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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And how long ago was that?

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

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

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

Oh wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

This is an open invitation, then.

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

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

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

The Joy and Value of a Student Matinee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Start a New Holiday Tradition With Help From Bay Area Theatres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a wonderful way to welcome in the new year.

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

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

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

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

A Flurry of Holiday Delights Take the Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shout Sister Shout! runs now through December 22 at Seattle Rep. Tickets are available online or by calling 206.443.2222.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American TheatreThe Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Yang Zhen Finds Inspiration in Friends and Travel in ‘Minorities’

When Yang Zhen and I spoke on the phone in early October, Yang was quite literally burning the midnight oil. The choreographer was at home in Beijing, winding down after a late-night rehearsal for his latest evening-length piece, Minorities.

While Yang’s day was coming to an end, mine was just beginning. As we navigated time zones and language barriers, I asked Yang my most burning question: The marketing materials that Stanford Live put out call him a “boy wonder.” I wanted to know what that phrase meant to him.

“I don’t know why they’re calling me this,” he laughed. “Maybe I’m a genius for creation.” Despite his humble approach to his work, Yang is gearing up for an exciting step in Minorities’ journey: a North American tour spanning Toronto, Canada and Stanford, California. Over the course of our conversation, Yang spoke about why he, as part of the ethnic majority in China, felt so compelled to create a piece for and about minority identity.

Danielle Mohlman: So much of Minorities is about identity. What was your initial inspiration for the piece?

Yang Zhen: My university was the center of diversity in Beijing. There are a lot of different ethnic minorities in China―and many come to Minzu University to study. I had four years at that university and made a lot of friends who educated me on the tradition of minority dance. Because at my university, we learned the “official” dances of all these minority cultures and my friends would say, “Oh no. It’s very different from what you learned.”

When they came to Beijing, my friends had to change their lives and the way they behave. It’s very difficult and very sensitive. There are different ideas and different ways of talking―and it brought some contrast to my world.

From different cultural perspectives in China?

Yes. And then I went to Xinjiang, a province in western China, just to tour it. And I found that that city is not very different from my own home in Beijing. And then I went to Mongolia, I went to the Hunan Province. But my inspiration really started with those four years in university―from my friends. It made me want to talk about these themes.

Production Photo from ‘Minorities.’ Courtesy of artist

This performance at Stanford is the first time Minorities has been seen in the United States. What does it mean to be sharing your work―and this work in particular―with an American audience?

The identity I speak from―the Chinese society―has issues and problems that are very international. I think everywhere has identity problems. And I think America has their own identity problem. People from all over come to America. I’ve been to New York and it’s an amazing city. There’s freedom in the society. But it’s a very sensitive issue. I really like to take the subway to go everywhere. It’s very personal. I like to watch how people behave, and the details that they show in a public place.

With Minorities, I’m able to share the Chinese minorities with an American audience. Their lives, their hopes, their disappointments. The way they occupy this new generation. I think this is very, very universal.

The majority of your audience in California will be English-speaking. How does dance and your work transcend language?

Well first, we have body language.

Of course.

Minorities will of course have traditional dance from Chinese Koreans, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang Province and Macao. And you’ll see how the dance technique of these traditional dances interacts with the technique of acting and theatre. And the music is also very important. We have one section where the music is from the 1960s. And that dance style is very straight. Everyone has these set smiles―like robots. The dancing from that time was the national machine. Everyone had to be the same. It was totalitarian; that was the aesthetic. And then we go back to the traditional and soft dance. It’s like we are back in our university learning modern dance. Every look, ever contour is very, very soft.

Production Photo from ‘Minorities.’ Courtesy of artist

To go from that stiff totalitarian style to that soft flowing look―I bet that’s really beautiful to see.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everything has to be beautiful. And after 2008, after China hosted the Olympics, everyone really started to learn English. Everybody wanted to be international. So there’s this dance in Minorities that’s very much like a playground dance.

Oh fun!

It’s very fun. And you can see the whole identity of China covering the country.

Before I let you go, what are you most looking forward to about coming to California?

Oh, everyone in my group is so excited for this work to be in North America. We’re excited about the audience. We’re curious about how they think about China. The piece is more asking than answering, you know what I mean?

It comes with questions.

Yeah, yeah. Because we’re never really confused about who we are. But some days you wake up and you ask “Who am I?”

Minorities runs November 1 to 3 at Stanford Live. Tickets are available online or by calling 650.724.2464.

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.

Kate Attwell Blends Women’s Athletics and Colonization in Her New Play, ‘Testmatch’

When I spoke with Testmatch playwright Kate Attwell on her second day of rehearsal at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco, she was in a fight with jet lag. “I haven’t had breakfast yet, but I’ve had at least three cups of coffee,” Attwell shared. “I’ve literally been up since four thinking ‘When am I allowed to really be in the world?’”

The answer, as far as I’m concerned, is right now. Attwell, who identifies as “technically Irish,” spent most of her childhood in South Africa, Texas and England. After getting an MFA in Dramaturgy from Yale, Attwell moved to London, splitting her time between there and New York. So, the jet lag is understandable. As she acclimated to the West Coast, Attwell and I talked about sports, theatre, and why she’s making space for marginalized voices in her work.

Playwright Kate Attwell. Courtesy of A.C.T.

Danielle Mohlman: There’s something really powerful about using sports as a conduit onstage, especially for female-identifying playwrights. Can you talk to me about your relationship to cricket and why you chose this sport as you navigate themes of race, colonialism and gender?

Kate Attwell: I was watching some women’s cricket on television a couple years ago and it wasn’t a sport that I’d thought of in a long time. I hadn’t really thought about cricket since I was a kid. And I was watching a T20 [Twenty20] version of the sport, which is like a faster version of the sport. It’s super commercial and much more exciting than the traditional way that it’s played. And it just felt exciting to me to see women having that level of visibility in the sport and the way that it really is a calculated game. It’s also a dangerous game. The ball is intensely hard and comes at you really fast. The batswomen are wearing these war gear uniforms. We see that kind of attire in ice hockey or men playing American football. But that war gear on female bodies just felt really exciting to me. And now, this sport is essentially being played by what is, and was, this colonizing nation—and all of the nations that it historically colonized.

Because it’s huge in India.

It’s huge in India. Yeah yeah yeah. It’s an amazing sport there. The excitement around it is something that’s really wonderful to witness.

One thing that I noticed in the production credits is that A.C.T. has hired Radhika Rao as a cultural consultant—and I think that’s incredible to see, in the same way that I’m relieved to see an intimacy consultant involved with a play that has a lot of sexual content. Can you talk about the decision to bring her on board?

Yeah. Radhika is fantastic. She’s been with us since we did a workshop back at the beginning of the year. It’s been crucial to me in all the phases of development to have someone who’s holding that space in a completely authentic way. This is a very important story to be telling because I’m wanting to harshly interrogate—and critique—the colonial impulse, which plays out in so many different ways. It’s not just about India. It’s about that force of white supremacy and the way that it existed historically. It’s about looking at the historical narrative in order to look at where we are today. And having Radhika in the room has been crucial for the actors as well.

Cast and crew in rehearsal for 'Testmatch.'
Cast and crew in rehearsal for ‘Testmatch.’ Photo by Beryl Baker

Because oftentimes—you know, you’re talking about an intimacy consultant. That’s a very similar kind of thing, where historically we can over depend on actors having to bring their own understandings, their own dramaturgy, their own culture. And that we only rely on that. And that’s great if they want to share that. And I think the reason I love theatre is because I love working with actors. And letting them bring themselves to the role and letting them have an impact on it. That’s crucial. But also having somebody who’s not embodying it—to be able to authenticate and hold that space for them—feels super crucial too. It’s a necessity of the work.

You said you split your time between London and New York. What’s one thing American theatre can learn from England?

This may be a boring answer, but ticket prices. In London, I can always figure out how to see a show for £15. And that feels very manageable in a way that $50 or $70 is just ludicrous. And I think that allows theatre to be a living, breathing part of society and culture in a very different way. And that allows for experimentation and different ways to take risks.

Coming back to Testmatch: Do you have a favorite moment from rehearsal so far? Or something you’re looking forward to in the coming weeks?

Yeah, yesterday was my first day.

Director Pam MacKinnon and cast member Avanthika Srinivasan in rehearsal for 'Testmatch.'
Director Pam MacKinnon and cast member Avanthika Srinivasan in rehearsal for ‘Testmatch.’ Photo by Beryl Baker

And you’re still adjusting to the time zone.

Yeah, I’m just like “Where am I? Who am I? Who wrote this play?” But I’m really looking forward to everyone being able to get on their feet. I’m so impressed with Pam MacKinnon. She’s amazing so far. I love watching her. I feel completely comfortable as a writer.

There’s a trust there.

Yeah, exactly! And this is a very stylistic play. It’s a little bit Greek, it’s a little bit farce, it’s a little bit realism, it’s a little bit metatheatrical. It’s all of these different things. And now, being able to actually build those other things that the play is doing, is really exciting.

CORRECTION: October 31, 2019
A previous version of the article misstated that Kate Attwell holds a MFA in playwriting. She holds a MFA in dramaturgy.

Testmatch runs October 24 to December 8 at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 415.749.2228.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American TheatreThe Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

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.

Tiny Clips for Tiny Tots: Brass will broadcast on April 4 at 10:30 a.m. It will be available on Seattle Symphony’s website, Youtube channel and Facebook page.

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.