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.

Pacific Northwest Ballet Thinks Outside the Box—and the Theatre!—with OUTSIDE/IN

Once summer rolls around, nothing can stand between a Seattleite and the outdoors. Which is why the Pacific Northwest Ballet made outdoor performance an annual tradition.

Ask any Pacific Northwest resident what their favorite time of year is and they’ll answer, without hesitation and with a resounding amount of verve, summer. Every workday ends with a detour through the Olympic Sculpture Park or a jaunt around Green Lake. Every weekend is filled with long lazy trips to Golden Gardens or taxing treks in hiking boots. But we’re still art lovers. Just don’t make us go inside.

When it comes to merging a love of the outdoors with a love of art, Pacific Northwest Ballet has you covered. In June 2016, PNB started what will hopefully be a very long tradition of outdoor summer performance, beginning with Sculptured Dance at the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park in 2016 and 2017, and continuing on with an annual series of performances on their home turf in 2018 and, now, 2019.

Longtime ballet audiences may remember the first iteration of PNB’s outdoor performance series: summer performances held at Chateau Ste. Michelle from 1992 to 1995. Audiences were charged admission and, as the story goes, there was always a little too much rain. The best part of this new and improved outdoor performance tradition? Admission is free and open to the public.

Peter Boal, artistic director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, cited access, inclusion and a total removal of entrance barriers as the main reasons these outdoor performances are, and always should be free.

“One of the reasons that we have been interested in outdoor performances of late is to create easier access to ballet,” Boal said. “We had 5,000 attendees at our first Sculptured Dance, many of whom were seeing PNB for the first time. New settings bring new inspiration and new audiences.”

Noelani Panatastico’s Picnic at Sculptured Dance, 2017.
Noelani Panatastico’s ‘Picnic’ at Sculptured Dance, 2017. Courtesy of PNB

And those new audiences sometimes surprise themselves. Boal recounted the joy he felt whenever an audience member stumbled upon Sculptured Dance or NEXT STEPS: OUTSIDE/IN—as they biked across the Olympic Sculpture Park bike path, played in the Pocket Beach or walked around Seattle Center. It’s a joyous challenge for dancers and choreographers.

“I think both choreographers and dancers love a new canvas,” Boal said. “So much of dance is created in a studio for the stage. A backdrop of sculpture, water or landscape can inspire fresh perspective.”

Boal says there’s a lot to look forward to at this year’s OUTSIDE/IN performance, but the performance he’s most excited about is a group-choreographed piece created for the Kreielsheimer Promenade and Fountain by PNB’s newest and youngest class of choreographers: the nineteen choreographers who make up New Voices: Choreography and Process for Young Women in Dance.

Ron Gatsby, artistic director of Purple Lemonade Collective, first became involved in PNB’s outdoor performance tradition through Purple Lemonade’s partnership with the Seattle Art Museum. When PNB moved their outdoor performances from the Olympic Sculpture Park to Seattle Center in 2018, Gatsby came along for the ride.

With the entire Seattle Center campus available as a canvas, Gatsby chose to choreograph for the International Fountain, using the mythology of Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of art, love, beauty and fresh water as inspiration. When Gatsby is choreographing for indoor performance, they’re conscious of the limitations of the space and how those limitations affect the dynamics of the performance. 

“When I’m choreographing for an outside environment,” Gatsby said, “I really allow myself to choreograph movement without concern for the space around me. I can jump higher, reach farther and really stretch myself—both literally and figuratively.”

Gatsby begins every rehearsal for his upcoming NEXT STEPS: OUTSIDE/IN performance with a spoken piece, a story or a meditation on the goddess Oshun. This sets the tone for that day’s rehearsal, preparing the dancers for a new set of choreography or a movement workshop.

“One thing we’ve recently incorporated is rehearsing in Cal Anderson Park in addition to a traditional studio space,” Gatsby said. “This allows us to see how the public organically responds to the movement.”

There are many things you can’t control when it comes to outdoor performance but the biggest outlier is always going to be the weather. Gatsby said that the worst thing a dancer could face when performing outdoors is the possibility of rain. But with the entirety of their piece taking place in the International Fountain, the scariest factor—water—is confronted head on. But that doesn’t make it any less of a challenge.

“The fountain has an effect on everything from the wardrobe to the way we move,” Gatsby said. “Because we are working with the fountain, I have to choreograph movement that is both dynamic and safe enough for the dancers to perform. I have to consider how they’re going to feel dancing in wet clothes, the type of footwear they wear.”

But Ron Gatsby will be the first to tell you: he loves a challenge.

'The Purple Lemonade' at Summer at SAM: Sculptured Dance, 2017.
‘The Purple Lemonade’ at Summer at SAM: Sculptured Dance, 2017. Photo courtesy of Ron Gatsby

Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, has been involved in this new tradition of outdoor PNB performance from the very beginning. When Peter Boal invited Byrd to choreograph a piece for the inaugural Sculptured Dance performance in 2016, he was eager to return to site-specific choreography.

“I saw it as an opportunity to return to a kind of work that had given me great pleasure earlier in my career,” Byrd said. “I also thought it would be a lot of fun.”

And it was fun. Byrd enjoyed the challenge of drawing the audience’s attention to the unique outdoor space, especially in the case of Untitled, which was performed at the Roy McMakin sculpture of the same name.

“There is an interplay among the various elements,” Byrd said. “The terrain, sculpture, dancers, movement, audience and sound—including audience sounds; ambient sound like traffic, dogs and sirens; and the predetermined sounds that the choreographer has chosen—all play a role.”

Byrd was incredibly aware of the audience’s role in the performance of Untitled. Because of the dancer’s proximity to the audience, and the audience’s ability to view the performance from any angle, he choreographed the piece as something to be eavesdropped on. It was a breakup.

The biggest challenge in choreographing for Sculptured Dance was being okay with the audience missing part of the performance—either because they were standing too far away or because other audience members were obstructing their view. In the end, it was something Byrd simply had to be at peace with.

“I had to submit to the realness of the circumstances,” Byrd shared.

While Byrd agrees that free public performances like Sculptured Dance and NEXT STEPS: OUTSIDE/IN are important to our community, he warns that “free art” and “accessible art” aren’t synonymous phrases.

“In terms of arts exposure, education and awareness, all of our communities are underserved,” Byrd said. “None of them get enough.”

Which leaves Byrd wondering: How do we get to a point where art plays a critical role in the health and well-being of all our communities? How do we ensure that art becomes essential?

Christopher D’Ariano, a corps de ballet dancer at PNB, first became involved in NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN last year as a participant in both the outdoor and indoor components. As both a dancer and a choreographer in the same 2018 program, D’Ariano performed Donald Byrd’s solo piece Wake the Neighbor and then, mere minutes later, watched a company of PNB Professional Division dancers perform his own choreography: Youthquake. This year, D’Ariano was inspired to create outside the theatre walls.

D’Ariano in Byrd’s 'Wake the Neighbors' at NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN, 2018.
D’Ariano in Byrd’s ‘Wake the Neighbors’ at NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN, 2018. Photo by Lindsay Thomas

“Outdoor performances are more unpredictable,” D’Ariano said. “The audience is more involved and the dancers’ work is challenged by the direct gaze of every viewer around them. It becomes a more personal experience.”

The audience’s proximity to the dancers makes everything more intimate. Audience members are granted access into a 360-degree view of the choreography, giving every single moment a new and specific meaning. Audiences share in the sweat, breath and momentum of the piece, sharing in an orchestration of tension and control. And dancers are stripped of the theatrical protections of the orchestra pit, stage lights and curtain.

“Creating for an outdoor space allows me, as a choreographer, room to explore the limits I can push,” D’Ariano shared. “Will the fourth wall be broken, or will the subject be like a fish in an aquarium? The magic lies in the intention.”

Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan, a corps de ballet dancer at PNB, first became involved in the ballet’s outdoor performance tradition as a dancer in Noelani Pantastico’s Picnic at the 2017 Sculptured Dance. The performance was such a success that the entire company was invited back to perform the piece at the 2018 NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN.

“The main adjustment we made to dance outdoors was ditching our pointe shoes for sneakers, which I think we all enjoyed,” Ryan said. “We also had a much closer audience than we get in a theatre. I appreciated this because it allowed us to have a greater connection with our audience than we traditionally do from a raised and distant stage.”

Simply being on the same level as the audience made Ryan feel like she was more than entertainment. She was a human being.

Ryan said the rehearsal process for Picnic wasn’t all that different from a traditional ballet rehearsal. Instead of adjusting for set pieces, Ryan was conscious of the placement of Alexander Calder’s The Eagle or the slope of the Boeing Green.

“We mostly had to make sure the choreography was feasible for grass so that our bodies were protected,” Ryan said.

Ryan loves that PNB includes free outdoor performance as part of their season. “I could seriously do an entire interview on this subject alone,” Ryan joked. When asked to comment on the importance of accessible art in our community, Ryan said this: “Accessible art is essential to all communities—and I love that PNB is contributing to ours.”

This year’s NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN will be held on Friday, June 14 at and around McCaw Hall. The outdoor portion of the performance is free and will be held from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., surrounded by food trucks, a photo booth and PNB giveaways. Choreography by Dammiel Cruz, Christopher d’Ariano, Ron Gatsby, Mark Haim and the nineteen students from New Voices: Choreography and Process for Young Women in Dance will be featured. The indoor portion of the performance is $25 and begins at 7:30 p.m. that evening.

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.

JACK Quartet Gears Up for ‘Human Subjects’ at Meany Center

An innovative collaboration between the JACK Quartet, neuroscientists and educators at the University of Washington is preparing for a performance at the intersection of science and music. After three years in the making, Human Subjects is ready to make (brain) waves.

When the JACK Quartet premieres Human Subjects by composers Richard Karpen and Juan Pampin later this month, they’ll be totally wired—literally. The quartet, whose extended three-year residency at the University of Washington culminates in the concert on May 18, will be performing this world premiere composition while wearing portable encephalophones (also known as EEG brain helmets) and attached to wearable muscle neuron sensors.

During the upcoming performance at Meany Hall, the sometimes musical, sometimes noisy response of the JACK Quartet’s brainwaves will add another layer to the composition of Human Subjects. While Karpen and Pampin’s score has been meticulously composed—and the musical response of brainwaves has been considered at every stage of the process—there’s still room for improvisation and reaction in the JACK Quartet’s performance. It’s this musical unknown that’s made the three-year collaboration with the University of Washington’s Music Composition and DXARTS departments so exciting.

Karpen, one of Human Subjects’ co-composers, is the founding director of the university’s Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) in addition to serving as director of the University of Washington’s School of Music. DXARTS, created in 2001, was designed to support a new generation of hybrid artists, creating opportunities for artists to learn in the ever-evolving field of digital arts. Pampin, Human Subjects’ other co-composer, is the associate director of DXARTS, where the JACK Quartet has been collaborating with Pampin and Karpen, several neuroscientists and a team of researchers.

John Pickford Richards, viola, wants to encourage audience members to rid themselves of expectations and let the experience of Human Subjects wash over them. “We like to say we’re controlling the music with our minds, but really, we’re making music with them.”

JACK Quartet started performing at the University of Washington over a decade ago—and in that time, the idea of developing brain-controlled music with composers Karpen and Pampin slowly began to form. When the Meany Center received a Mellon Foundation grant in 2016, the three-year JACK Quartet residency was born. Most of the residency was spent wearing those encephalophones and experimenting with improvisation.

the JACK Quartet
Shervin Lainez

“We certainly had no idea what would come of it,” Richards said, “but we knew it would be experimental, which is our general preference.”

After an extended period of research and development, the team set their sights on creating a concert-length work.

“Most music we play is composed in traditional western music notation, but this piece has developed slowly through discussion and trying things out,” Richards explained. The performance audiences see and hear on May 18 will truly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The JACK Quartet, or JACK, was founded in 2005 by Richards, violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, and cellist Kevin McFarland, whose first initials spell the quartet’s name. In 2016, violinist Austin Wulliman and Jay Campbell replaced Streisfeld and McFarland, respectively, but by then, the quartet’s name had stuck.

Wulliman hopes that audiences will leave Meany Hall curious about sound and fascinated by the pathways JACK’s brains travel in order to create the musical labyrinth on stage.

“We had a hilarious time testing the Boulez quartet for our readings on the EEG,” Wulliman said, recalling his first visit to the University of Washington as a newly minted member of JACK.

The quartet experimented with form: first playing the quartet normally, then simply moving their arms as they followed the music, and finally, just thinking about the song—all while wearing the portable encephalophones.

“This was some of the foundational data for building the electronic instrument as it stands now,” Wulliman said. “My favorite memories from that first trip are running through the Arboretum and drinking a wonderful martini at Flowers.”

While it’s often said that science and music are the universal languages of our planet, making Human Subjects an incredible blend of the two. But Wulliman prefers to examine the individual nature of music.

“I see the personal and empathic in each individual work of art,” he said. “This piece, by its very nature, becomes personal and specific to us and our bodies as performers.”

JACK Quartet at EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center). Photo by Cenk Ergün
JACK Quartet at EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center). Photo by Cenk Ergün

JACK has been visiting the University of Washington since 2009, with residencies ranging from reading student work to public performances. It was there that they met Karpen and Pampin, who invited the quartet to join them for a three-year extended residency. The technology itself was alluring, but JACK was also drawn to the amount of time they’d be able to spend on this single concert-length piece.

“This work is different from most of our other premieres in several respects,” Christopher Otto shared. “First, there’s obviously new technology involved that we haven’t worked with before. Second, we’ve spent much more time immersed in the collaborative creation of this work than we have with most pieces. Third, the composition has not involved any kind of notation, but rather relies on a dialogue among the creators about the different types of musical situations we will navigate.”

When Otto learned that the quartet would be working with EEG, the concept peaked his curiosity. Otto was familiar with the composer Alvin Lucier, whose 1965 composition Music for Solo Performer involved Lucier hooking himself up to borrowed scientific equipment in order to amplify his Alpha brainwaves and operate sixteen percussion instruments. It’s a fascinating piece (11 minutes of which are available on Youtube) but Otto knew digital music technology had advanced significantly since then.

Otto shared that there are several challenges and joys that come with the experimental nature of Human Subjects, but the biggest challenge has been enduring the physical pain that comes from the sharp electrodes pushing on his skull. But it’s not all pain. Learning how to control the electromyography (EMG) armbands to manipulate JACK’s instrumental sound was a joyful experience.

“I’m interested in the ways that sound as a material, governed by physics, can interact with the human psyche,” Otto said. He added that he’s been interested in mathematics for a long time, and that this interest informs the music he composes.

JACK Quartet
Beowulf Sheehan

“There are endless possibilities, and most of them are found through improvisation and conversation,” shared Jay Campbell.

The biggest joy Campbell is finding in the Human Subjects process is the room for experimentation.

“The collaborative aspect of this project is really fun,” Campbell said. “We can improvise with these tools and find novel sounds—or we can just ask if certain sounds could be coded in to correlate to specific physical actions.”

Campbell is fascinated with the relationships between brainwaves and sound, especially when it comes to making music and composition a more accessible form for people with disabilities. These same instruments that JACK is experimenting with at the University of Washington could one day serve as creative outlets for folks unable to sing or operate traditional musical instruments.

“We’re all just kind of playing around with these really complex toys, tweaking and honing it towards something that has expressive capacity,” Campbell said.

When asked what they’ll miss most about Seattle, Otto cited the Henry Art Gallery, particularly The James Turrell Skyspace, Light Reign. For the rest of the ensemble, what they’re going to miss doubles as a restaurant recommendation: Din Tai Fung.

Human Subjects will be performed at the University of Washington’s Meany Center on May 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for students and seniors, $20 for the general public and can be purchased online or by calling (206) 543-4880. More information about the JACK Quartet can be found on their website.

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.

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Seattle Theatre

Danielle Mohlman continues her exploration of equity, diversity and inclusion in Seattle’s theatre community by speaking with local artists and organizations about recent achievements and trials they have faced.

Over the last few years, equity, diversity and inclusion have become goals of theatre companies across the United States. But what does that look like in practice? We spoke with four theatres in Seattle who put these goals at the center of their practice and asked them to share their successes, aspirations and the areas they feel need improvement. 

In October 2018, the Dramatists Guild and The Lilly Awards released The Count 2.0, a national census that analyzed data from six seasons of theatre, 2011 to 2017, looking at the production history of theatres of all sizes. The Count was focused on playwrights, lyricists and book writers—the content creators of the theatre—and released information that doesn’t feel all that surprising: of all the major cities surveyed, Seattle has the most room to grow. Between 2011 and 2017, only 8% of produced plays in Seattle were written by artists of color and only 24% by women. 

The Count certainly has its own room to grow. It’s impossible to count every single theatre in Seattle, let alone every theatre in the country, so they created a set of guidelines to generate the most representative survey. To start, the theatre must be a non-profit with at least a decade of experience professionally producing plays or musicals. Each theatre surveyed produced at least three plays or musicals each season, with each production running longer than 21 performances. And the theatre had to be routinely reviewed, either nationally or regionally. 

And while The Count didn’t release data on generative artists who identify as queer, non-binary or disabled, the statistics still feel like a challenge to theatres. A challenge to create theatre that looks more like our world. 

There are national efforts to meet this challenge, like The Jubilee, a nationwide theatre festival featuring works by artists who have traditionally been excluded—including but not limited to artists of color; Native American, Indigenous and First Nations artists; women; non-binary and gender non-conforming artists; LGBTQIA2+ artists; Deaf artists; and artists with disabilities—and regional endeavors, like The Women’s Voices Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C. But what are Seattle theatres doing to meet this challenge? 

At Intiman Theatre, Artistic Director Jennifer Zeyl and Executive Director Phillip Chavira are using a compact and impactful mission to guide their way. Simply put, Intiman “wrestles with American inequities.” 

“It means upending the apple cart,” Zeyl said. “Change to power structures must happen from the bottom up and the top down. It means remaining open to having every aspect of your organization challenged and changed. It means empowering youth voice and centering the vision and talents of the future.”

Chavira added that wrestling with these inequities isn’t easy. 

“It means talking about white supremacy,” Chavira said. “There will be tough conversations to have with your team and facing years of oppression can be challenging.” 

Chavira pointed out that he’s the first executive director of color in Intiman’s 45-year history—and that equity, diversity and inclusion should extend far beyond the stage to include administration and executives as well. Chavira, who identifies as Latinx, Mexican-American and queer, moved to Seattle two years ago to take over the executive director role. 

Native Gardens
Cast of Native Gardens by Karen Zacarías. Intiman Theatre (2018).

In 2018, Intiman retired their $2.7 million debt and are now operating debt-free. 

“But we’re super lean,” Chavira said. “It’s time to grow our company. Our mission is flourishing and audiences want more diverse narratives on stage.”

And as they flourish, Intiman is examining how they can become more inclusive. 

“We are learning constantly,” Zeyl said. “Guarding the intersection of professional theatre-making and community storytelling takes humbleness, dexterity and a willingness to throw the rule book out the window.”

Pratidhwani’s mission centers on creating performance opportunities for artists of South Asian descent. Agastya Kohli, artistic director of the organization’s Drama Wing, explained that this often materializes in producing plays with an India-centric view. But that’s not a hard and fast rule. 

“We’ve produced plays written specifically with Indian characters, as well as plays that were not written for Indian actors at all,” Kohli said. “We are developing, fostering and maintaining a thriving pipeline of artists that all theatres in Seattle benefit from and can enrich their works with.” 

This season, Pratidhwani partnered with both Forward Flux Productions and Theater Schmeater to co-produce A Small History of Amal, Age 7 and I and You, respectively.

“Pratidhwani is an engine that is enabling equity, diversity and inclusion not just within our footprint in performance arts, but well beyond the scope of just our productions,” Kohli said. 

Pratidhwani exists to nourish and nurture the Indian community in Seattle, from both an audience and artist perspective. Kohli, who identifies as a director, producer and actor who happens to be Indian, shared that the organization doesn’t think about diversity and inclusion when programming their season.

“We are creating a space where we naturally tell stories that look ‘diverse’ to the dominant culture of Seattle,” Kohli said. “To us, these are not stories of ‘others’—these stories are not ‘different’. These are our stories. They ground us in a foreign land. They allow us to exist in two different worlds at the same time.”

Identity is at the center of Deaf Spotlight’s work as well. Patty Liang, the organization’s executive director, identifies as Deaf, feminist, Chinese-American and someone who believes strongly in giving back to her community. 

“You cannot ignore the intersecting identities that make you who you are,” Liang said. “As a community member, I want to see the Deaf arts community thrive, especially women and artists of color. I want to help Deaf people succeed as professional artists without having to let go of their dreams.” 

Deaf Spotlight’s mission is to showcase and celebrate Deaf culture and American Sign Language through the arts. 

“Our entire organization is fluent in ASL,” Liang said. “The majority are Deaf, and represent a range of professionals and community members who believe in supporting the Deaf arts community. There is not enough visibility for Deaf artists and their contributions to the art world, and there aren’t enough professional opportunities for Deaf artists to hone their skills. We want to change that.”

In Liang’s experience, most arts organizations don’t plan for Deaf and disabled access. 

“As an artist and an arts administrator, I want the ability to go to any event, any time I want, without having to struggle to request interpreters beforehand,” Liang said. “My professional and artistic growth has been stunted by the lack of options available to me. The same is true for many Deaf and disabled artists.”

I and You
I and You by Lauren Gunderson, a co-production with Theater Schmeater.

Liang understands from experience that making performances accessible takes time and resources. She challenges theatres and other arts organizations to budget for interpreting, captioning, audio descriptions and other neurodiverse and physical accommodations. 

Deaf Spotlight started a short play festival to see Deaf performances, stories and experiences on stage. Kellie Martin, who identifies as both queer and Deaf and uses the pronouns “ze” and “zir,” runs the festival each year. 

“I never thought I would fall in love with theatre,” Martin said. “In college, I realized that theatre is rich with depth in terms of analyzing each character’s role on the stage and the stories that made them who they are. I like to make people think. As an art advocate, I often see the potential in people from my community, and I want to help Deaf artists thrive in their creative fields.”

Martin shared that ze admires the six playwrights who were featured in the 2019 festival. 

“I’m really excited for these playwrights to grow, evolve and to create even more plays with their own authentic experience—rather than having hearing playwrights write for Deaf actors,” Martin shared. “I love seeing the Deaf, hard of hearing and DeafBlind communities have a chance to share their artistic expression.”

Martin is continuing to hone zir craft, but wishes access to workshops, panels and forums was a given. 

“I don’t want to feel frustrated at not having access to these types of professional development opportunities,” Martin said. “I want accessibility available without having to ask in advance, including interpreters and relevant assistive technology.”

Desdemona Chiang, a freelance director who identifies as both Chinese and American, understands that as an Asian female director working nationally, she’s in demand. 

“I’m a commodity,” Chiang joked. “Right? I’m very useful. Because if someone wants to produce Shakespeare, it’s like ‘Oh! We could totally diversify our season if we have Desdemona direct Shakespeare.’ Or if ACT wants to do an Asian play. The fact of the matter is, the number of directors who work on a regional theatre level who can check off ‘Asian’ and check off ‘female’ are very few.”

Chiang walks into any meeting with a LORT (League of Resident Theatres) establishment knowing that she’s valuable because of how she presents. However, Chiang often only sees those diversity boxes checked on the one show she’s hired on. 

“I think what a lot of theatres do, when they’re looking at the leading edge for diversity, is that they look at the plays they’re programming,” Chiang said. “Right? ‘We want to program writers of color.’ Or more female or non-binary writers. And from there, hopefully that opens up some opportunities for the creative team. But I think a lot of times they begin with the text. I think they do it because they have to, not because they want to.”

But that’s not the only way to make change in regional theatre. 

Over the course of our conversation, Chiang brought up Mixed Blood Theatre Company in Minneapolis, a theatre Jennifer Zeyl also cited as an inspiration for her own work. 

“I don’t question their motives,” Chiang said. “It’s not about inclusivity or diversity. It’s actually about justice. Jack Reuler at Mixed Blood is very concerned about justice and access. And it’s not just about the optical representation of brown bodies on stage. He’s genuinely interested in an economic justice.”

Chiang explained the theatre’s Radical Hospitality program for communities that didn’t have a way to physically get to the theatre. Reuler set up free buses for folks with transportation needs and provided free tickets for low income audience members. 

“This is the tricky part when we’re talking about diversity and inclusion,” Chiang said. “We’re talking about ‘Oh, let’s just show more brown people.’ And I don’t think that’s the solution. And that’s actually pretty problematic. Because what we’re not dealing with is how it affects the injustice in our society.” 

That sounds like an excellent challenge to Seattle theatres.

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.

Sensory-friendly Performances in Seattle—and Beyond

More than 3.5 million Americans live with autism spectrum disorder. We spoke with five performing arts organizations in the Seattle area who are committed to providing sensory-friendly performances that welcome all families, including those whose children have autism and other sensory sensitive disabilities.

Being an audience member is powerful. Going to the symphony can connect you with a piece of music that feels like it was made for you. Surrounding yourself with opera can feel like communion with the soul. And that perfect piece of theatre will make you forget that you weren’t right on that stage with them. But too often, the performing arts are created for a very specific audience—an audience without sensory sensitive disabilities like autism spectrum disorder. That’s where sensory-friendly performances come in. 

According to the Autism Society of Washington, more than 3.5 million Americans live with autism spectrum disorder. Sensory-friendly performances are spaces created with autistic audiences—often children—in mind. Adjustments are made to productions, including sound levels, house lights and any strobe or other lighting elements that might be directed toward audience members. Designations are also often made to the seating arrangement inside the venue. Certain areas of the theatre are designated as quiet areas, while others allow talking amongst friends and family members. Audiences are free to walk around the theatre or even leave the space—all in the service of creating a performing arts experience that addresses each audience member’s needs.

Taproot Theatre, Village Theatre, Seattle Symphony and Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) all include sensory-friendly performances in their programming. The national tour of The Lion King even included a sensory-friendly performance at The Paramount Theatre earlier this year. 

Spencer Wolfe in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show at SCT
Spencer Wolfe in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show at SCT

“I think it’s important to be clear that the goal is not to change the art and the performance,” said Tracy Jirikowic, PhD, OTR/L, associate professor in the Division of Occupational Therapy at the University of Washington. Jirikowic has been researching sensory-friendly performances with her colleague Caroline Umeda, PhD, OTR/L, an assistant professor at Dominican University of California. Together, they’ve worked with performing arts organizations to implement sensory-friendly performances in their seasons, with the goal of creating inclusive spaces for audiences with and without disabilities. 

“Research thus far indicates that families desire an inclusive experience,” Umeda said, “not a ‘special’ experience that isolates individuals with disabilities or specific diagnoses from the rest of society.”

In 2014, Jirikowic attended the Sensory Friendly Summit in Washington, D.C., along with two Seattle Children’s Theatre staff members. She stated that, “this summit—and the collective group of people working on these initiatives nationally and internationally—inspired Seattle Children’s Theatre.” 

Umeda, who at the time was a PhD student at UW, led SCT’s first sensory-friendly performance during the run of Goodnight Moon in March 2015

“For many families who attended it was their first time bringing their child to a play,” Umeda said. “Several parents expressed surprise at how much their child enjoyed and connected with the play and how much they got out of coming.” 

SCT has benefitted greatly from Jirikowic and Umeda’s expertise. Not only does the theatre provide sensory-friendly performances for every production in their season, they also provide a Story Book, introducing autistic children to the building itself with topics such as “The Lobby” and “Entering the Theatre.” The section entitled “My Seat” includes this comforting piece of knowledge: “My seat will always be next to my family. I might have my family on one side of me and a person I don’t know on the other side of me.”

“One of the reasons I was drawn to Seattle Children’s Theatre was its commitment to making an inclusive space for all young people in our region,” said Artistic Director Courtney Sale. When she started at SCT in 2016, the theatre offered sensory-friendly performances for three of the season’s six productions. The next year, they were included in all six. 

“Attending a sensory-friendly show is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job,” Sale shared. “After the sensory-friendly performance of Stellaluna, a mother approached me and shared that this offering truly allowed her daughter to be herself. They felt welcome to verbalize and process the show in a way that might not be encouraged with a predominately neurotypical audience.”

But even with all the joy that comes from sensory-friendly performances, that space presents its own challenges. Umeda flagged marketing as one of the key challenges. Visibility is growing, but there are still many audience members who aren’t aware sensory-friendly performances are an option for them. Another key challenge is a lack of financial resources at the ­ non-profit level. 

“Organizations invested in these inclusion and equity initiatives need financial support to both get these programs off the ground and make them sustainable over time,” Umeda said. “In order to make sensory-friendly programs a reality for non-profit arts organizations, a funding stream is necessary.”

Sarah Diener, Maya Burton, Arika Matoba, Coulson Bingham, Julee Felts and Brad Walker in Taproot Theatre’s 2018 production of A Charlie Brown Christmas
Sarah Diener, Maya Burton, Arika Matoba, Coulson Bingham, Julee Felts and Brad Walker in Taproot Theatre’s 2018 production of A Charlie Brown Christmas

Taproot Theatre began offering sensory-friendly performances of A Charlie Brown Christmas in 2015, after actor Sarah Ware shared her own experiences of creating sensory-friendly performances in graduate school with Associate Artistic Director Karen Lund. And they have continuedever since. 

“After one particular performance, a parent told me what a joy it was for them to be able to enjoy theatre as a family in an atmosphere tailored to their needs,” Ware shared. “It’s really a privilege to be able to serve people in this way. Theatre is for everyone—and everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the art form. Sensory-friendly performances afford people the opportunity to be included in a world that often feels exclusive and out of touch with their needs as a family.”

In addition to many of the sound and lighting adjustments already mentioned, sensory-friendly performances at Taproot begin with a live announcement from the actors. 

“They introduce themselves and let it be known they’re all friends putting on a play together,” Lund explained. “So, if they say mean words in the play, they aren’t really mad at each other. They also remind the audience it’s okay to laugh and just have fun.”

Village Theatre began offering sensory-friendly performances through their Pied Piper series for youth and families during their 2012-13 season. Through the generosity of The Mark and Vickie Fund of the Nysether Family Foundation, Village Theatre is able to offer sensory-friendly performances free of charge. 

General Manager Erica Weir shared that during those first few seasons of sensory-friendly performances, Village Theatre put a lot of stress on themselves to deliver the perfect experience for those audiences. 

“What we started to realize through talking to families,” Weir said, “was that the most important and valuable thing was for the kids and their families to feel welcome and accepted, and that no apologies were needed.” 

Weir elaborated, explaining that every audience member has different needs. Some need to sit still, taking in every detail, while others need to use electronic devices, fidgets or headphones in order to feel comfortable. Some children need to be able to walk around during the performance and others leave before the performance is over. And every experience is accepted and welcome. 

In 2015, Seattle Symphony began exploring ways to make their family programming more inclusive to neuro-diverse children. A board member connected the Symphony with the University of Washington Autism Center and, soon after, the Symphony partnered with Seattle Pacific University’s Music Therapy Program and Music Works Northwest. These partners provided the Seattle Symphony with the resources required to develop sensory-friendly programming as part of their season. 

“The best part of the Sensory Friendly Concerts is seeing families and children able to experience a concert in a comfortable space where they do not have to worry if their child is going to make too much noise or be singled out for acting strangely,” said Collaborative Learning Manager Amy Heald. “What I love most is how the children and families feel comfortable to experience the concert however is best for them. It’s always incredibly rewarding to watch how the children get more comfortable and confident throughout the concert experience. Many are dancing and singing by the end. The dream is for all families to feel welcomed and comfortable attending any family program at the Symphony,” Heald said, “no matter what needs their child may have.”

Seattle Theatre Group experienced their first ever sensory-friendly performance earlier this year with the national tour of The Lion King. 

“Seattle Theatre Group has been receiving a number of emails and thank you letters from audience members expressing their most sincere gratitude,” said Associate Director of Education Marisol Sánchez Best. “I’ve read a number of letters that have stated that this show was the first show they’ve attended as a family. As a parent, this is hard to hear because everyone should be allowed to enjoy a night out as a family in a judgement free environment.”

Sánchez Best hopes that this will be the first of many sensory-friendly performances at the organization. 

“Seattle Theatre Group is the people’s theatre,” Sánchez Best said, “and we are committed to continuing this work for years to come.”

And a commitment to inclusive, welcoming performing arts experiences for audience members with autism spectrum disorder is a commitment we can all get behind.


Introducing Millennial Audiences to Theatre

Playwright Danielle Mohlman reflects on a three-year effort to bring Millennial audiences to Seattle theatre and her hopes for the future of this theatre group.

When I moved to Seattle in 2015, I didn’t know anyone involved in theatre. In fact, I didn’t know anyone who even enjoyed going to the theatre. So rather than learn a new city and the seemingly infinite number of theatres that came with it all by myself, I made a rational choice: I created a group for Millennials to experience theatre together. 

The first outing I planned was to see Come from Away at Seattle Repertory Theatre in December 2015. Only two friends joined me in the audience that night, but it remains the most talked about outing—even three years later. But here’s the thing: I didn’t know Come from Away was going to blow up the way it did. I couldn’t have predicted a cast album, a Broadway run and a national tour that sells out houses almost every night. And I remind these regretful friends of this fact: I can do all the research in the world, but at the end of the day I’m inviting them to take a chance on a new play with me. 

I started with an email list of ten Millennials who wanted to give theatre a try. The list has now grown to forty theatre lovers, including folks who work in the industry but want to make friends while seeing new plays. The group started as a pay-what-you-can experience, but we’ve moved away from that as folks become more comfortable spending money on theatre. And while the original scope was broad—“Let’s see some plays!”—we now exclusively attend plays written by female and non-binary playwrights, playwrights of color and LGBTQIA+ playwrights. 

“You have been a huge influence on me from an arts perspective,” Greg Socha, a marketing manager in his early 30s told me. “My go-to entertainment option used to be microwaveable popcorn and Netflix. And it still is. But I’ve realized that I love having the theatre as something to look forward to.”

Over the summer, I talked Socha into subscribing to the 5th Avenue Theatre with me. They were running a special on preview performances and I, knowing what a big fan of musicals he is, immediately reached out to him.

“I was counting down the days until we saw Come from Away—so worth it,” Socha said to me. “At this point, I’m getting more comfortable with actually making arts plans. I’ve even invited you to stuff!”

It’s true. Last season, Socha went with me to see two shows, The Impossibility of Now at Thalia’s Umbrella and Patti & the Kid at On the Boards, neither of which we connected with. It turned out our favorite show all year was Two Trains Running at Seattle Rep—a play that Socha invited me to. 

“One year ago, I wouldn’t have even considered going, or at the least would have talked myself out of it but knowing that I had a theatre buddy made me reach out,” Socha said. “When we actually got to the theatre, I would say that I was nervously excited. I was hoping we would have a good time, but you never know.”

Socha was put at ease five minutes into the performance and at intermission we were both beaming. 

Siddhi R. Ghai, a volunteer festival coordinator at Tasveer, has been with this group from the beginning. While she was living in India, she’d often see one or two plays a month. When I learned about Pratidhwani, Seattle’s only South Asian theatre company, I knew that Ghai was going to be a fan. 

“The few Pratidhwani plays we went to, Queen and A Small History of Amal, Age 7, were very interesting for me because I got to share a little bit of my culture with you,” Ghai told me.

She added that she loved getting all the cultural references without having to think about it. When we attended A Small History of Amal, Age 7 earlier this season—a play Ghai invited me to—she grabbed my arm as soon as we walked into the theatre. She was having a visceral reaction to the sound design—audio from a train station in Mumbai, the city where she grew up. 

When I asked her what it’s been like to see plays in a group setting, with people she may or may not know, her response was overwhelmingly positive. 

“Before meeting you, I never had the opportunity to discuss plays with a diverse group or people who I don’t know,” Ghai said to me. “It’s so interesting to get different perspectives because I feel it helps us expand our own cultural horizons.”

Jennifer Voorn, a manager of product management in the healthcare IT sector, has also gotten a lot out of these group outings. She’s part of the theatre group’s origin story and, along with Ghai, attended that first performance of Come from Away with me. In the last year, she’s come with me to see The Crucible and The Wolves at ACT Theatre, Native Gardens at Intiman Theatre and The Impossibility of Now

“I have greatly enjoyed meeting new people and hearing their perspective,” Voorn said. “I also enjoy experiencing the different levels of response a group can have to the same piece of art, in terms of what can make someone laugh, cry or be visibly uncomfortable. It’s amazing how the same piece of art can impact people so similarly—or so differently!”

Last season, Voorn took visiting family to see Into the Woods at Village Theatre. And, of course, she took a chance on some last-minute tickets to see Hamilton with her husband at The Paramount. 

“We bought last minute tickets on SeatGeek thirty minutes before the show,” Voorn said. “I was so nervous we wouldn’t make it to the venue on time. Once we arrived downtown, the smile on my face was so big. I will always remember that night.”

Melissa Herrett folded into my theatre group when she moved to Seattle in 2016, but a new dog and a job that requires her to travel has prevented a more consistent theatre habit. 

“I do see more shows now but that’s mainly because you invite me,” Herrett told me, adding that she wants to start bringing theatre into date nights with her boyfriend, substituting plays for the standby of dinner and a movie. 

Herrett did see Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore at ACT and The Impossibility of Now with the group this year.

“I prefer seeing shows with other people because my favorite part about them is being able to discuss after the fact,” Herrett said. “It’s nice to go together so you all have the experience of seeing the same performance. It would also be interesting to discuss a show that someone saw on a different night or at a different theatre and discuss how things varied from performance to performance.” 

Marissa Spiegel, an accountant, also enjoys the group outings. 

“I think it’s really fantastic to go see plays with a variety of people,” Spiegel said. “I think the people around you can really influence the show—not just the people you know there but the rest of the audience as well.” 

Spiegel attended group outings to see The Wolves and The Impossibility of Now. For The Wolves, Spiegel stayed with me to participate in the post-show discussion, which meant a lot to me. 

“My favorite type of experience has been when there is a group of people that has never seen the show and has 

relatively little context or background knowledge,” Spiegel said. “It’s great to see the show with a group that has fresh eyes to digest and talk about it afterwards.”

I have big dreams for the future of this group. I average about one theatre outing each month, but I’d love to get to a point where those outings happen on a day that people can count on—the first Wednesday of the month, for example. I’d love to create partnerships with local restaurants, so audience members can gather for a discounted drink or appetizer after the show and talk about what they just saw. I’d love to expand my network beyond Millennials I know, encouraging regulars to bring a friend along each time. And I’d love theatres across Seattle to work together to incentivize a younger audience base, rather than treating ticket sales like a competition for resources. 

But for now, while this is still an endeavor run by a volunteer staff of one, the most important thing I can do is keep planning events. 

I wish I could say that in the last three years, the group has grown exponentially and that every single event is a rousing success. But that would be a lie. Sometimes I email my group of forty and the only person who responds is my husband. Sometimes I can’t even get him to come with me. But I keep coming back, I keep putting in the work and I keep growing my network. Because I know these audience members count on me to take a chance on something new with them. And that’s enough to keep me going.

How to Start Your Own Arts Group

Excited about introducing your friends to more art? Start your own group for art lovers.

Choose a focus.

Danielle decided to choose theatre as her group’s focus, but yours could focus on dance, the symphony or even museums! Identify folks in your friend group who are curious about your passion and you’re on your way. 

Pick a performance.

Identify a performance that’s interesting to you and check Goldstar and TodayTix for discounts before you buy. Most performing arts organizations offer discounts for groups of ten or more, so be sure to check in with the box office if your group is large enough. 

Make a night of it.

Invite your group to get dinner before the performance or gather for a post-show drink. Not only is it a fun way to create community, it’s also the perfect place to download what you’ve just seen or excitedly anticipate what you’re about to see. 

Keep it going.

The key to a successful arts group is to just keep scheduling outings. Not every outing has to be a roaring success with fifteen of your friends. Sometimes only one or two others will be able to attend. That’s okay! Any opportunity to introduce friends to art is a success in our book.

A Roundtable Discussion with the TeenTix Press Corps

Encore recently sat down with four members of the new TeenTix Press Corps, along with Mariko Nagashima, the Press Corps manager, for a behind the scenes look at what arts journalism means to them.

Since 2006, the TeenTix Press Corps has collaborated with professional critics to mentor teens interested in arts journalism through workshops and intensives. In 2015, TeenTix put the Press Corps on hiatus in order to put racial equity and social justice at the center of the program. They relaunched in Spring 2018 and we couldn’t be more excited.

Danielle Mohlman: What about arts journalism most appeals to you? How did you get started in this field? 

Ben Capuano, senior at Mercer Island High School: I got introduced through my school paper. Compared to other articles that we would put out, reviewing had an increased emphasis on writer voice, which I really enjoyed. I got interested in criticism from watching reviews on YouTube—where you really need a personality that shines through all of your work. That was something that inspired me when I started out. And I think just over time it’s been easier to—well, I guess I’m actually still working on finding my voice. 

I think that’s a lifelong process as well. Or a career-long process. 

Capuano: Yeah. (Laughs.) 

Mariko Nagashima, Press Corps manager: For sure. 

Huma Ali, junior at Lake Washington High School: I definitely agree with what Ben said about how you get to have an opinion, but it’s also not just about your opinion. You actually have to look at the piece of art critically and assess what the artist did, how they did it and the constraints they had. And arts journalism also serves as a record for the artistic events that have happened over time. 

Erin Croom, senior at Garfield High School: I feel like writing arts criticism is a more formal expression of my opinion. Because it’s one thing to talk to my friend and say, “Oh I liked this movie.” Or “I didn’t like it.” But to analyze it in a more—not really intellectual or scholarly way—but in writing. In words that make sense on paper instead of how I’m talking right now. 

Nagashima: You kind of figure out your opinion about something as you’re writing about it? 

Croom: Yeah. 

Ali: And I think you can also figure out why you think that. Because when you’re talking to your friend, you’re like, “Yeah, I don’t like it.” But when you’re writing about it, you have to really dig deep and think, “Well, why don’t I like it?” 

There are joys that come with arts journalism, but there are also challenges. Talk to me about a challenge you’ve faced and how you worked through it. 

Joshua Fernandes, junior at Ballard High School: One of the challenges that I faced recently was figuring out how to review something that I’m not really familiar with the medium of. I recently reviewed an improv show—and that was my first improv show. And it was a horror show—and that was also my first horror-themed experience. So, approaching it from a position where you’re knowledgeable, but at the same time vulnerable. It’s really hard to strike a balance between the two and still make yourself sound authoritative. 

Right, because we’re expected to be experts for the readers, even if we’re not. 

Croom: I guess I had kind of an opposite experience when we saw the film White Rabbit. Film is where I feel the strongest, but with this one . . . it was just kind of odd and I didn’t really like it. And it was disappointing that I didn’t like it because I wanted to like the movie. I was kind of at a loss for what to say about it because I don’t want to tear it to shreds; it doesn’t deserve that. So, I researched. I looked at some other people’s reviews to see what they thought and how that compared to what I thought. And that helped me figure out my own ideas. 

Fall Press Corps Intensive lesson
Fall Press Corps Intensive lesson

Once you sat down to write your review, did you feel the same way about the film as you had initially? 

Croom: I think so. It was just easier to articulate. 

Capuano: During my first review for TeenTix, it was hard for me to physically juggle my notepad. I’d never really taken a notepad to go review a show before. 

And writing in the dark!

Capuano: Yeah! And I didn’t know how much to focus on my notes at the expense of not focusing on the show. So, I went on a note taking hiatus for a lot of the performance and then when I went back to write my review I was like, “Ah, I wish I had taken notes on this.” 

Ali: Well, generally I think it’s hard to write how you’re authentically feeling when you’re seeing a new medium that you don’t know much about. It’s also hard to write about different types of art. Like we were just talking about: when you have a lot more practice with film, it might be harder to write about visual art. I enjoy theatre, so when I write about plays, it generally turns out better than when I write about visual art. It’s hard to find a balance. 

Nagashima: Also, there’s been a little bit of a challenge in deciding what kind of style or voice TeenTix reviews want to have and deciding what, editorially, that looks like. Because this is new for everybody. We’ve never done this before. 

If you ran your own arts publication, what would it look like? What would you prioritize in terms of journalists and coverage? 

Ali: It would look like the Press Corps program. I just like how everything’s set up. 

Nagashima: Because you helped set it up. 

Ali: Oh yeah that makes sense. (Laughs.) I like the process. It’s effective and it’s fun. It’s a very enjoyable process—especially how our editors go see shows with our writers. 

Croom: I really like how in the Press Corps Intensive everyone is female-identifying. And it’s just a totally different sense of community than in my classes, where it’s both girls and boys. I think that focus, even though it’s not intentional—it’s just people who applied and got in—but it really does have an effect on how we discuss art and how we are willing to share our impressions and responses. 

Ali: And the people who are involved want to be involved. At school, things are made more painful because people don’t want to be there. But when you’re doing Press Corps, everyone wants to be there and they do their part, so it makes it a lot more enjoyable. 

Fernandes: I would agree. It’s just a lot of people who are really passionate about art and they love doing what they do. And, ideally, they would never get burned out. And they’d continue to do what they love just because they love it. 

Capuano: I read the TeenTix review for A Star is Born, and I had seen that movie. And when I read that review, I was able to have a different perspective on it—even though I had already seen it. I guess my ideal publication would allow people to take things that they were already somewhat familiar with and view it with a different perspective.

This round table was lightly edited and excerpted from an interview conducted November 7, 2018.