SF Ballet’s ‘Classical (Re)Vision’ Combines Cheeky Fun and Joyous Comradery

When the curtain rises on Classical (Re)Vision at the San Francisco Ballet this week, the evening might feel a little familiar. The program is made up of pieces of contemporary dance—the ballet is playfully describing it as a “tasting flight”—all originally choreographed for and premiered at SF Ballet. Some of the dances are recent creations, like Bespoke, which Stanton Welch choreographed for the 2018 Unbound Festival, while others premiered decades ago, like Sandpaper Ballet, choreographed by Mark Morris in 1999. No matter their history, one thing is certain: these performances are beloved.

For soloist Lonnie Weeks, Classical (Re)Vision is a homecoming of sorts. Weeks is dancing in two of the program’s pieces: Sandpaper Ballet and a reprisal of Bespoke in a role he originated.

“I am the O.G.,” Weeks said. “I guess if it goes to different places or is performed in the future, maybe my role will always be known as the Lonnie role.”

Weeks originated the role at the Unbound Festival in 2018. And because there’s no expectation to be better than the person before him, his performance has felt freer somehow.

“There’s less nerves,” Weeks said. “You’ve already kind of worked out the tips and tricks and the musicality of things and where you need to conserve energy—where you need to push through and when you can breathe. You’ve already navigated the mine field before, so this time around you can enjoy yourself a little bit more. You’ve already baked the cake, now you can add some cool toppings—the frosting and the candied flowers. Now you can play with it.”

As part of his greater ballet practice, in his world outside of Classical (Re)Vision, Weeks is studying how other artists deal with the pressure of performance.

“I go through phases where things seem to make me more nervous,” Weeks said. “And these phases can be like year-long phases. I’ve been doing some reading to try and help me with nerves and stage fright. And it turns out the most famous performers in the world, like [Luciano] Pavarotti and Renée Fleming—you know, these superstars—they get terrified as well. So, I’m learning that the nerves aren’t going to go anywhere. But what a smart, experienced performer does is he uses these nerves for his benefit. Because they can be detrimental, but they can also give you the edge that you need to stand out.”

Because Bespoke relies on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach—specifically his Violin Concerto in E Major and Violin Concerto in A Minor, the two surviving violin concertos in Bach’s canon—I was curious to know how this music affected Weeks’s performance.

Lonnie Weeks and Sasha De Sola in Welch's 'Bespoke.'
Lonnie Weeks and Sasha De Sola in Welch’s ‘Bespoke.’ PHOTO BY ERIK TOMASSON

“His music makes me feel like I should be wearing a powdered wig,” Weeks said, “and some sort of fabulous Baroque outfit in Versailles. And that I should be eating petit fours. I feel very prim and proper. And self-indulgent.”

For Weeks, one of the joys of Bespoke is the balance of tender and cheeky moments in the choreography.

“There’s this moment where we all come on stage and we’re going through our port de bras with our arms,” Weeks said. “We’re going through first and second—but we’re doing it mechanically. We call it the ticking section. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. We kind of look like music box dancers. And we kind of bobble our head from side to side, like something you would see in Indian dancing. It’s almost a lesson on how to do ballet port de bras positions.”

And from the sound of it, it’s also a lesson in how to not take yourself too seriously.

“You still have to devote just as much intention as you would with more serious parts,” Weeks said. “Otherwise, it’ll look like you’re just messing around. So, you commit to the cheeky moments just as much as the serious moments.”

For corps de ballet dancer Gabriela Gonzalez, Classical (Re)Vision is an opportunity to dance a piece of choreography she’s never performed before: Sandpaper Ballet.

“It’s just fun,” Gonzalez said, describing her relationship to the choreography. “You’re not stressing about the steps. It’s just pure fun. And really, the whole piece is about joy and comradery. We’re dancing all together and then we break into small groups and then we do silly stuff that makes us laugh. Sometimes in rehearsal, we’re doing this seriously silly stuff and I’m just laughing with the dancer beside me. It’s a fun piece.”

Ulrik Birkkjaer and Gabriela Gonzalez in Peck's 'Hurry Up We're Dreaming.'
Ulrik Birkkjaer and Gabriela Gonzalez in Peck’s ‘Hurry Up We’re Dreaming.’ PHOTO BY ERIK TOMASSON

But just like in Bespoke, there is discipline and form in the lightness. Sandpaper Ballet relies heavily on a formation that the dancers call “the grid,” a precise, almost militaristic square that serves as tension before the silly release.

“You have to be very cautious of the formations and the details of the steps because it’s important for the choreographer to say what he wants to say,” Gonzalez said. “Perfection doesn’t exist, so there’s always something that the ballet master will catch that can make it better, that we weren’t aware we were doing wrong. He’s trying to make us all look like one. We’re trying to look the same, even though we are all individuals. And in ballet, that practice is never ending. There is always something to correct.”

Gonzalez says that she’s looking forward to Mark Morris seeing Sandpaper Ballet in performance, and that she’s hoping his visit comes with an opportunity to improve her performance.

“When someone else teaches you the choreography, we try as best as possible to keep the original idea from the choreographer,” Gonzalez said. “But when the choreographer gets to come, it’s the best because he created it, he’s the source, and he’s telling you exactly what he wants. It’s easier to stay true to the work. He gives you all the details and that’s how you stay true to the work: the details.”

Gonzalez says that she is enjoying this opportunity to dance a piece of choreography that was created specifically for SF Ballet.

“A creative process involves everybody,” Gonzalez said. “Some choreographers come and they know exactly what they want. They have their idea and that’s what they’ll do. Some choreographers come in and it’s like a conversation. There’s that energy from the dancers and what he feels from the music. I like to imagine that Sandpaper Ballet is so joyful and about comradery because of the San Francisco Ballet, because of the company of dancers.”

San Francisco Ballet in Morris' 'Sandpaper Ballet' in 2010.
San Francisco Ballet in Morris’ ‘Sandpaper Ballet’ in 2010. PHOTO BY ERIK TOMASSON

I asked Gonzalez if that joy she imagines in the 1999 rehearsal room carries through to her experience today. Her answer was a resounding yes.

“Sometimes we’re joking around with each other and just having fun,” Gonzalez said. “And that is exactly what these rehearsals have been like, just fun and joyful. And I like to think that’s the way this company has always been.”

Weeks and Gonzalez were both slated to dance in Hummingbird, a role Weeks was eagerly anticipating revisiting after a 2014 injury barred him from dancing in the premiere as planned. But in light of choreographer Liam Scarlett’s suspension from The Royal Ballet in London and a current investigation underway over allegations of sexual misconduct, SF Ballet made the decision to pull Hummingbird from the Classical (Re)Vision program. Executive Director Kelly Tweeddale made the programming decision “out of respect for the ongoing inquiry in London, the dance community at large, patrons of SF Ballet, families of the SF Ballet School, and artists of the Company.”

Queensland Ballet in Australia, where Scarlett is artistic associate, has also suspended their relationship with the choreographer. This action, a conscious effort on the part of SF Ballet, The Royal Ballet, and Queensland Ballet to distance themselves from Scarlett, comes on the heels of another high-profile case of sexual assault in ballet. In New York, court proceedings for ballet dancer Alexandra Waterbury’s lawsuit against New York City Ballet, current NYCB principal dancer Amar Ramasar, former NYCB principal dancers Chase Finlay and Zachary Catazaro, NYCB donor Jared Longhitano, and the School of American Ballet are currently underway.

Last week, protestors gathered outside the Broadway Theatre, where Ramasar is currently playing Bernardo in Ivo Van Hove’s production of West Side Story. One sign read “Talent cannot justify abuse.”

By pulling Hummingbird from Classical (Re)Vision, it looks like SF Ballet agrees.

Classical (Re)Vision runs February 11 to 22 at the San Francisco Ballet. Tickets are available online or by calling 415.865.2000.

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.

Eric Ting Digs Into the Complexity of Trauma With ‘Gloria’ at A.C.T.

When director Eric Ting and I hopped on the phone during his lunch break, we immediately started comparing Branden Jacob-Jenkins trivia. I was coming into the conversation as a fan, watching his work from the audience as I moved from city to city, fortunate to find Jacob-Jenkins’s work in each new hometown. And while I’m a fan, Ting is a friend and a close collaborator.

“Basically, I’m always going to say yes to an opportunity to direct his plays,” Ting said. “He’s an extraordinary writer. And for me personally, any time I have an opportunity to work on his plays, I come out of it a better person.”

Ting spent years developing Appropriate with Jacob-Jenkins, going on to direct that play at the Mark Taper Forum in 2015 and An Octoroon at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2017. Our conversation was in the middle of the Gloria rehearsal process, a time of great discovery for Ting and the cast.

Director of ‘Gloria’ Eric Ting. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Danielle Mohlman: What excites you about working on Gloria now? What makes it right for these 2020 Bay Area audiences?

Eric Ting: What this play offers is a kind of examination of the sort of depersonalization of our society—the conditions with which we dehumanize each other and disconnect from each other and miss each other’s pain. And [Jacob-Jenkins] contains it all in an office comedy. It’s largely—on its surface—a comedy about office culture. But he’s just an incisive observer of human behavior. And so the joy and pleasure of working on a play like this is identifying all of the very complex, contradictory subtext that unfolds in these plays. The conditions of living today are conditions that are often contradictions of itself. And I think that’s something you find in all of Branden’s characters and plays. These are people that are living with intense anguish and pain and also intense love.

Yeah, and one thing that I’m fascinated by is the fact that this is at its core satire, but dealing with very real issues. And I’m not going to spoil what those real issues are. But how are you navigating that juxtaposition between the reality of tragedy and the satirical, comedic elements?

Can I ask you what you mean when you say “satire”? We were literally having this conversation in rehearsal the other day about that word. What is your definition?

I think that my definition is probably not the right definition.

No, no. I mean, neither is mine.

When I think of satire, I think of that biting reality that’s not necessarily laughing with you, but laughing at you. Which is probably not how Merriam-Webster would describe it.

No, no, that’s great.

Eric Ting and cast in rehearsals for 'Gloria' at A.C.T.
Eric Ting and cast in rehearsals for ‘Gloria’ at A.C.T. PHOTO BY BERYL BAKER

I think I’m also using that word because it’s being used in the marketing that American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) is putting out.

Totally. And there’s a big difference between marketers and directors.

And maybe we should be talking about that instead.

Well, this is an interesting play because that central trauma around which the play pivots. The social commentary really kicks in in the second half of the play because it’s so unexpected. And Branden is so smart and how he wrestles with it is through the eye of someone who has a deep understanding of why it happened. And that’s partly what makes it so funny, you know, is that what’s unfolding on stage is so familiar.

And even though there’s all sorts of layers of complexity in Gloria—it’s not just what does office culture include? It includes conversations around privilege and class. It includes conversations around generational differences. It includes conversations around aesthetic and who is deciding the value and worth of a thing.

We were talking the other day about this notion of the assistant editors. They’re these three people who spend all their days tearing things apart. And what does it mean to exist in a world where your primary action is surgical? Your whole thing is about the dissection of art and culture. For me, Gloria is a person who just wants to see good in the world and she keeps being confronted with these people who want to tear it apart.

On some level, one of the things that we keep reminding ourselves is this need to really come at these characters with immense compassion and generosity. We need to understand why they do what they do, and not simply leave them on stage as a symbol of a corrupt culture, or of a society in decline.

And here we are in the Bay Area—the tech capital of the world. And when we talk about the things that have the potential to contribute to the depersonalization and the dehumanization of our world, it’s not hard to look around and be confronted by those impulses, to disconnect from what you’re seeing, to disengage from it as a coping mechanism or survival instinct.

I want to talk a little about your role as artistic director at Cal Shakes if that’s okay.


Eric Ting, cast and creative team in rehearsals for 'Gloria' at A.C.T.
Eric Ting, cast and creative team in rehearsals for ‘Gloria’ at A.C.T. PHOTO BY BERYL BAKER

This is going to sound like a silly question, but when you Google your name and Cal Shakes, the first thing that comes up is the tree that was planted to commemorate your arrival in 2015. So I’m wondering: how is the tree doing?

The tree is good and healthy. It’s grown—it gets bigger every year. You know, just before I got here, the Bay Area was in the midst of a drought. And then I arrived and all of the sudden it started raining. Cal Shakes is a beautiful space. Part of what it’s known for is the vista of rolling golden hills in the backdrop, which we use as part of the visual experience of the plays. Every so often, we work with somebody who hasn’t been back to Cal Shakes in a while and they come and they’re like “What happened? The trees got so tall. Can you cut them down?” And we’re like, “We can’t. It’s not really our property.”

And plus, you want the trees to thrive!

Right, exactly! It was a really amazing moment. We have an extraordinary volunteer corps called Will’s Weeder’s and they come out every year at the beginning of the season to prepare the ground for the public. And they take care of the gardens around the theatre. It was a gesture of welcoming to plant that tree in my honor. And it’s definitely something that I think about. I’ll sit up there on the hill and read plays, or take phone calls there from time to time.

And it feels like it’s your tree.

I guess so. You’re the first person to ever ask me a question about that tree!

Well, I feel honored.

Revised on February 11, 2020: A previous version misnamed the organization “Will’s Weeder’s.” It was stated as “Will Leaders.”

Gloria will play at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater February 13–April 12. Tickets are available online or at 415.749.2228.

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.

Director Anne Kauffman Hopes to Open Up Conversation Around Death With ‘Wakey, Wakey’

When American Conservatory Theater Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon called Anne Kauffman to ask if she would direct Wakey, Wakey by Will Eno, she was thrilled. She not only had a long friendship and working relationship with MacKinnon, but also a deep desire to work on one of Eno’s plays. She describes herself as “a big fan” of his work—high praise from a director who regularly works with Amy Herzog, Jordan Harrison and The Bengsons.

“I was very, very interested in how this is like an anti-play,” Kauffman said. “Will Eno is sort of a non-cynical Samuel Beckett. He has a way of really putting a microscope up to humanity and looking at all of its flaws, but also its huge capacity for joy. And I think that this combination is crucial at this moment.”

We had the opportunity to talk right before the holidays, while Kauffman was at Berkeley Repertory Theatre directing Becky Nurse of Salem, Sarah Ruhl’s latest play. We covered everything from death and dying, to what it’s like to work with Tony Hale.

Danielle Mohlman: I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Wakey, Wakey deals pretty explicitly with death and what happens—or doesn’t happen—after we die. How do you tap into that as you prepare to go into rehearsals with this play?

Anne Kauffman: I’m middle-aged and I’ve dealt with the death of one parent. And the death of that parent had a significant impact on the choices I made in terms of work in the ensuing years. As my little sister said about losing my mom, “I feel like I’m forever changed.” And I’ll never be able to go back and look at the world in the same way. Not that it’s always sadness, but there’s a fundamental change. And I also think when you deal with sick parents—and you deal with death around you—that you start to realize that this country is very unwilling to look death in the eye. We sort of sweep it under the rug. And, in fact, it needs to be taken out and examined and celebrated, the way we celebrate birth in this country. So for me, Wakey, Wakey feels like a step in the direction of opening that conversation up.

Oh, for sure. And I don’t know if this is an explicit link in your work, but I fell in love with Hundred Days about a year ago and that play also deals with death and the fears surrounding it.

Yeah, and I feel like in both pieces we deal with the inevitability. The idea of resisting it or fearing it—there’s something about the inevitability of death that forces you to shift your perspective on it.

Actor Tony Hale who stars in ‘Wakey, Wakey’ at A.C.T. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

You’ve said before that you’re really drawn to plays that mess around with language. Is that something you’ve latched onto with Wakey, Wakey as well?

Oh yeah. For sure. I think that Will Eno is one of the best language playwrights we have. And I think what’s so incredible about him is the mundanity of his poetry. He doesn’t put together words to aspire to something lyrical. He actually takes words and puts them together in certain chains to open up new meaning—like pedestrian discovery. His poetry has these instantaneous and ephemeral flights of beauty that land right back in the mundane pieces that he’s put together.

I don’t know how else to say it. It’s like this inspiration in the pedestrian. Or finding the profound in this certain combination of images that he puts together. And it makes me feel like “Oh. I can do this.” Not that I can write this, but that this duty is within my grasp. I own this duty too—and it’s made of me.

Oh, I love that. How did you come to the decision to cast Tony Hale? I imagine you don’t approach directing any differently when someone is a household name, but do you think at all about how fans of his work might be surprised by this play?

I think what’s so extraordinary about Tony is that he’s a Beckett clown for the 21st century. And it’s a perfect match because of that. The greatest comedians have a really deep understanding of pain and the profound. It feels completely and utterly matched. It seems extraordinary that Will [Eno] didn’t write it for him.

Tony Hale in ‘Wakey, Wakey’ at A.C.T. directed by Anne Kauffman. Photo by Kevin Berne

I don’t know Tony that well. We were able to meet up a few months ago in New York for breakfast. And I felt a real kinship, a real affinity with him. I feel like, you know, we’re of a certain age. I keep saying that, but Will is too, and there is something very profound about middle age. And I feel really connected to the way Tony talks about the play, the way Tony talks about his life. It feels like a conversation, rather than a making of a theatre piece. And that’s the thing I’m so looking forward to in terms of this one person show. 

To be honest, it’s not normally a thing I gravitate towards, but it does have an extraordinarily different feel because it’s basically you and the actor having a conversation with the playwright and with the themes. And then we bring that conversation in front of an audience. It’s very intimate.

I know your work takes you all over the country. What are you most looking forward to about being at A.C.T.?

I’m friends with Pam [MacKinnon] and I adore her—I think the world of her. And I’ve always loved A.C.T. I actually went there. In 1988, I was in their summer training congress, when I wanted to be an actor. So I’ve trained there, I went to undergrad at Stanford, and I have lots of friends and family in the area. This is really a homecoming of sorts. My mom is from San Francisco, my dad is from the peninsula. It just holds a lot of meaning. And I have a really strong connection to it, from my childhood through college. It really is a second home for me.

Wakey, Wakey by Will Eno runs January 23 to February 16 at American Conservatory Theater. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 415.749.2228.

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.

Karen Lund Returns to ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ with ‘She Loves Me’ at Village Theatre

To say that Karen Lund is easy to talk to would be a gross understatement. Lund, who has served as associate artistic director of Taproot Theatre Company since 1993, is making her Village Theatre directorial debut this month with She Loves Me, and the joy she’s bringing to the pre-production process is contagious.

Within minutes, we’d talked about everything from the 1940 movie The Shop Around the Corner—which serves as the musical’s source material—to our shared love of Laura Benanti, who played Amalia when the musical was last on Broadway. “I love her so much,” Lund said, matching my energy for the 2016 Broadway cast album. “Have you seen her on [The Late Show with Stephen] Colbert?”

It’s clear that She Loves Me is a deeply personal story for Lund, one that’s been part of her life for over 20 years—from her first viewing of The Shop Around the Corner to You’ve Got Mail and beyond. And after directing three to four shows a year at Taproot Theatre for the last several seasons, Lund is ready to work away from her artistic home base.

“The thing is, I’ve been raising kids,” Lund said. “And I just haven’t wanted to be away from home that much—especially when they were younger. I’ve really had a lot of artistic fulfillment at Taproot, so I haven’t necessarily gone searching. But now’s the time.”

Karen Lund, director of ‘She Loves Me.’ Courtesy of Taproot Theatre Company

Danielle Mohlman: Why this musical now? What makes it right for 2020 audiences?

Karen Lund: I found myself sitting across from [Village Theatre artistic director] Jerry Dixon, talking about how they chose this season. And what he was really looking for was a season that would bring joy to his audience. He had a list of plays and he would rate them based on how joyful they were—and She Loves Me kept rising to the top. And I have to applaud him. Right now, I think we all need an antidote to some of the toxic stuff that we’re hearing in the news. These characters are very earnest and very simple. No one is trying to be the next best great this or that. Their idea of happiness is a great love. And a steady income and a family. It’s really simple for them.

And, of course, this takes place in a really turbulent time. It’s 1930s Europe where the Depression was as rough there as it was here. And to have a job and a steady income was difficult—so you valued it so much more. I think in a lot of ways the play asks us to value the simple things, like your connections with your family and your connections with your friends, and know that those have worth. And it’s so sweet and so simple. And yet it’s so difficult for us to do that right now.

And we see these characters in this sweet pocket, even though it might not feel like that on the inside, because World War II is going to be worse. And they just don’t know what will happen.

Right. But what we do know is they’re going to have each other. And it’s not just about the romantic relationships. It’s about this family of perfumery workers who go through a difficult time and actually become closer. The support they give each other to be better people is just wonderful.

Randy Scholz and Taryn Darr in 'She Loves Me.'
Randy Scholz and Taryn Darr in ‘She Loves Me.’ Photo by Tracy Martin

It’s way closer than coworkers. There are real, deep friendships there.

Yeah. You know they’re going to last. You know they’re going to support each other during the war. That’s how I see it, at least.

Is there a particular moment or song you’re excited to explore in rehearsals?

I’m really interested in the relationship between Georg and Amalia. They are really intellectual equals, which doesn’t typically happen in stories from that era. They read the same books, they have the same philosophy of life. They have razor-sharp wit. There’s a lot of sparring that happens between them and I’m really excited about creating those moments. I think their battles are going to be outstanding; they’re going to be super fun to watch.

Oh, that’s so exciting! I do want to pivot a bit and talk about arts administration—and your role as associate artistic director of Taproot Theatre. How does arts administration inform the way you direct?

Oh wow. You know what it is? I’m always very mindful of the audience. I have to be, because of my work as an arts administrator. But I also feel like it’s my pleasure to be. At Taproot, we’re in an ongoing conversation with our audience—about the world around us, about truth, about beauty, and about how one person can make an impact on the world. When I was offered the opportunity to direct She Loves Me, one of the first things I said was, “Tell me about your audience. Tell me what they’re looking for.”

And I want to be clear: I’m not talking about pandering to an audience. I’m talking about knowing them and meeting them where they are, so I know how best to challenge them. I have this theory that if you can make somebody laugh, you can actually tell them some pretty hard truths. So, I need to get you comfortable. You feel like you’re in your home, you’re laughing, your heart is open. And then I can tell you a hard truth that might change the way you think or the way you behave.

Eric Ankrim and Mark Emerson in ‘She Loves Me.’ Photo by Tracy Martin

One thing that I love about Taproot is that there’s consciously a dramaturg attached to each play, which feels like a rarity, especially in Seattle. Can you talk a little about the value of dramaturgy in Taproot’s artistry?

I just find dramaturgy to be so important to the work that we’re doing. I don’t care what the play is: dramaturgy can add so much to the depth and breadth of the actors’ work on stage. Any little thing that you learn can spark your creativity in ways that you couldn’t ever imagine. And it’s not just for the actors. Dramaturgy can inform props, the set, costume design. It helps me as a director. I always think, if I wasn’t a director, I might be a dramaturg. Because I love it so much.

She Loves Me runs January 16 to February 23 at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah and from February 28 to March 22 at the Everett Performing Arts Center in Everett. Tickets are available online or by calling 425.257.8600.

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.

The Hope of Music Lives On in Mona Golabek’s ‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane’

When concert pianist Mona Golabek takes the stage at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley this month, she’ll be stepping into the first role she had as an actor. Golabek has been performing the role of her mother since 2012, premiering The Pianist of Willesden Lane at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

“It’s not only the first time, it’ll be the last time,” Golabek said, adding that it’s her mission to share her mother Lisa Jura’s story. It’s a story that captivated her and spoke to her very core. Jura was not only a Jewish survivor of World War II, she was also a pianist whose music provided hope for many displaced children during the war.

I had the pleasure of speaking with the concert pianist and storyteller about her upcoming run in the Bay Area—and how her classical training has informed the way she thinks about the audience.

Mona Golabek in performing in ‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane.’ Courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents

Danielle Mohlman: When did you first know you wanted to share your mother’s story on stage? How did that come about?

Mona Golabek: About 25 years ago—or maybe it was 30 years ago—I was engaged to play the [Edvard] Grieg Piano Concerto, which is the piece that my mother always dreamed about. And I don’t know what got ahold of me, but I just thought if I could get something out there, I could inspire others with the message of my mother’s story. What happened next was that I set out to write a book called The Children of Willesden Lane. And a lot of people said, “You know, this would make a great performance for the stage.” Because I was going around performing at schools and things. But it wasn’t until my path crossed with Hershey Felder that I had the opportunity to develop it for the stage.

And how long ago was that?

That was about 10 years ago. I saw him perform his Beethoven show and I was just shocked by what a genius he was. So, I asked for some advice and I did a little performance for him. And he was so moved that he decided to take a chance on me.

Do you have a favorite memory of your mother that you’d be willing to share, perhaps one that’s been translated into your performance on stage?

She told me her story while she taught me the piano. And I remember when she pounded out the cadenza of the Grieg Piano Concerto, she told me about how she would go down into the basement when the bombs started.

Oh wow.

And she went to her music to give her the strength to get through.

And while your mother’s story takes place during World War II, it’s still an increasingly relevant story.

I think the reason this story has such resonance today is because of what we’re seeing in the world with the increasingly horrendous refugee crisis. We need stories that emphasize the good in humanity and the choices that are made—and the courage and conviction.

And in a time when we can hardly admire our leaders…I won’t go down a political path. I don’t ever do that. But it’s quite obvious that we are in a crisis of belief in our leaders. And the division that’s happening—this horrendous rhetoric that divides us—there’s no place for that. We have to fight that.

Mona Golabek in performing in ‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane.’ Courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents

I know you said that this is the first and last time you’ll ever portray a character—that you’ll take on the role of storyteller, actor and pianist all in one. What has been the biggest challenge of taking on that role?

Making sure that every night on stage costs you—and that you’re constantly improving, constantly questioning, constantly working to be better on that stage.

And I’m sure that applies to your music as well.

Yes. I had great training in the discipline of being a concert pianist. And I brought that discipline and that training to the world of acting and storytelling.

I think it’s so important to, as a performer, be able to say “This is a different audience tonight. They require just as much from me as last night’s audience.”


What are you most looking forward to about bringing The Pianist of Willesden Lane to TheatreWorks—and Silicon Valley?

Well, I understand that it’s an extraordinary community of amazing, passionate theatre-goers. So I’m excited to bring the story to the community there. And obviously it’s a hotspot of the world where brilliant ideas come forth—and the future, in many ways, of technology. I have a really passionate vision and goal to make Willesden Lane a worldwide message. I want this to be rallying cry—to remind us why we’re here and what our purpose on Earth is. So I have this secret fantasy that one of those guys that runs those tech companies will turn up at the show and be moved.

This is an open invitation, then.

Yes. I want it to be known that if they come see Willesden Lane, it will transform their heart.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane by Hershey Felder, adapted from the book The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, runs January 15 to February 16 at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts. Tickets are available online or by calling 650.463.1960.

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.

The Joy and Value of a Student Matinee

There’s nothing more honest than a teenage audience. They will laugh, but only if you’re funny. They will gasp, but only if you move them. And they will engage, but only if you drop all pretense and meet them on their level.

I was lucky enough to witness this firsthand at Seattle Rep’s first student matinee of the 2019-20 season. The cast of Indecent wasn’t accustomed to a 10:30 a.m. curtain, but they matched the audience’s energy with their own. After the performance, many students stayed for a post-show discussion with the cast and musicians, where the audience engaged in what felt more like a conversation than a Q&A—covering everything from Jewish identity to intimacy choreography.

“At Seattle Rep, we don’t necessarily target our shows to a young audience—or even to a family audience,” said Alex Lee Reed, Seattle Rep’s youth engagement manager. But even so, there’s always an incredible amount of interest from the schools Reed works with. This season, the only play that doesn’t have a student matinee is True West. “I’m probably not supposed to say, but these kids get enough plays about middle-aged white guys. School groups and young people are interested in POC stories. They’re interested in plays with music. They’re interested in things that are challenging in new and exciting ways.”

At the time of our interview, Reed had a wait list of 600 students for the student matinees of Jitney by August Wilson. A wait list for Shout Sister Shout! was also forming. And while cultivating sold-out performances is an exciting part of Reed’s job, he’s always thinking about the educational component. Each student matinee is programmed around Washington’s Common Core State Standards Initiative, complete with a play guide that can be taught in the classroom and additional support from Seattle Rep teaching artists.

“As an artist, director and educator, that’s my jam,” Reed said. “Theatre is for everyone, you know?”

And while Seattle Rep doesn’t program their season with young audiences in mind, Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) certainly does. It’s not uncommon for SCT to program four to six student matinees into each week of the performance schedule. “That’s the bare minimum that we’ll do,” said Darioush Mansourzadeh, SCT’s school shows associate.

Mansourzadeh added that he’s become a bit of an expert on the Seattle Public Schools bus system, scheduling student matinees around the transportation needs of the district. “Bus drivers have a very important job, and I don’t think a lot of people respect that community.”

Students at a performance of 'Vietgone' at Seattle Rep.
Students at a performance of ‘Vietgone’ at Seattle Rep. Photo by Angela Nickerson

Despite being a member of the marketing department, education is top of mind for Mansourzadeh. Like Reed, Mansourzadeh is always thinking about how SCT’s season ties into the national and state education standards. Black Beauty, which opened SCT’s 2019-20 season, centers on empathy toward animals, so the theatre began thinking about how to tie empathy into the classroom curriculum.

“What does it mean to be kind to someone who may never know your kindness?” Mansourzadeh asked.

But the student matinee experience doesn’t end at curtain call. Each performance has a post-show element that’s individually suited to the show and the age of the audience. For Balloonacy, a one-man play written for 3- to 6-year-olds, the post-show element was learning a song.

For The Diary of Anne Frank, which was geared toward a middle school audience, things went a little differently. “The middle schoolers were a little more rambunctious during the show, and it really affected the cast,” Mansourzadeh said. “One of the cast members went out and spoke about empathy and sympathy and how this play relates to society today. We actually had one middle school where every single student wrote an apology letter to the cast, which was really nice for the cast to see. Sometimes learning in theatre isn’t what we expect it to be, but that was a learning moment for them.”

Letters from young audience members at Seattle Children’s Theatre.
Letters from young audience members at Seattle Children’s Theatre. Courtesy of SCT

At the Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), filling the nearly 3,000 seats in McCaw Hall with students is a logistical feat in itself. In addition to an annual student matinee of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® and a field trip-friendly excerpt of one of PNB’s story ballets each February, Shannon Barnes, director of community education, partners with eleven schools to provide Discover Dance, their in-school residency. It’s a residency that goes beyond what’s happening on stage, giving students a full view of what it takes to produce a ballet at PNB.

“Part of our philosophy with all of our programming is looking at all the ways people make ballet and dance happen,” Barnes said. “We’re talking about stage crew; we’re talking about the people whose job it is to answer the phones here—and create posters and do the marketing. The arts can be the person on stage, but do you like to draw? You can be a costume designer. We’re really peeling back the layers and being transparent about what it takes to put on a performance.”

It’s also about demystifying the experience of attending a ballet. Barnes knows that the work she does extends far beyond the classroom or even that field trip to McCaw Hall. She’s interested in meeting students and their families where they are. And one way she’s done that is by translating The Nutcracker study guide that students receive into five languages—thinking ahead to what the primary language of the child’s household might be.

“That family engagement, even if it’s as simple as, ‘We see you, we want you to share in this with your student,’ is important,” Barnes said. “The ideal would be for every student coming to the matinee to have a pre-performance workshop and a study guide in their home language. And that’s the goal.”

And PNB is working towards that goal in whatever way they can. This year’s student matinee of Cinderella will include live captioning for the show’s host. “And that just feels really good to be able to have that available,” Barnes said. “Just like, no question. We don’t need someone to ask for that accommodation. Here it is. And it’s available because we recognize that in a theatre of that size, someone’s going to benefit from it.”

Barnes added that this live-captioning technology will bleed into the repertory season, with some pre- and post-show conversations captioned.

When I asked if Barnes had a favorite memory from the student matinees she’s facilitated, her answer was strikingly similar to Mansourzadeh’s. “That line of buses is pretty impressive,” Barnes said. “I have 100 percent respect for bus drivers that navigate this area. It is not an easy area to access and we’re just grateful that people value us enough.”

Audience members at a Pacific Northwest Ballet student matinee.
Audience members at a Pacific Northwest Ballet student matinee. Photo by Alan Alabastro

We tend to forget that all great education programs have to start somewhere. So, imagine my excitement when I learned that the Seattle Opera would be hosting its first ever student matinee later this season. When I spoke with Courtney Clark, Seattle Opera’s school programs manager, she was hard at work preparing for the May 19 student matinee of La Bohème.

“We want to make sure that the students have an opportunity to come in and make McCaw Hall a place of comfort,” Clark said, adding that her plan includes a pre-performance lecture, room to move around, and concessions during intermission. “We want them to have a full experience. And everyone in this building has a hand in that. It’s a wonderful field trip. It’s something that every school should have the opportunity to do.”

Clark is both a K–12 certified educator and a classically trained opera singer, a combination that couldn’t be better suited to this role. She credits her own student matinee experience for putting her on this path. “It changed my life,” Clark said. “And I’m pretty sure it has changed others’ lives too.”

Clark shared that La Bohème is her favorite opera—and that, as a Black woman, this will be the first time she’s been able to see herself reflected in the role of Mimì, the lead soprano. “It’s the most diverse cast I’ve ever seen,” Clark said. “And all I can think about is that every student out there will be able to see themselves in some way. How powerful is that? When you can see yourself and say, ‘Oh, well I can do that.’ This can’t be an elitist art form when I see everybody represented on that stage. And that is why I do the work I do.”

And that’s the power of arts education: to be able to see yourself reflected back in the performance and know that you belong.  

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.

Start a New Holiday Tradition With Help From Bay Area Theatres

Spending time together with friends and family is at the center of so many holiday traditions. Whether you’re singing along with Andy Williams about the most wonderful time of the year or marveling at the twinkling lights woven through neighborhood branches—lights that seem to have gone up overnight—the region is full of loved ones creating new traditions and maintaining old ones.

Theatres across the Bay Area are inviting families to create new traditions and share in the gift of theatre this year. I spoke with theatre makers at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), Berkeley Repertory Theatre and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley about how they celebrate holiday traditions and why hope speaks volumes, especially on stage.  

For Peter J. Kuo, A.C.T.’s associate conservatory director and co-director of this year’s production of A Christmas Carol, the art of bringing this classic story to life is deeply rooted in tradition. The adaptation was created by former Artistic Director Carey Perloff, who not only adapted the play 15 years ago, but also directed it for the first few seasons before bestowing the direction to Domenique Lozano. Kuo is the third director to tackle this particular adaptation.

“So it’s this really interesting way to see how tradition is getting passed from generation to generation,” Kuo said. “One of the great traditions of this story has been one about the spirit of generosity, and that very much sits in this production.”

Kuo added that his inheritance of the production is part of that generous tradition, but that this intergenerational motif extends far beyond direction. Three core companies make up the cast of A Christmas Carol: the professional acting company of Equity actors, the Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) students who are in their final year of their degree, and the young actors who are part of the Young Conservatory, ranging in age from 8 to 19 years old.

“I see the production itself as one of generation and how we pass down generosity,” Kuo said. “One of the traditions of the piece, aside from this intergenerational mix of students and professional actors, is the mentorship that happens within the company. Each principal actor mentors one M.F.A. actor. And each M.F.A. actor mentors two Young [Conservatory] actors.”

The company is comprised of a staggering 46 actors, a fact Kuo quickly follows by acknowledging his “lovely assistant director” Andrea van den Boogaard and his “amazing stage management team.”

Jomar Tagatac and cast members from A.C.T.'s Young Conservatory in the 2018 production of 'A Christmas Carol' at A.C.T.
Jomar Tagatac and cast members from A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory in the 2018 production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at A.C.T. Photo by Kevin Berne

“We’re still massively outnumbered by the cast,” Kuo said. “Especially by the Young Conservatory.” But it’s an out numbering that clearly brings Kuo a lot of joy.

Our conversation was at a pivotal point in the process. Kuo had just moved from the play’s more intimate small cast scenes to the final scene of the play. It’s a scene that includes the entire cast, and all the chaotic energy that comes with that.

“There’s a buzz going on,” Kuo said, recalling that particular rehearsal. “We’re back in the village, we’re mapping the town. So, there’s a lot of people who are crossing back and forth—who are running Christmas day errands. And I’m encouraging everyone to think: What is your story? You’re carrying this crate. Where are you carrying this crate to? And there’s all this buzz of trying to figure out and trying to learn, which is great. I love a learning space. And having these mentors helps disperse some of the learning and the teaching in the moment, which is really nice. It kind of takes the burden off me from having to create every single moment and empowers them to create something for themselves.”

And while the text of the play remains the same from year to year, Kuo is letting his own lens shine through. “It’s been a conversation with the actors about what depths of humanity haven’t been explored yet,” Kuo said. “We’re really looking at who Scrooge is and his relationship to all these different people around him—how he relates to money and poverty. And to me that conversation has richly opened up to what is going on in our own society, especially in the Bay Area where we’re seeing a strong wealth gap between the tech boom and those who are living on the street. Having everyone dissect that and discuss that helps us find a richer purpose to the story.”

Ken Ruta and James Carpenter in the 2018 production of 'A Christmas Carol' at A.C.T.
Ken Ruta and James Carpenter in the 2018 production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at A.C.T. Photo by Kevin Berne

The Tale of Despereaux might not seem on its surface like a holiday show, but it’s the universal themes of courage, community and bravery that attracted PigPen Theatre Co., currently in residence at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, to the source material in the first place—themes that they see as perfect for the entire family.

“The stories that we perform on stage have always resonated with a very wide range of age groups,” said Arya Shahi, one of the seven members of PigPen Theatre Co. “We deal with folk, we deal with fairytale. But we also started writing our shows when we were in our early 20s and really wanted to entertain our friends. So we started to write in a tone of voice that was insightful, but also comic and witty and charming in a way.”

And it’s a tone of voice that’s stuck with them for the last 12 years. Shahi, who serves as the company’s percussionist among other roles, said that PigPen has always been big fans of family-friendly storytelling, modeling their structure off Disney, Pixar and Universal Studios. When Universal approached the company about adapting The Tale of Despereaux into a stage musical, it felt like the perfect fit.

“Despereaux is this incredible mouse obsessed with this honey sound,” Shahi shared, by way of explanation. “The way he hears the world is very different from other people. And that helped open up our music in certain ways. And then Chiaroscuro, the rat, is called to the light from a place of darkness and shadow, so all the shadow puppetry that we like to work with found a home in the story quite naturally.”

Cast of 'The Tale of Despereaux' at Berkeley Rep.
Cast of ‘The Tale of Despereaux’ at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne

Dan Weschler, PigPen’s accordionist, was initially attracted to The Tale of Despereaux because it depicts a classic hero’s journey, with a twist. The musical takes the familiar fairytale structure of a knight rescuing a princess from a dragon and interrogates the tropes within that form.

“It shows the various boons and pitfalls that come from modeling your behavior off a story like that,” Weschler said. “But it also has a plurality of heroes. And we really appreciated the spirit of people working hard to see past the architypes they’re given.”

Because The Tale of Despereaux runs from Thanksgiving until New Year’s, I asked the guys (as they affectionately call themselves on the PigPen website) if they had any holiday traditions they were looking forward to celebrating as a company. Ben Ferguson, who plays resonator guitar, shared that he’s looking forward to spending time with his fellow company members and their families.

“Our family’s grown seven-fold over the last 10 years or so,” Ferguson said. “We’ve been able to spend Thanksgiving with a fair number of each other’s families. And it kind of feels like a weird tradition to be gone from home but still with your family—even though you’re not related to them. So that’s something that I’m extremely excited to do again.”

And then there was a lovely silence before Weschler and Shahi jostled to tell Ferguson how beautiful that statement was. Some theatre companies are quick to say that they’re one big happy family, but for PigPen Theatre Co., nothing could be closer to the truth.

Dorcas Leung and John Rapson in 'The Tale of Despereaux' at Berkeley Rep.
Dorcas Leung and John Rapson in ‘The Tale of Despereaux’ at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne

For TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Artistic Director Robert Kelley, directing a world premiere musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, with book, music and lyrics by longtime collaborator Paul Gordon, is not only a holiday celebration, it’s a farewell to this theatre.

“I love this show,” Kelley said. “I love directing it. And this is my last world premiere as the artistic director. At the moment, this is the last thing for me in the context of my 50 years at TheatreWorks. So I really am pouring my heart and soul into it—and I’m loving every minute of it.”

And it truly sounds like he is. He described one moment in the musical where the three-room home where the Bennets live is transformed into the lavish estate of Netherfield. “The way the show flows, it never stops,” Kelley said, reveling in the puzzle that is 15 distinct locations on a single stage. “Making that happen visually, with style and beauty and the requisite excitement has been one of the biggest challenges.”

Kelley’s aware that many of his audience members will be fans of the original novel by Jane Austen, and that he’ll have to convince them that this is “the ultimate Mr. Darcy and the ultimate Elizabeth Bennet.”

Justin Mortelliti, Mary Mattison and Monique Hafen Adams in 'Pride and Prejudice' at TheatreWorks.
Justin Mortelliti, Mary Mattison and Monique Hafen Adams in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ at TheatreWorks.

“This is possibly a spoiler alert,” Kelley said, aware that for some audience members, this will be their first encounter with the 1813 novel, “but I’ve had the most fun working on the Darcy and Elizabeth scenes. There’s the incredible scene where he proposes to her so horribly—badly and awkwardly—that there’s really no hope at all. And there’s another scene where he hands her a letter and tries to explain himself, and you have to see Elizabeth completely torn. She realizes that her preconceptions—or her prejudices, if you would—are not entirely true. And Darcy has to realize that his prejudices are not entirely true. There’s a lot of rejection, and yet the two of them are so attracted to each other. It’s a lovely acting challenge and it’s amazing fun for a director.”

After Kelley opens his holiday show each year, he takes some time off to go to the beach, a ritual he finds very calming and beautiful. “It’s a big family time,” Kelley said, alluding to Christmas day celebrations with his Bay Area relatives. “But the personal part of me likes to just watch the waves on the rocks for a few days.”

What a wonderful way to welcome in the new year.

A Christmas Carol runs now through December 24 at American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.). Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 415.749.2228.

The Tale of Despereaux runs now through January 5 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 510.647.2949.

Pride and Prejudice runs now through January 4 at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 650.463.1960.

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.

A Flurry of Holiday Delights Take the Stage

As we settle into shorter days, performing arts organizations across Seattle are finding ways to bring joy to the region’s lengthening nights. And, much like the twinkling lights that decorate the downtown retail district, these arts organizations are doing this by bringing holiday cheer to audiences all month long.

When I sat down to speak with A Christmas Carol Director Kelly Kitchens in September, she was already in the holiday mood. After directing Christmastown at Seattle Public Theater for the last four years and The Santaland Diaries before that, prepping for a Christmas show before fall officially starts, feels natural. “For me, this is when you actually start thinking about the holidays,” Kitchens said. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

Kitchens stepped away from her co-artistic director role at Seattle Public Theater just after Labor Day in order to pursue a full slate of freelance directing opportunities, both in Seattle and nationally. Directing A Christmas Carol at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) is the first directing opportunity in this new phase of her career.

“I’m excited about not just joining the Christmas Carol family of the humans in the room and the production team and all of this, but the family at ACT has been so—” Kitchens corrected herself, “the staff. I call them family because it feels so warm and open. They’ve just thrown their doors and arms open to me and have been generous with their time and with their expertise around the story. Because it is such a tradition.”

Keiko Green and Brandon O’Neill in ACT’s 2017 production of 'A Christmas Carol.'
Keiko Green and Brandon O’Neill in ACT’s 2017 production of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Photo by Dawn Schaefer

After directing at nearly every theatre in town, A Christmas Carol marks Kitchens’ first time directing at ACT. So it’s great to hear that the experience has been a wonderful one thus far. “I can’t describe how welcoming that place is,” Kitchens said. “And when I have an idea, the way we walk through what that means and how to make it work. I’m excited about that level of collaboration. I’m having the time of my life.”

Midway through our conversation, Kitchens pulled out a facsimile of the original A Christmas Carol manuscript from 1843, bound, fittingly, in a holly red cover. “I’m fascinated with the source material,” Kitchens said.

And then she showed me the dedication: “My own, and only, MS of the Book. Charles Dickens.”

Title page of the first edition of 'A Christmas Carol' (1843).
Title page of the first edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When Charles Dickens set out to write A Christmas Carol, he was an artist in desperate need of a paycheck. And yet, as Kitchens read sections of the preface out loud, haunting phrases kept jumping out. “This ghostly little book.” “This ghost of an idea.” And yet that “little” ghost story went on to become one of the most well-known Christmas stories of the western world, one whose social commentary continues to resonate.

“I totally understand Mrs. Cratchit’s point of view,” Kitchens said. “When you see your sweet child failing. And I also think about how many children Mrs. Cratchit buried already. They have no health care. They’re struggling. And it’s not because they’re not working hard. And I think about whatever the Christmas goose is for people right next door to me. There are people who are going to be hungry and cold. And some of them will be working hard and working long hours. And that’s because of systems that are in place.”

Kitchens reflected on what a wonderful tradition A Christmas Carol is for so many Seattle families—especially for those who choose to make this show their Christmas gift to each other. “I’m delighted to be part of that tradition,” Kitchens said. “It’s an honor and a responsibility to tell this story, and to do it justice.” 

The Seattle Men’s Chorus performing.
The Seattle Men’s Chorus performing. Photo by John Pai

As Seattle Men’s Chorus Conductor and Artistic Director Paul Caldwell gears up for his fourth holiday concert with the chorus, what he’s most looking forward to is the audience. “Seattle audiences are kind of rabid fans,” Caldwell said. “They bring a level of excitement to the concert hall that most cities reserve for the sports arena.”

One of his favorite memories comes from last year’s holiday concert. The Village People had released a Christmas album earlier that year, and the Seattle Men’s Chorus (SMC) was excited to perform holiday music that intersected with their LGBTQAI+ mission.

“They rewrote all of their big hits with Christmas words,” Caldwell explained. “So, ‘YMCA’ became ‘NOEL.’ And I got the audience on their feet and they were dancing in the aisle the whole time. There was just no way to not be absolutely thrilled with what was happening because the audience was just so energetic and so excited.”

‘Tis the Season is being billed as a “naughty and nice” holiday tradition and Caldwell is thrilled that the Seattle Men’s Chorus has the opportunity to do both in the same concert. “It’s ravishing and heart melting and everything you would expect from a men’s chorus of 250 people singing together,” Caldwell said. “It’s just gorgeous. And that’s the nice part. The naughty part is there’s always a lot of fun and frivolity. There’s this Ella Fitzgerald song we’re doing called ‘Santa Claus Got Stuck in my Chimney.’ It’s nothing but absolute fun.”

The Seattle Men’s Chorus performing.
The Seattle Men’s Chorus performing. Photo by John Pai

Caldwell also hinted at all 250 members of the chorus dressing up as fruitcake. “We don’t take ourselves completely seriously,” he said.

And as we talked through the music that SMC is performing this year, Caldwell drew special attention to their Hanukkah selections. This year, the chorus will be performing songs that Woody Guthrie wrote in collaboration with his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, in order to teach his children about their Jewish heritage and culture. Despite the festive Hanukkah subject matter, the songs are very much rooted in the folk music tradition.

“It almost slaps you in the face, the juxtaposition of the style and the content of the text,” Caldwell said. “It’s a real treasure and I’m really proud to put it on the stage. It is a Jewish didactic work and it is also in the style of clogging and square dancing. It ends up being not one or the other, but both. I don’t know if everyone will particularly get it, but the performers know it’s there and we treasure it because it’s rich in its history.”

And it’s intersectional, which is part of what makes SMC such a wonderful part of our arts community.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in the snow scene from George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker in 2018.
Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in the snow scene from ‘George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker’ in 2018. Photo by Angela Sterling

When I sat down to speak with Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal about George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, the first memory that popped into his mind was running into a family in the Seattle Center garage at 7:15 p.m. before a 7:30 p.m. curtain. They stopped him to tell him how much they loved The Nutcracker. Boal was confused; the show hadn’t yet begun. “And they said, ‘Oh no, we went to the matinee,’” Boal remembers. “‘We’ve just been in the lobby the whole time.’ They were done at four o’clock and they spent three hours in the lobby. But I think people just love it.”

For Boal, watching his audiences get swept up in the experience of attending the ballet, taking Christmas card photos in the lobby and reveling in the decorations, is a beautiful form of entertainment in itself.

In a way, The Nutcracker is Boal’s way of bringing a personal holiday tradition to the city of Seattle. Boal’s first professional role was dancing in The Nutcracker party scene as a young boy, alongside the dancer responsible for restaging George Balanchine’s choreography for Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), Judith Fugate.

Leah Merchant and Dammiel Cruz in 'George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker' in 2018.
Leah Merchant and Dammiel Cruz in ‘George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker’ in 2018. Photo by Lindsay Thomas

“We did the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier together for many years at the New York City Ballet,” Boal said. “It’s funny. When we started staging the pas de deux [for PNB], there were little places where I would nudge her forward and pull up on a hand and she was like ‘Oh, I forgot that. I forgot how much that helps me with my next step.’ And it was really fun. We were two more than middle-aged people standing in the rehearsal room, remembering how we used to dance.”

Fugate lives in Las Vegas now, but as we talked on the phone, I felt like I’d been transported to that same rehearsal room. “Peter and I have been good friends for a very long time, so any time he invites me to Seattle to work with the company, I always say yes,” Fugate said. “You know, at the time, many of the young boys in The Nutcracker were played by young girls. So I distinctly remember the fact that there happened to be an actual young boy playing my son. And I remember the man who took care of the men’s wardrobe—his name was Ducky—bringing Peter Boal to the stage before the performance and saying ‘Here’s yours, Judy. She’ll take care of you the rest of the way.’ And sure enough, many years later, here we are.”

Fugate was 17 years old, in her first year dancing as a company member of the New York City Ballet. Boal was nine years old.

Elise Hueffed, with Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in 'George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker' in 2018.
Elise Hueffed, with Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in ‘George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker’ in 2018. Photo by Lindsay Thomas

It’s a ballet that’s lived with Fugate for most of her life, starting with her first performance as Clara at eight years old. And while The Nutcracker, and her time dancing with George Balanchine, who she affectionately calls “Mr. B,” continues to be a large part of her life, Fugate is always thinking about her audience, “It can be a child’s first introduction to live theatre—or even the ballet itself. And many adults choose to go to The Nutcracker to see if they even like ballet. The energy of the auditorium is very unique. It’s maybe one chance in the year that a family actually has an outing together. It’s a very special occasion. Not to mention, it’s also the holiday season, which already adds to the excitement.”

And with so many entertainment options out there—live music, theatre and streaming services at home, just to name a few—the fact that so many audience members actively make the decision to see The Nutcracker each year is something that Boal never takes for granted.

“The process starts long before they get to the theatre,” Boal said. “Whatever they choose to wear, what time they’re leaving the house, where they’re eating—the whole thing. And at the end of the day, we’re asking people to pay an amount you can’t ignore, for tickets. It’s a high ticket price for many people. But that person I met in the garage at 7:15 p.m. after a matinee—they didn’t question what they had invested. They got a whole day, and it was going to stick with them for a long, long time.”

And it’s those audience experiences that make it all worthwhile.

A Christmas Carol runs November 29 to December 28 at ACT Theatre. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 206.292.7676.

The Seattle Men’s Chorus’ concert ‘Tis the Season runs November 30 to December 22 at Benaroya Hall, the Rialto Theater in Tacoma and the Everett Civic Auditorium. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 206.388.1400.

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® runs November 29 to December 28 at the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 206.441.2424.

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.

For Kathryn Van Meter, ‘Corduroy’ is a Beautiful Gift for Audiences of All Ages

If you’re an avid theatregoer, chances are you’ve seen Kathryn Van Meter’s work, either on stage or off. She’s an accomplished actor who, last season alone, played Judy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Village Theatre and originated the role of Liz in Fire Season at Seattle Public Theater.

She’s an incredible choreographer with credits on the stage and the screen. (The choreography in Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why—that’s her.) And she’s a prolific director, making her Seattle Children’s Theatre directing debut with Corduroy this winter. We spoke before the start of rehearsals about what it means to bring this childhood favorite to life.

Danielle Mohlman: For so many folks, there’s a childhood association with Corduroy—either they remember it from their own childhood or they’ve shared this book with a child in their life. Can you talk to me about what it means to direct the play Corduroy? Why this play now?

Director of ‘Corduroy’ Kathryn Van Meter. Photo by Kevin Clark

Kathryn Van Meter: Yes, yes. Or as my friend said the other day “Why this bear now?” Which I really love. I’ve worked off and on at the Seattle Children’s Theatre for the last several decades, primarily as a choreographer. And when Courtney Sale [SCT’s artistic director] approached me about doing this project I said, “The bear?!” This book is 50 years old and I deeply remember both Corduroy and A Pocket for Corduroy as a huge part of my childhood. I just loved both books tremendously. And to take something that we have a great love of and put it in front of a multigenerational audience feels like such an unbelievable gift. Especially around the holidays.

The play really expands on what is happening at Lisa and her mom’s house. So the book pretty much deals with Corduroy trying to find his buttons—and the delicious spectacular mess he makes along the way. And the play adaptation also shows side by side what Lisa is doing to convince her mom to let her get Corduroy. She is going through her evening trying to figure out new and exciting ways to get an advance on her allowance. And they’re both just making these spectacular messes along the way as they strive for their goal. They both have these beautiful versions of the hero’s journey. And I particularly get really excited when I see actual mess being made in the theatre. I think messes are really exciting.

And messes that feel like messes. Like, real messes. Not staged messes.

Yeah! And I think that’s really fun. So the piece is two distinct feels. One of them is just pants wettingly funny slapstick—old school clown physical comedy. And then underlying all of that is this beautiful, touching, tender story of how we are awakened when we meet a new friend. And how that awakens a part of us we didn’t know was there. And the ability to have both of those things side by side in a production is really exciting.

Chip Sherman in SCT's 'Corduroy.'
Chip Sherman in SCT’s ‘Corduroy.’ Photo by Angela Sterling

I noticed that this show is being advertised for ages three and up. What excites you about directing with this young audience in mind?

Young audiences are the most honest audience you can perform for. If they love it, they’ll tell you. If they don’t love it, they’ll tell you. And so there’s something about that immediacy that is so exciting to make theatre for. You know that giggle where they laugh so hard they can’t breathe? This show is that kind of fun. And it’s a tricky time that we’re in. And the opportunity to be in communion with our community and create that kind of laughter feels really exciting. And the most wonderful thing about theatre for young audiences, no matter what age you are, when you step inside that theatre you give yourself permission to be a younger version of you. And I think there’s a softening that can happen in an extraordinary way.

And for some audience members, this might be their first live theatre experience.

And that’s a tremendous honor and responsibility. You know, one of my first mentors many, many years ago was giving an opening night speech to the cast and he said, “Every time you perform, you’ve got to remember that somebody in that audience—if not more than one—really sacrificed something to be there.” They chose to do that. And I think the opportunity to ignite the imagination and delight of kids in particular, to give them the opportunity to see things transform in front of them, feels like a beautiful gift to give.

Evangeline OpongParry and Chip Sherman in SCT's 'Corduroy.'
Evangeline OpongParry and Chip Sherman in SCT’s ‘Corduroy.’ Photo by Angela Sterling

And there’s something that really does charge a cast to see and hear really young people in the audience. And part of that is because the reactions are so audible and immediate. It’s different from playing to an audience of adults who are polite or exhausted. For so many reasons, we think that adults are content to be quieter at performances. But the gift of the sounds that the kids make is pretty exciting.

Before I let you go, I have to ask. Do you have a favorite holiday tradition?

I do! So, in the 80s, my parents recorded A Muppet Family Christmas and a Sesame Street Christmas special on our VCR. And a couple of years ago, my sister-in-law converted it to DVD, so now I watch that every Christmas. And the great thing about it is it still has all the commercials.

I was just going to ask what those commercials were like.

There’s a lot of OshKosh B’gosh. There’s a lot of Doublemint gum, with all the twins. And there’s a lot of (sings) “I’ve got that M&M feelin’.” It’s pretty great. That is my holiday tradition. Muppet Family Christmas—with the commercials. 

Corduroy will play at Seattle Children’s Theatre November 21–December 29. Tickets are available online.

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.

Carrie Compere is Ready to Channel Sister Rosetta Tharpe in ‘Shout Sister Shout!’

When I spoke with actress Carrie Compere mere days before Shout Sister Shout! rehearsals were scheduled to begin at Seattle Rep, her excitement surrounding Sister Rosetta Tharpe and this play was palpable.

“I think the thing that I’m most excited about, is for people to hear about who she was,” Compere said, adding that Tharpe’s contribution to rock and roll wasn’t just musical, it was cultural as well. “That this beautiful black woman from the middle of nowhere influenced so much of what we hear today—I’m just glad her name is going to start to ring out there, you know?”

And as we continued to discuss The Godmother of Rock ‘N’ Roll, that excitement only grew.

Actor Carrie Compere who will play Rosetta Tharpe in ‘Shout Sister Shout!’. Courtesy of Seattle Rep

Danielle Mohlman: I’ll admit that I didn’t learn about Sister Rosetta Tharpe until probably two years ago when the book that Shout Sister Shout! is based on started making the rounds again. I was like “Who’s this? I need to know more!”

Carrie Compere: Yeah and it’s so cool because the first time I ever heard about Rosetta Tharpe—the very first time I ever heard her name mentioned—I happened to be on my first tour that I was in. And we were in Memphis and went to go visit Graceland. And there was a man there with a small group of people—I don’t know if they were his family or if he was giving a tour or what. And he sounded like he was from Great Britain. He was the one who mentioned her! And he was talking about how Elvis had been influenced by Sister Rosetta. And the way he talked about her, he was so excited, and I was just like, “Oh this woman must have been something else.” You know? Because that was the very first time I’d ever heard about her. And to now know who she really was and what she did for music is really amazing.

Yeah. And one thing I find really fascinating, the more I learn about her and the more she comes up in these pop culture conversations, is the fact that her queerness was left out of the conversation for a very long time.

And the play has tones of that, but it’s not overt. And I think that—now, I don’t know—but I think that’s just out of respect for how Rosetta handled it in her own life. She never really talked about it in a public forum. Behind closed doors, when she was in areas where she felt comfortable, that was something she felt free to display. But in the script, they do touch on her relationship with Marie Knight and how they loved each other beyond the sisterly way. But they build it in a way that’s respectful to Rosetta.

Christin Byrdsong and Carrie Compere in 'Shout, Sister, Shout!' at Seattle Rep.
Christin Byrdsong and Carrie Compere in ‘Shout, Sister, Shout!’ at Seattle Rep. Photo by Bronwen Houck

And it’s wonderful to hear you portray it that way—in respect to her and the way she lived her life. Because it was a completely different time and it wasn’t safe to be public about sexuality—not in that way.

Absolutely. And she was a woman who came from not only American culture where it was such a taboo [in the 1930s and 1940s] but also in the church culture.

Do you have a favorite Sister Rosetta Tharpe song? Maybe one you’re excited to dig into in rehearsal?

I don’t know if I have a favorite. I love “Up Above My Head” and the words are so simple. “Up above my head, I hear music in the air.” I think the reason why I love it so much is because I’ve watched her perform it over and over and over again. I’ve been watching videos of her and—I’m going to get emotional right now—but once she’s singing it, you know that she’s talking about something more than just these lyrics. She’s just so rooted and grounded in gospel music—and in the message that she wanted to bring to the world. She’s a woman of faith. And I am as well. And it resonates so deeply with me, you know? And it’s an upbeat song. (Sings) “Up above my head / I hear music in the air / And I really do believe / There’s a Heaven somewhere.”

And you know she believes that. And she’s singing it and she’s playing her guitar and she’s sweating—and she’s giving everything. You know, in the book Shout, Sister, Shout!—and I’m paraphrasing this—one of her friends said there’s a difference between just singing the song and having a relationship with the words you’re singing about. And that’s who Rosetta was. It went so far beyond just the music.

Chaz Rose and Carrie Compere in 'Shout, Sister, Shout!' at Seattle Rep.
Chaz Rose and Carrie Compere in ‘Shout, Sister, Shout!’ at Seattle Rep. Photo by Bronwen Houck

Do you have a favorite moment from the play that you’re really looking forward to digging into in the rehearsal room?

Oh man. Right now I’m learning the electric guitar and acoustic guitar. Because that’s how she established herself in rock and roll, with her picking. I am excited and terrified to really dig into the actual play. And I feel completely supported by our creative team and our music department. But before this experience, I had never played guitar before in my life. So, for me, this was something that on the onset looked insurmountable. So, it’s just been me spending time with the guitar. Sometimes I will literally just strap the guitar on my shoulder and just walk around the house—just really trying to develop a relationship with this instrument.

Because for Rosetta it wasn’t just her instrument. It was an extension of who she was. And sometimes when she wasn’t being confident—when she wasn’t speaking—you could see the way she was holding the guitar, as if she was speaking through the guitar. She was using the guitar to express what she was trying to say, or to support what she was saying. And Rosetta! Oh my god, her speed? Her tempo? It’s otherworldly. It’s amazing what this woman did.

Shout Sister Shout! runs now through December 22 at Seattle Rep. Tickets are available online or by calling 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 TheatreThe Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.