risk,” Casebier said. “It speaks to different forms of persecution and loss—and being the other. We couldn’t be more ready, as both a culture and society, to share and listen to this story.”
When Alhadeff first encountered the play, it felt like the
stories these characters were telling already lived deep inside her bones. “On top of being one of the
most hauntingly stunning plays I have ever seen or read, there was something
about this show that simply felt as though it was a part of me,” Alhadeff said.
“As a Jewish woman, I can certainly speak to the importance of
representation of Jewish stories, particularly ones that move away from
creating caricatures of obtuse archetypes or solely hold up
our scars and our history of tragedy. There is so much joy
in what it is to move through different layers of love in Indecent,which
is a complex and beautiful lens that honors any community you view it through.”
Alhadeff shared that exploring the emotional center of the play—the
relationship between Chana and Halina and the many forms it takes—has been the
easiest part of the entire process. She credits the safe rehearsal room and the
respect of her fellow cast members. “I feel seen and cared for by my colleagues,” Alhadeff
said, “and that is a formula for the precious and ordinary kind of
magic that is human connection.”
“This play now because of our current administration’s abhorrent human rights policies. This play now because it is full of love. This play now because we need to remember.”
Director Sheila Daniels was initially drawn to Indecent because of the inherent
theatricality of Paula Vogel’s world. Daniels loved the way Vogel played with
epic scope and deeply intimate moments. When I asked her why we need this play
now, she was ready with an answer: “This play now because of our current
administration’s abhorrent human rights policies. This play now because it is
full of love. This play now because we need to remember.”
When I asked her
what it meant to create queer Jewish theatre in Seattle, Daniels responded that
it means everything. “I teach,” Daniels said, “and to know students of mine who
inhabit one or both of those identities will get to see themselves onstage
makes me proud to be a part of it.”
In preparation to direct this play, Daniels went to Poland on a
research trip. A significant amount of Indecent
takes place in the Bałuty district of Łódź and Daniels was
fortunate enough to spend a day with two locals there.
“We ended that day at Radegast station where
they have a replica of a train car the exact size they shipped people in,”
Daniels said. “They were tiny. The scope of what all of humanity lost when we
lost so many souls in the Holocaust.”
But Daniels brings
intangible and unexplainable moments into the Indecent rehearsal room too, like her walk through Auschwitz. “I
can feel the ashes beneath my feet just sitting here,” Daniels said.
The play begins
with ash spilling out of the actors’ sleeves, a moment that Daniels sees as a
reawakening. When she read that stage direction for the first time, she was
transported back to a moment thirty years ago, feeling the ash of her
grandparents—feeling life sift through her hands.
When I brought up
this moment in the play with Rabbi Benson, she turned to a quote from the
Talmud, the body of Jewish law.
“Rabbi Simcha Bunim
said to one of his students ‘You should always keep two pieces of paper, one in
each pocket,’” Rabbi Benson paraphrased. “‘The first should say The world
was created for my sake and the other should say I am but dust and ashes.’
And that’s to always remind us to live somewhere between humility and divinity.
If we live in that balance, perhaps we can offer a little more kindness to the
Indecent runs September 20 to October 26 at Seattle Rep. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at (206) 443-2222.
Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts
journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about
everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of
sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.
According to the
2010 United States Census, an estimated 2.4% of the Washington population
identifies as Deaf. And while estimations surrounding the size of Seattle’s own
population vary widely, it’s clear that the Deaf community here is vibrant and
engaged. So how are the region’s theatres providing accessible performing arts
experiences for the community?
According to Deaf
Spotlight’s accessibility index, The Paramount Theatre (as part of Seattle
Theatre Group and Broadway
at The Paramount), The 5th Avenue
Theatre and ACT Theatre
all offer long-term commitments to providing captioning, American Sign Language
(ASL) interpretation and other accessibility services to their Deaf and hard of
hearing audiences. And while these three theatres seem to be leading the way in
Deaf accessibility, Seattle
Rep and Sound Theatre Company also provide captioning and ASL
interpretation during select performances.
Over the last
couple of years, both The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre have embraced the
talents of actor Joshua M. Castille. In 2017, Castille made his Seattle debut
playing Billy in ACT’s production of Tribesby
Nina Raine. He returned in 2018 to play Quasimodo in 5th Avenue’s production of
Hunchback of Notre Dame, a role traditionally played by a hearing
actor. His performance in the titular role of this new Disney musical was
augmented by actor E.J. Cardona, who sang on Castille’s behalf. Earlier this
year, Castille returned to Seattle to portray yet another titular role: Romeo
in ACT’s production of Romeo
rarely happens, because it’s rare that we get to direct or produce a show from
our lens,” Castille explained. He clarified, saying that all of the roles he’s
performed in Seattle lean more toward what he calls “theatre including the
consider Romeo and Juliet ‘Deaf
theatre’ because its primary audience isn’t Deaf, it’s hearing,” Castille said.
“It’s all about the intended audience.” Deaf West Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening, the show that gave
Castille his Broadway debut, was a blend of the two.
as an artivist, an identifier that he picked up from Andrea Moore, executive
director of The Wayfaring Band. Castille was struck by the way Moore uses art
to mobilize her Denver community to create change in the world.
observations on life,” Castille said. “We explore and encourage ideas. It’s so
powerful that it would be silly not to be conscious about the sociological
effects of our work.”
Reflecting back on Romeo and Juliet, which closed in March
2019, Castille said that the decision to cast two Deaf actors in the production—Howie
Seago played Friar Lawrence—was intentional. Director John Langs had noticed
that this young tough guy, Romeo, was visiting the priest a lot. “Why?”
Castille asked. “What motivates Romeo to go to the priest? Because they are the
only two people who speak that language and share that experience. This is
similar to real life. We often find Deaf families to participate in or find a
Deaf role model to latch onto.”
It’s a casting
choice that sent ripples through the rest of the text, including the second
half of the play when Romeo is left out of a major communication loop regarding
When asked what
keeps him coming back to Seattle, Castille was quick to bring up the Deaf
community and the strength he witnesses every time he comes back to work. “I
love how Deaf Spotlight fosters Deaf artists,” Castille said. “I’m so blown
away by their mindset and the events they produce. They are supportive and
Actor Howie Seago, who
played the aforementioned Friar Lawrence role, said that he identifies as a
Deaf person first and a Deaf actor second. “Most any role can be adapted to be
performed by a Deaf actor, but I believe I cannot exclude my deafness as part
of the makeup of the character,” Seago said. “It is always there.”
Seago has worked all
over the world—with Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Edinburgh Festival, Amsterdam
Children’s Theatre, Intiman and most recently at ACT. Seago grew up in
Tacoma and it was important to raise his two sons in the Pacific Northwest,
surrounded by family. He and his wife decided to call Seattle home because it’s
a theatre town full of innovative artists.
After ACT’s production
of Tribes, it was clear to Seago that
the theatre was inspired to include Deaf talent and ASL in future productions.
It was clear they were willing to put in the work.
“Other theatres in town
can start to consider how they might adapt roles for Deaf talent,” Seago said.
“Having a Deaf actor portraying a role and utilizing some aspects of the Deaf experience
might add another layer of depth to the message of the play.” In Romeo and Juliet, a flashing light
signaled the end of the school day in Friar Lawrence’s class. Friar John, the
often forgotten second friar in William Shakespeare’s classic, was given a much
larger role as Lawrence’s interpreter. And, as Castille pointed out, the shared
deafness of Romeo and Friar Lawrence strengthened the bond between these two
Seago encourages Seattle
theatres to broaden their Deaf talent to include those behind the scenes as
well. “The next step after offering more performance opportunities to the Deaf
talent community would be to sponsor playwriting workshops for the Deaf and
hire Deaf directors—either as the main director or an assistant director,”
Seago said. “Having a ‘Deaf eye’ will ensure Deaf culture accuracy, proper ASL
translations and clear sightlines for Deaf audiences.”
“The next step after offering more performance opportunities to the Deaf talent community would be to sponsor playwriting workshops for the Deaf and hire Deaf directors…Having a ‘Deaf eye’ will ensure Deaf culture accuracy, proper ASL translations and clear sightlines for Deaf audiences.”
Patty Liang, the
executive director of Deaf Spotlight, is grateful for the mentorship she
received as a Ceramics student at the University of Washington. It was her ASL
interpreters who suggested she seek out Deaf non-profits in town.
“There are not many Deaf
POC arts administrators,” said Liang, who identifies as Chinese American. “I
hope my efforts encourage other Deaf female and POC artists and arts
administrators in my field. There isn’t enough visibility and representation
background is in visual art, but her advocacy work through Deaf Spotlight
extends to theatre and other performing arts. Liang said that she’d love to see
a more inclusive effort from Seattle’s theatres, hiring Deaf talent on all
levels of production. “Right now, theatres only offer opportunities for
Deaf talent as actors, performance interpreters or directors of ASL,” Liang
said. “I especially want to see more works by Deaf directors. They will
certainly bring different perspectives and resources, reframing each play in a
Part of Deaf Spotlight’s programming is
a biannual Short Play Festival. Earlier this year, Deaf Spotlight partnered
with ACT Theatre, producing the festival during the 2019 ACTLab season. Deaf
Spotlight hired six playwrights, three directors, eleven actors—all Deaf.
“That’s Deaf theatre right there,” Liang said. “We don’t often get the
opportunity to have a Deaf- and ASL-centric space, especially a creative space.
I treasured these moments of banter and collaboration. It’s what made the
festival such a success.”
Rob Roth, who
identifies primarily as an audience member despite being a founding member of
Deaf Spotlight, shared that he and his husband used to be subscribers to
Seattle Rep. They’re both retired now and enjoy traveling, so it’s been
difficult to fit captioned and ASL-interpreted shows into their schedules. “Our ability to attend
captioned and ASL-interpreted shows is limited, as they are on specific nights
and cannot easily be exchanged for another performance unless it is also
captioned or ASL-interpreted,” Roth said. “ACT now has captions available for
any performance, so this has expanded our options considerably.”
Thinking back on
the shows he’s seen recently, Roth cited The
Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5th Avenue as his most joyful experience as an
audience member. “The
production threaded deafness and ASL into the production wonderfully, and
Joshua Castille in the title role was wonderful to watch,” Roth said. Roth also enjoyed seeing The
Music Man at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009, starring Howie Seago
as Professor Harold Hill’s friend Marcellus.
asked what Seattle theatres can do to be more accessible to Deaf audiences,
Roth had a list at the ready. “Accessibility excellence would be obtained when
all performances are captioned, like they are at ACT, and when at least two
performances—or more!—are ASL-interpreted, so that Deaf audiences have more
choices,” Roth said. “It’s important to note that ASL-interpreted performances
should not be dropped in favor of captioning. For many Deaf persons, English
may not be their first language.”
Roth enjoys seeing
performances at ACT, Seattle Rep, The Paramount and 5th Avenue. He says that
Sound Theatre has also captured his attention.
“I may be Deaf, but that does not mean I cannot live a full, varied and interesting life, even though most people depend so much on audio clues.”
Audience member Ian
Aranha identified himself as a human being first and foremost. “I may be Deaf,
but that does not mean I cannot live a full, varied and interesting life,”
Aranha said, “even though most people depend so much on audio clues.”
When we started
talking about the kind of shows he gravitates toward, Aranha said that he
enjoys musicals much more than plays. The combination of choreography and the
visually interesting set pieces that come with seeing a Broadway-style musical
make for an incredibly joyful experience. His favorite musical is Les Misérables. “I come from a musically
inclined family,” Aranha said. “I usually know the lyrics and storyline of a
musical already. Or I’ll learn it beforehand.”
Looking back on
this last year, Aranha’s experience of seeing Hamiltonat The
Paramount Theatre is a particular favorite. “I love how Lin-Manuel Miranda
combined history, music and modern storytelling, all into one,” Aranha said.
“It was all braided together so wonderfully.”
Before seeing Hamilton, Aranha read the script and did
some research on YouTube. “But when I went to see it live, with captioning
provided, it was even so much better than I expected,” Aranha said.
In the middle of
his story about seeing this performance, Aranha stopped to acknowledge the
theatre that made this all happen. “The Paramount [via programming by STG and
Broadway at The Paramount] has been incredible in providing access to shows for
Deaf and hard of hearing people,” Aranha said. “Shout out to them!”
As a hearing
audience member, I shared with Aranha that my only experience with captioning
was at the opera, where all performances are captioned and interpreted for the
“That segues into
my argument that all shows should have captions,” Aranha said. “People go to
the opera and need captions. But the argument theatres make is that hearing
people complain about captions, so they’ll never turn them on for all shows.”
And it can be
frustrating when the dates and times for captioned and ASL-interpreted shows
are so few and far between. “Have you noticed that the ASL performance is
always on Saturday at 2 p.m.?” Aranha asked. “It’s like we’re sheep. Go see the
afternoon show and then go home. I want to have dinner and drinks before and
then take in a show.”
Aranha echoed what
so many of the Deaf actors and audience members I spoke with did. There is
always room to do more to welcome Deaf audiences in. Provide more captioned
performances, more ASL-interpreted performances and more opportunities to grow
and learn from Seattle’s vibrant Deaf community.
Deaf Spotlight’s 2020 Seattle Deaf Film Festival are now open. Visit www.deafspotlight.org for more information.
Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s
a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the
intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly
performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The
Dramatist and on the Quirk Books
When Tamilla Woodard opens Top Girls at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) later this month, the production is sure to make some noise. Top Girls, perhaps the best known of Caryl Churchill’s plays, follows an aspiring executive named Marlene and her imagined dinner party with strong, complicated women throughout history—including Pope Joan and explorer Isabella Bird.
It’s a beautiful and savage play about ambition, feminism and the wounds we gain as we shatter that glass ceiling. I had the opportunity to speak with Woodard before rehearsals began. Together, we discussed why Top Girls is the perfect play for 2019.
Danielle Mohlman: What drew you to Top
Tamilla Woodard: The
play was written just as Margaret Thatcher was coming into power and it’s a
response to this idea of capitalism—and how feminism and capitalism are in
conversation. What does it mean for women to have economic freedom and liberty?
And how do we operate within this system as leaders? Do we follow the
patriarchy because there are no other examples of how to lead—or do we forge a
new way? And really what I’m really keen about is this idea of “Do we forge a
new way?” We have a lot of examples of how women have had to occupy roles of
leadership by mimicking the really destructive—or
non-constructive—systems that men have created.
That leads really beautifully into my next
question: Why this play now?
Well, very little
has changed since the 1980s. It’s really eye-opening that the conversation
hasn’t shifted very much. There’s a scene in Top Girls that is so deep, so rich, so intricate that there are
things I didn’t see until I saw the actors on their feet in auditions. And I
was like, oh my gosh. To watch a woman ask another woman to give up her job to
the man because the man’s feelings were hurt. (Laughs.) You know? And it was my casting to make that ask happen
between a white woman of privilege and a black woman who had to do all sorts of
things to acquire the position that she has.
I think there is a growing awareness that there is no reimagining of systems. Those systems cannot be rehabilitated. What we have to do now is step forward as creators of the world…
Oh wow. That just makes me think about how
the common refrain in political conversations is “Oh, women are too emotional.”
But it’s truly the men that are getting their feelings hurt.
Right! And like, my
feelings aren’t supposed to hurt, therefore you are doing something wrong. You
know? Here’s what’s new about 2019: I’m so excited and deeply terrified by the
world, such as it’s becoming known to us right now. I think there is a growing
awareness that there is no reimagining of systems. Those systems cannot be
rehabilitated. What we have to do now is step forward as creators of the world—in
response to the circumstances in which we really live, not in response to old
Yeah. Wow. To step back from Top Girls and talk a little more broadly about A.C.T., you also directed Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boatslast season. What excites you about returning to San Francisco and A.C.T.?
San Francisco is
such a surprising city to me. First of all, there are so many theatres per
capita, creating so many different kinds of work. But also, the fact that
there’s a kind of libertarianism plus liberalism that are so in conversation
with each other. Mainly because you’re all the way out west and the get it done
on your own, let people do what they want to do, kind of feeling about things.
But also, there’s like “We should have some social services that can support
them doing what they want to do.” So it’s interesting. There’s no city like it
out there. There’s a lot of concentrated wealth. There’s a lot of independence.
I’ve never thought about it that way.
So that’s a
challenging audience. I don’t know what people will think of this play. You
don’t want to make anything highbrow, but also people are highbrow. So it’s a
beautiful challenge as an artist.
Is there something you’re looking forward to
exploring in the rehearsal room—something that you’re just itching to get into
A.C.T.’s space to explore?
I’m really keen on
getting how the opening dinner party devolves and how far we can go with that.
I have a really strong idea and instinct about where we go, and the debauchery
that happens at the end and what gets revealed and how we evolve into a
nightmare. And I’m super keen on the opposite thing that happens in the last
moments of the play. We have an Ibsen-like scene that’s a boxing match with
words. I want for that to feel as activated, as adventurous, as chaotic as the
first scene of the play.
Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.
When Amina Edris takes the stage as Juliet in
Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, she’ll
be returning to a city that she loves and a familiar, welcoming stage. Edris,
who was born in Egypt and raised in New Zealand, earned her post-graduate
degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music before receiving a two-year
fellowship appointment at the San Francisco Opera. “I’m so happy to be back
because it does feel like my artistic home,” Edris said. “It was almost as if I
grew up there, you know what I mean?”
is covering the role of Juliet for fellow opera singer Nadine Sierra, singing
the role at the final performance on October 1. She was kind enough to speak
with me the day before Romeo
began, sharing her thoughts on the character Juliet, why San Francisco feels
like home and what she’s looking forward to about that October 1 performance.
Danielle Mohlman: What drew
you to the role of Juliet? What is it about this role that excites or
Edris: I think a lot of people of my age group—or even younger—are familiar
with the story of Romeo and Juliet.
They’ve seen movie versions of it or they’ve seen a theatre version. And it’s
just relatable. It’s just a grand love story. And for me, I have a particular
close affinity with French music. As a French speaker, I’ve always been drawn
to the French repertoire. So Juliet for me was just a natural progression
really. And I love the idea of being able to play a young woman. She’s young,
she’s in love. And you sort of get to see her journey. She falls in love very
quickly and then, you know, they go through a series of obstacles. And of
course, her death at the end. You’ve got to like a little bit of drama on
always interesting to play those kinds of roles that have a big arc. A lot of
the time I get to play roles like the maid or the ingenue, you know? And
there’s not much happening in the progression of the character. Whereas for
Juliet specifically, she goes through quite a lot. She has a big journey. And
of course it ends with, you know, with their death scene. But it provides a
good platform. It provides a good dramatic platform for the singer that is
playing that role.
And do you feel like that is
pretty specific to roles written for women? In terms of characters not
receiving a full arc, I mean. Or is that pretty evenly distributed across male
and female roles in opera?
That’s a very good question. I don’t know! Obviously it depends on what your voice type is. Earlier on, I started singing a lot of soubrette roles*. I’m not a soubrette. Roles like Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro—roles where there’s a lot happening in the story of the opera, but there isn’t necessarily a lot happening in terms of the character arc for the character herself. And I feel like that sort of replicates in many other roles—like Susanna [in The Marriage of Figaro], Zerlina [in Don Giovanni], Despina [in Così fan tutte], Norina [in Don Pasquale]. Do you know what I mean? They all have a similar poof. Whereas, Juliet has a big journey. Which is really fun to play and explore.
Your job takes you all over
the world. What makes San Francisco special?
don’t know if this is going to be really corny, but I think it’s the people and
the friendships that I’ve made here. I did a postgraduate diploma at the San
Francisco Conservatory of Music before getting into the Adler program at the San Francisco Opera. And I ended up spending a much longer time
period in San Francisco than I initially thought I would. Because when I first
moved here I thought, “Oh I’m just studying for a year and then I’m going
elsewhere—wherever the world takes me.” And when you get to spend that much
time in one place, I tend to get attached to the people and the friendships
more than the place.
Yeah. And when you spend that
much time somewhere, especially early in your career, the city starts to live
in your body.
And it just kind of feels like home, in a way.
I saw that you’ll be
performing opposite your husband Pene Pati on the October 1 performance of Romeo and Juliet. It’s a ways off, but
what do you anticipate that experience will be like?
husband and I were in the young artist program together at the San Francisco
Opera—and we were Adler fellows together as well. And then last year we got to
do our first proper opera together: The
Elixir of Love. We got to play each other’s love interest and that was a
lot of fun—being able to sort of feed off each other’s energies onstage. He was
my love interest in the show and I was his love interest in the show. And we
had duets together and all sorts of scenes together. But it was a comedy opera.
And this time, with Romeo and Juliet,
it’s a full-blown romantic opera in itself. So it’s a different tone.
I’m glad that it’s a fun
experience for the two of you to perform together.
*A soubrette is a soprano who sings supporting roles in comic opera; generally a coquettish maid or frivolous young woman in comedies.
Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk.
The journey from words on paper to action onstage is not a fast or simple one. Playwright Madhuri Shekar and Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian prepare for the world premiere of House of Joy at Cal Shakes and share with us how they developed a “swashbuckling action-adventure romance, set in 17th century India” to the stage.
When Madhuri Shekar and Megan Sandberg-Zakian arrived in Orinda, California last month to start rehearsals for House of Joyat California Shakespeare Theater, they were already pretty familiar with each other. Earlier this year, when Audible commissioned Shekar to write an audio play as part of their Emerging Playwrights Fund, Sandberg-Zakian came on to direct. The result was Evil Eye, a play told entirely through phone calls between a millennial named Pallavi and her mother, who desperately wants to see her daughter marry.
being two different plays in two different forms—Evil Eye is contemporary and meant to be listened to on headphones,
House of Joy is a period piece staged
in Cal Shakes’ outdoor theatre—there are some striking similarities.
“They’ve both involved some degree of combat,” Sandberg-Zakian said, adding that she hired a fight choreographer to stage Evil Eye’s pivotal fight scene so that the team knew what that moment could sound like. “There’s also a really cool relationship between badass women fighting evil villains in both of these plays.”
And despite both plays living in completely different genres—House of Joy is a swashbuckler—Shekar noticed some overlap in theme in her own writing. “Both Evil Eye and House of Joy have, like, these undercurrents of domestic and intimate partner violence,” Shekar said. “Which, you know, that’s not really my thing.”
say that any one theme is Shekar’s thing would be an incredible disservice to
the worlds she creates. Queen, which
premiered at Victory Gardens Theater in 2017, explores scientific ethics in the
face of ecological disaster. In Love and
Warcraft considers real versus imagined worlds, using World of Warcraft as
a lens. And A Nice Indian Boy, which
premiered at East West Players in 2014, navigates queer relationships in Indian
families. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
folks ask Shekar to describe House of Joy,
she’s quick with an elevator pitch. “I say it’s a swashbuckling action-adventure
romance, set in 17th century India—in a harem,” Shekar says.
moment later, she admitted that she used to be in marketing. “I don’t ever want
to do marketing ever again,” Shekar said. “But I think communicating what the
story feels like is very important.”
House of Joy has a
dense development history, beginning with a reading at the Atlantic Theatre
Asian American Mix Fest in 2017, continuing on to a workshop production in the
Juilliard New Play Festival later that year, and various readings, workshops
and showcases at Pratidhwani, New York Stage and Film, South Coast Repertory
and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival.
been lots of readings,” Shekar said. And while each opportunity for House of Joy has been beneficial in its
own way, Juilliard definitely stands out as a highlight. “The Juilliard production
was huge because we did it with a $200 budget or something like that,” Shekar
said. “And it was seven actors who were student actors in a classroom. I wrote
an impossible play—deliberately—just to see what was going to happen. And seeing
that the play could function in that very limited setting, and communicate the
story to the audience, was just very affirming.”
major step forward for the play was the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, produced
by Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco. That’s where Shekar received a
production offer from Cal Shakes.
“You don’t actually learn that much from readings,” Shekar said. “You learn something, but you don’t learn that much, especially with a play like this. What incentive do playwrights have to really, really push themselves if they don’t know what that reading is for, you know? Whereas if you had a production, oh my god, look at this crazy huge incentive to make the play the best you can be. You know?”
And that’s when Sandberg-Zakian came on board. Together they organized a workshop in New York with Cal Shakes in mind. A few actors from that workshop continued on to the production. “A lot of actors, and other directors too, have touched the play and really contributed to its development,” Sandberg-Zakian said. “But it’s been great having a mix of people who were familiar with other drafts and people who aren’t because we can get some fresh perspective. And also they’re just really, really smart. And the actors’ brains have been just instrumental in figuring out some of the play.”
I spoke with Shekar and Sandberg-Zakian, House
of Joy was undergoing significant rewrites. “I just have so much admiration
for new play artists,” Shekar said. “Actors and directors and designers—people
who understand how insane it can be on a world premiere with things changing
around you. Everyone’s been really game.”
thing that Shekar learned during the research for House of Joy was that in 17th century India, the women of the harem
were female bodyguards. Building out that rich world has been a particularly
joyful experience for this team.
“There’s a scene where the bodyguards are basically doing a training exercise,” Sandberg-Zakian said. “And because it involves a whole bunch of people who aren’t actually there—if there are fifty bodyguards and we only have three of them on stage—there can be things happening that real human bodies couldn’t actually do. Madhuri wrote that somebody does a back flip. And it’s an invisible person. So, everyone’s watching. Their eyes are following them—‘Ohhhhh!’—and they’re watching this person land. It’s super fun.”
Shekar and Sandberg-Zakian are both looking forward to staging this play in Cal Shakes’ outdoor space. “You have the rolling hills in the background; sometimes there’s like cows that wander by and moo at you,” Sandberg-Zakian said, painting a picture of what she has to look forward to during tech rehearsals. “There’s a real sense of journeying in that space. You feel like you take a journey to get there, even though it’s ten minutes from downtown Berkeley. You’re just in another world where things seem more possible.”
And the outdoor setting has dramaturgical support behind it as well. “If you look at photos of the harems of Mughal India, they are mostly outdoors,” Shekar said. “There are bedrooms inside, but most of the communal spaces are out—loads of fountains and gardens. They called them houses, but they’re really like gated communities. So, having the play happen outside is really great.”
could have talked for hours about the stage combat and the importance of having
so many women of color on stage—together—but Shekar and Sandberg-Zakian had a
rehearsal to get to. There were new pages to rehearse and some swashbuckling to
going to be like nothing you’ve ever seen in the American theatre,” Shekar
said. “I can promise you that.”
Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk
To say Jeffrey Lo wears many hats would be an understatement. Not only is he the casting director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, he’s also the director of The Language Archive and a playwright in his own right. “I’ve been fortunate to hold many roles at TheatreWorks,” Lo said, “and the joke is by the time my new business cards get printed, I’ve already changed titles.” I had the pleasure of speaking with Lo over the phone as he headed into tech rehearsal for The Language Archive, which opened July 10.
Danielle Mohlman: Can you share a little bit about The Language Archive? What drew you to this play initially? And why this play now?
Jeffrey Lo: You know, The
Language Archive is a play that I have actually been trying to get the
chance to direct for about ten years.
Yeah. I find this play to be one the most beautifully written
pieces of theatre I have ever come across. It’s a play about both the beauty
and possibility of language, but also the limitation of language. It’s about allowing
human beings, as messy as we are, to express ourselves and share how we’re
feeling with one another.
And I find that to be so beautiful. So much of this play lives in this world of beautiful coincidences and things happening for a reason. And I think that me getting the opportunity to do The Language Archive now, as opposed to any other time in the ten years that I’ve been chomping at the bit to work on this play, lands in line with that “everything happens for a reason” theme. The first time I ever saw a staged reading of a play was a workshop reading of this play—while it was still in development.
I was still an undergraduate aspiring playwright and director at
UC Irvine. And I just found myself in awe of the language and in awe of the
process of a stage reading. I had never seen that before. There was a
playwright in the back, Julia Cho, who was taking her notes and revising things
as she was going. And there was a group of actors who had three rehearsals
beforehand and were just beautifully performing this intense language on stage
for us. And I was just in awe of it.
After I finished college, I had my directing apprenticeship at the
Oregon Shakespeare Festival and they were doing The Language Archive. So I ended up getting to observe and
assistant direct that play and Julia Cho was in the room there. And I fell in
love with that play all over again. This was in 2011, maybe my first or second
professional theatre job out of college. And it was a time where, outside of
school, I had interacted with very few artists of color. That experience working
with Laurie Woolery, who is a Latinx director, and the way she mentored me, the
way she spoke to me really made me feel like I belonged.
It’s one of those things where everything about The Language Archive has just made it so I have to direct it. And to be able to do that as the first show of the 50th season at TheatreWorks—the final season of Robert Kelley, who I have worked for basically my entire professional career—it’s a real honor.
I rambled. I’m so sorry.
No, that’s really beautiful. All of that was so wonderful. You have such a long history with this play. I’m like, oh my god, can I come see this play?
Oh, please do. Please do.
What is it about TheatreWorks that keeps you coming back? I don’t want to put the words “artistic home” in your mouth, but you did say that like you’ve been there your whole professional career, so what is it that keeps you engaged in TheatreWorks and excited to come to work every day?
I’ve learned that TheatreWorks’ culture is rare. I didn’t know this until I started to work as a freelancer at other theatres, but so much of what draws me to TheatreWorks is the culture that our Founding Artistic Director Robert Kelley has created. I don’t think he ever imagined TheatreWorks was going to become as large as it is today. I don’t think that he ever imagined that, fifty years later, he was going to be on stage at Radio City Music Hall holding up the Regional [Theatre] Tony Award. He really runs this company as just a group of friends just wanting to put on some plays. And as the company has continued to grow, although there’s a lot more paperwork, that feeling of we’re just buddies trying to put on some art that we feel passionate about is still tangible within the room. And I think that’s what keeps me coming back. Because I now know that that’s not how it always works out.
I’m sure people ask you this all the time, but it’s easy to think about Silicon Valley as this tech magnet. But I know that it’s so much more. How do you marry the startup and tech culture of Silicon Valley with the artistry and exploration of theatre in your work?
I’m born and raised in the Bay Area and it’s pretty wild
to see how quickly it’s changed. I think once we’re able to engage folks who
work in the tech and startup industry, that’s going to allow our art to
flourish even more than it already is. But having said that, I like to think
that I run my rehearsal room in a way that the most exciting—and safest—tech
startups seem to work. I want all of my artists [to] feel like rehearsal is a
safe place to take your biggest risks, to be as creative as possible. That way,
we can find the most interesting ideas together.
Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.
Dammiel Cruz, Miles Pertl and Kiyon C. Ross aren’t yet household names, but they will be. Cruz joined the Pacific Northwest Ballet as an apprentice in 2016 and was promoted to the corps de ballet later that same year. Pertl joined PNB as a corps de ballet dancer in 2015 after being a corps de ballet member at both Stuttgart Ballet in Germany and Het Nationale Ballet in the Netherlands. And Ross joined PNB in 2001, the very same year he created his first piece of choreography. He’s been the NEXT STEP program manager at PNB since 2012, a position he held simultaneously with his career as a soloist at PNB before retiring from dance in 2015.
these three represent the past, present and future of choreography at the
Pacific Northwest Ballet and beyond. And because we have sunshine on the brain,
we wanted to talk to them about their experience choreographing for the
outdoors and how performances like Sculptured Dance (2016–2017) and NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN
(2018–present) affect the way they choreograph.
Danielle Mohlman: How does choreographing for an outdoor performance compare to choreographing for a more traditional theatre space?
choreographer for the 2019 NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN: Choreographing for an
outdoor setting can be very different. Luckily a lot of the movement involved
in my piece can be easily performed outside. Sometimes dancing on concrete or
grass can limit one’s ability to turn well. Either way, I believe dancing outside
is a great way to get more of the community involved in the arts!
choreographer of Riding the Wave for
the 2018 NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN: Dancing outside
offers the dancers and the choreographers a completely different experience.
The audience is so close that you can hear every “Oooh,” every sigh, every
chuckle. This is a stark contrast to dancing on the stage at McCaw Hall where
the audience appears as a black void, only making themselves known by their
applause at the end of the performance. Before OUTSIDE/IN, I had danced in both
of the first two years’ iterations of Sculptured Dance and fell in love with
it. I was exposed to choreographers I had never worked with, met amazing
dancers from our city and got to dance outside and mingle with those watching.
It was so cool!
Kiyon C. Ross, choreographer of Do.
Not. Obstruct. for the 2016 Sculptured Dance: When choreographing
for traditional spaces, I know generally what
I have to work with. There’s usually a square space with a number of wings for
entrances and exits. Sometimes there’s a space for dancers to cross over behind
the cyclorama. And usually there’s a curtain—and at the very least top lighting
and side lighting. Creating a site-specific work requires the same level of
planning, preparation and creative process as choreographing for the stage. But
being in a space already occupied by art (like the Olympic Sculpture Park) and
using that art as an inspiration, is unforgettable. I certainly had to approach
the site-specific commission with flexibility. But that flexibility allowed me
to find new ways of expressing movement. It forced me to consider bodies in
space in ways that were completely unorthodox to me.
What was your most
joyful experience choreographing for Sculptured Dance?
Ross: The most joyful
experience for me was being able to share my art with so many people. Making
art accessible and approachable is extremely important—especially for an art
form like dance. Sometimes going to the theatre can create barriers for people,
both economically and socially. Having art in your community where you live and
being able to access it with your friends and neighbors is a meaningful
experience. Seeing the faces in the crowds—and seeing people take a moment from
riding their bikes, walking their dogs or their evening strolls to appreciate
dance in a space that is meant to be shared by everyone—is certainly a
cherished memory from this experience.
PNB’s outdoor performances
are free to the community. Talk to me about the importance of accessible art in
Cruz: I absolutely love
that PNB’s outdoor performances are free of charge. I believe it’s incredibly
important to have accessible art not only in our community, but communities
everywhere because it gives the opportunity for all minds to be inspired. Art
provides an outlet for people to express themselves.
Pertl: Art doesn’t need to feel high-minded or elite. By providing accessible art,
we provide a place where our entire community can gather. Each one of us gets
bogged down with work, school and personal drama. But when you come to an event
like OUTSIDE/IN or any of the other events around our city, you are entering a
place of community and shared experience. You get a glimpse into the artists’
lives and their experience might mirror your own. Many of the artists I know
are creating art not for the money, but for the opportunity to share it with
This Dialogue has been
excerpted and lightly edited from three separate interviews, all conducted in
Danielle Mohlmanis a nationally produced feminist playwright and arts journalist based in Seattle. Her play Nexus is among the 2015 Honorable Mentions on The Kilroys list. She is an alumnus of the inaugural class of Playwrights’ Arena at Arena Stage and the 2018 Umbrella Project Writers Group.
When General Director Aidan Lang departs Seattle Opera later this month to become general director of Welsh National Opera, it’ll be a bittersweet departure. After five years at Seattle Opera—a relatively short tenure for a general director—Lang is returning to the opera company that started his career.
“Why when we’ve
cracked it do I want to go?” Lang asked himself, reflecting on how the Opera
has truly engaged and expanded its audience during his time. “But the company
has a huge place in my heart.”
The company he’s referring to is Welsh National Opera, where Lang got his start as a staff director in 1985. But it’s clear Seattle Opera occupies significant real estate in his heart as well. His five-year tenure was shorter than he anticipated, but he has high hopes for the future of the company and the opera community as a whole.
“As I move on, the
company moves on,” Lang said. “It moves on because society will move on to
change. It’s good for organizations to develop and change as well. As soon as
things get stagnated, the audience feels it. And god knows our society is
shifting so fast. We have to be reflective of that.”
artistic director of Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, will be stepping into
the role in August. Lang was out of town during Scheppelmann’s onsite
interviews, but he’s had the opportunity to speak with her several times since
the appointment became official.
“One thing which
has been really exciting is the way that racial social equity has become an
important part of the conversation,” Lang said. “Christina met with our equity
team and understood that importance. We’ve been really proud of the work we’ve
done so far. And the way we’ve embedded this thinking within the organization.”
Lang noted that for
Scheppelmann, who hadn’t worked in the United States in six or seven years,
racial and social equity wasn’t a pressing concern. But once she understood the
priority Seattle Opera places on equity, diversity and inclusion in every level
of their programming, she was on board and ready to work.
Scheppelmann won’t have the opportunity to plan her own season of operas until the 2020-21 season, but Lang has been consciously seeking her input whenever possible. The opera is as much hers as it is his at this point, and the collaborative decision making seems to suit Lang.
Of all the
initiatives Lang has spearheaded during his five-year term at Seattle Opera—introducing
the chamber opera series, expanding the youth programming both inside and
outside of schools, and opening the new Seattle Opera headquarters, just to
name a few—he’s most proud of Seattle Opera nearly quadrupling its millennial
“It’s also easy for
an arts organization to be so excited about what they do, that they forget the
reason they do it is for an audience,” Lang said.
He went on to say
that opera has always suffered from the incorrect perception that the art form
is aloof—an elevated entertainment for a certain type of person. Through
research funded by the Wallace Foundation, the Opera had the opportunity to
truly analyze their audience demographics and began taking steps to actively
engage them in the work on stage.
“I’ve heard some
young people say it’s actually quite cool to go to the opera,” Lang said.
“Which is such a good thing for us to hear.”
Lang has been focused on making Seattle Opera more accessible for all audiences.
“You know, it’s
very easy for organizations to rightfully be very proud of what they achieve,
especially if they achieve good stuff,” Lang said. “But that’s not the purpose.
The purpose is the experience we get with the audience. It’s the only reason
we’re here. Without an audience it’s a rehearsal. I’ve always said that.”
Thinking back on his career at Seattle Opera, Lang remembers the pre-production days of Beatrice & Benedictin 2018 fondly. Lang brought on two fellow artistic leaders to help him rework the classic Hector Berlioz opera: John Langs of ACT Theatre and Ludovic Morlot of the Seattle Symphony.
“You know, what we devised, honestly is a better piece than what Berlioz gave,” Lang said.
The way Lang tells
it, Berlioz had completely removed the emotional core of Much Ado About Nothing from the opera, leaving audiences with two
witty lovers and nothing to hold onto. Langs and Lang would pull from the
original Shakespeare while Morlot found additional Berlioz music to score those
“I’m so proud of
what we did,” Lang said. “I mean, it may have had some flaws along the way.
It’s never going to be perfect. But as a concept, I thought it was a real
example of three organizations coming together in a creative manner. It was so
While there are no
plans for this particular version of Beatrice
& Benedict to be performed again, Lang feels like it would do really
well in a conservatory setting.
“You know, it’s out and about that this version exists now, and I’d love to see it on again by someone else,” Lang said.
While Lang has plans to visit Seattle many times in the future, his first visit unfortunately won’t be lining up with the opera he’s most looking forward to this coming season.
“I’m really upset
to miss the Rigoletto,”
Lang said. “It’s a production we did at New Zealand Opera, directed by Lindy
Hume. And it’s contemporary. It was actually inspired by Silvio Berlusconi, the
former Italian prime minister who was always getting caught in scandal.”
When Giuseppe Verdi
first premiered the opera in 1851, he wanted audiences to see their own
contemporary world, reflecting the corrupt power of the ruling aristocracy on
stage. The opera was censored and it wasn’t until Verdi agreed to set the opera
in Renaissance Italy that the production was permitted to move forward.
“You know, people say opera always has to be in the time the composer saw it,” Lang said. “But if we do that, we’re doing exactly what the censors did. We’re putting it back in history, and it’s losing its impact.”
When New Zealand
Opera produced this reimagined Rigoletto in
2012, it was slightly ahead of its time. With its up to the minute contemporary
costumes and settings, New Zealand Opera’s Rigoletto
examined the danger of political power and the ways that power could be
used to inflict sexual abuse and assault without consequence. It was a #MeToo
era opera without the hashtag.
“He’s a young, charismatic, newly elected prime minister or president, whatever, whichever,” Lang said. “It’s not clear. It doesn’t need to be clear. And that’s exactly what this piece is about. It’s about this guy who isn’t just a playboy and some idle Renaissance aristocrat. He’s the political leader. And he’s corrupt. And this production makes it totally clear and potent.”
After a breath,
Lang lamented his absence in the audience once more.
“I’m sorry to miss that because everyone’s in for an absolute thought-provoking treat,” he said. “The best Rigoletto I’ve ever seen. I was so pleased we could bring it here. I’m sad I’m not going to see it.”
After I asked my
final question, Lang offered to take me on a tour of the new Seattle Opera headquarters.
As he guided me from the admin offices to the rehearsal rooms to the Opera’s
dedicated loading dock to McCaw Hall, he greeted every employee by name, asking
them about their day and thanking them for their work. It was clear from our
interview that Lang’s passion for Seattle Opera and the people who work there
ran deep. But it wasn’t until these off-mic moments, these stolen moments of
comradery in hallways and rehearsal halls, that I was able to see that passion
reflected right back.
It feels fitting to
close with a quote from Seattle Opera’s founder Glynn Ross, a quote from June
4, 1969 that’s prominently displayed in the lobby of the new headquarters,
greeting employees and visitors alike.
“We are not
custodians of the old order,” Ross said. “We are not curators of establishment
art. We must be oriented towards the future. It is our business to improve the
quality of life. We had better become positive and not just stand by.”
It’s a sentiment Lang echoed over the course of our conversation. And it’s one Seattle Opera will continue to hold dear for many years to come.
Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.