Steven Dietz Will Never Stop Calling Seattle Home

Playwright 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 sentiment.

“As 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.

Playwright Steven Dietz. Photo by John Ulman

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.

The 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.

John 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.

Steven Dietz’s other plays that have been performed at ACT.

Switching gears off Dracula for a little bit—

Please, 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.

And 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 theatre to?

And 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 vibrant ideas.

So, 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.

Steven Dietz’s re-adaptation of Dracula will play at ACT Theatre October 18–November 17. 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 TheatreThe Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Hosting the Tiny Tots Concert Series at the Seattle Symphony is a Return to Musical Childhood Memories

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.

And just 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.

John Turman hosting Seattle Symphony’s Tiny Tots Concert.
John Turman hosting Seattle Symphony’s Tiny Tots Concert. Photo by James Holt

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.

Bringing 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.

Switching 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.

John Turman hosting Seattle Symphony’s Tiny Tots Concert.
John Turman hosting Seattle Symphony’s Tiny Tots Concert. Photo by James Holt


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 The Planets.

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 that.

The Tiny Tots concert series at the Seattle Symphony begins on October 4 and 5 with The Percussion: 5, 6, Pick Up Sticks and continuing on with The Brass: March of the Toys on December 6 and 7. A full schedule and tickets for this season’s Tiny Tots concerts can be found 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.

‘Indecent,’ or What it Means to Create Queer Jewish Theatre in Seattle

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.

‘Indecent’ cast in rehearsal.
‘Indecent’ cast in rehearsal. Photo by Angela Nickerson

“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 suggestion.  

“…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

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.

‘Indecent’ cast in rehearsal.
‘Indecent’ cast in rehearsal. Photo by Angela Nickerson

“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.”

Sheila Daniels

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.”

‘Indecent’ cast in rehearsal.
‘Indecent’ cast in rehearsal. Photo by Angela Nickerson

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 world.”

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.

The State of Deaf Theatre in Seattle

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 Tribes by Nina Raine. He returned in 2018 to play Quasimodo in 5th Avenue’s production of The 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 and Juliet.

“Deaf theatre 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 Deaf.”

E.J. Cardona as the Voice of Quasimodo, Joshua Castille as Quasimodo, and ensemble in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame.'
E.J. Cardona as the Voice of Quasimodo, Joshua Castille as Quasimodo, and ensemble in ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at 5th Avenue. Photo by Tracy Martin

“I wouldn’t 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.

Castille identifies 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.

“Artists make 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.”

Howie Seago, Lindsay W. Evans, Joshua Castille and Gabriella O’ Fallon in 'Romeo & Juliet' at ACT.
Howie Seago, Lindsay W. Evans, Joshua Castille and Gabriella O’ Fallon in ‘Romeo & Juliet’ at ACT. Photo by Chris Bennion

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 Juliet.

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 loving.”

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 Opera, Seattle 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.

Howie Seago and Joshua Castille in 'Romeo & Juliet.'
Howie Seago and Joshua Castille in ‘Romeo & Juliet.’ Photo by Chris Bennion

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 characters.

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.”

Howie Seago

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 right now.”

Liang’s artistic 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 different light.”

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.”

Joshua Castille and E.J. Cardona in 5th Avenue’s ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ Photo by Mark Kitaoka

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.

When I 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.”

Ian Aranha

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 Hamilton at 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!”

Frank Corrado and Joshua Castille in ‘Tribes’ at ACT. Photo by Chris Bennion

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 entire audience.

“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.

“I hope your article makes waves,” Aranha said.

I hope it does too. 

More information about captioned and ASL-interpreted performances at Seattle Rep, Sound Theatre, Seattle Theatre Group, Broadway at The Paramount, ACT Theatre and The 5th Avenue Theatre, as well as other accessibility services they provide, can be found on each theatre’s website.

Submissions for Deaf Spotlight’s 2020 Seattle Deaf Film Festival are now open. Visit 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 blog.

Tamilla Woodard Forges a New Way Forward With ‘Top Girls’

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 Girls initially?

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…

Tamilla Woodard

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 ideals.

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 Boats last 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.

Cast of 'Men on Boats' at A.C.T. directed by Tamilla Woodard.
Cast of ‘Men on Boats’ at A.C.T. directed by Tamilla Woodard (2018). Photo by Kevin Berne

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.

Top Girls runs September 19 to October 13 at American Conservatory Theater at Geary Theater in San Francisco. 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.

Amina Edris Celebrates an Artistic Homecoming With ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the San Francisco Opera

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?”

Edris 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 and Juliet rehearsals 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 challenges you?

Amina 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 stage.


It’s 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.

Amina Edris as Countess Ceprano in Verdi's 'Rigoletto.'
Amina Edris as Countess Ceprano in Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo by Cory Weaver

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?

I 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.

Amina Edris and Pene Pati in 2018 The Future is Now Adler Fellows Concert.
Amina Edris and Pene Pati in 2018 The Future is Now Adler Fellows Concert. Photo by Kristen Loken

Yeah. And when you spend that much time somewhere, especially early in your career, the city starts to live in your body.

Exactly. 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?

My 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.

Oh absolutely.

*A soubrette is a soprano who sings supporting roles in comic opera; generally a coquettish maid or frivolous young woman in comedies.

Romeo and Juliet runs September 6 to October 1 at the San Francisco Opera. On October 1, Amina Edris will perform the title role. 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.

A New Kind of Historical Adventure Premieres at Cal Shakes

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 Joy at 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.

Despite 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.”

Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian and playwright Madhuri Shekar in rehearsal.
Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian and playwright Madhuri Shekar in rehearsal. Photo by Zhanara Baisalova

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.”

To 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.

When 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.

A 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.

A reading of House of Joy at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival 2018
A reading of ‘House of Joy’ at Bay Area Playwrights Festival 2018. Photo by Lorenz Angelo

“There’s 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.”

Another 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.”

Dramaturg Vidhu Singh, Playwright Madhuri Shekar and Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian in rehearsal.
Dramaturg Vidhu Singh, Playwright Madhuri Shekar and Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian in rehearsal. Photo by Zhanara Baisalova

When 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.”

One 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.”

Model of the 'House of Joy' set by Lawrence Moten.
Model of the ‘House of Joy’ set by Lawrence Moten. Photo by Zhanara Baisalova

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.”

We 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 fine tune.

“It’s going to be like nothing you’ve ever seen in the American theatre,” Shekar said. “I can promise you that.”

House of Joy runs August 14 to September 1 at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater. Tickets are available online. Evil Eye is available to download through Audible.

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

Jeffrey Lo Realizes a Decade-Long Dream with ‘The Language Archive’

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?

Director of 'The Language Archive' Jeffrey Lo
Director of ‘The Language Archive’ Jeffrey Lo. Photo by Tasi Alabastro

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.

Oh wow.

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.

Emily Kuroda emphasizes the importance of love in 'The Language Archive.'
Emily Kuroda emphasizes the importance of love in ‘The Language Archive.’ Photo by Alessandra Mello

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.

Jomar Tagatac reflects on how to communicate with wife, Elena Wright, who recently left him in 'The Language Archive.'
Jomar Tagatac reflects on how to communicate with wife, Elena Wright, who recently left him in ‘The Language Archive.’ Photo by Alessandra Mello

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.

The Language Archive opens TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s 2019-20 season, now playing through August 4 at Lucie Stern Theatre. 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.

A Conversation with Choreographers Dammiel Cruz, Miles Pertl and Kiyon C. Ross

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.

Together, 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?

Dammiel Cruz, 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! 

Miles Pertl, 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.

Kiyon C. Ross’s 'Do. Not. Obstruct.' at Summer at SAM: Sculptured Dance, 2016.
Kiyon C. Ross’s ‘Do. Not. Obstruct.’ at Summer at SAM: Sculptured Dance, 2016. Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

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 our community.

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 everyone.

This Dialogue has been excerpted and lightly edited from three separate interviews, all conducted in April 2019.

Danielle Mohlman is 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.

Aidan Lang Gives Seattle Opera a Fond Farewell

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.”

Christina Scheppelmann, 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.

cast of Beatrice & Benedict at Seattle Opera in rehearsal
Cast of ‘Beatrice & Benedict’ at Seattle Opera in rehearsal. Photo by Philip Newton

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 audience.

“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 & Benedict in 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 scenes.

The cast of Beatrice & Benedict
The cast of ‘Beatrice & Benedict.’ Courtesy of Seattle Opera

“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 memorable, actually.”

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.

New Zealand Opera 2012 production of Rigoletto
New Zealand Opera 2012 production of ‘Rigoletto’. Photo by Neil Mackenzie

“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.

Rigoletto will be the first show in Seattle Opera’s 2019-20 season, playing August 10–28. 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.