SIFF the Shoe Fits…: Tom Mara Leaves KEXP and Moves to SIFF as Executive Director

If one were to categorize the Seattle International Film Festival the last few years as a movie, it would fall under the “drama” category. Perhaps even “thriller.” For one thing: the dark specter of COVID. Two years of in-person film festivals were wiped out. This year’s festival had people back in the theaters, but not as many people as usual, nor as many films. For another thing: there has been some tumult behind-the-scenes. Leadership has been turned over time and again and some staff, with the return of the 2022 festival, walked out over pay issues.

Things are challenging, of late, at one of the great film festivals in America. Tom Mara, who recently retired from KEXP after 22 years as its executive director, is eager to take that challenge on and turn the drama into something, perhaps like a fantasy.

He recently sat down to talk to Encore Spotlight about the role, his goals, and Raging Bull.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jonathan Shipley: What’s your favorite movie of all time? Why?

Tom Mara: Raging Bull. I had already been a fan of Robert De Niro and his performance was, viewing it as a 16-year-old, tremendously powerful as a primer for life. Still is.

If you could have been cast in any movie, what movie and what role?

I would have loved to be any of the jurors opposite Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men just to witness firsthand his performance. Or to have played Fezzik in The Princess Bride!

Your, personally, favorite SIFF memories through the years?

Regardless of the particular theater, I always thoroughly enjoy the gathering in the lobby and sharing in the anticipation with others. I love listening to the conversations and engaging folks while queuing up. And the galas have been a hoot!

What interested you in taking on this new job of yours?

Music and film have been an active interest since I was a little boy. My older brother Mike was my music Sherpa, making sure I considered unfamiliar artists and genres from an early age.  In a similar role, my father would take us to the movie theater every Friday night for many, many years which also exposed me to a wide and deep array of films. (Including Raging Bull!) I just coveted those Friday nights. As a matter of fact, as a six-year-old or so, I learned about the notion of time through music and film. The theater would play music beforehand and I would ask Dad how many more songs before the movie started. Songs were a unit of time before minutes were. So, in other words, there’s a fundamental, personal connection to SIFF’s mission.

What are you hoping to improve or add to SIFF? What ideas do you have near and long term?

The COVID pandemic was particularly difficult on the performing arts, including film. Since I haven’t started yet, I don’t have enough information or context to point to a particular strategy, but I do feel our ability to generate greater impact will be based first on how healthy we are coming out of the pandemic. My experience at KEXP during COVID may be helpful here. Long term, the quest will be to reach more people and enable film to play a larger role in their lives.

What, generally, can Seattle and the state do to bring more filmmakers and filmmaking here?

I have applauded our governor and state legislature’s recent increased commitment to provide incentives to attract more productions throughout the state. Also, I am excited about King County Executive Dow Constantine’s efforts to champion our film community including, for example, the development of a 118,000 square foot sound stage at Harbor Island, a huge step forward. I look forward to working with our elected officials to explore and find impactful ways to boost our film and creative economy.

Were there any silver linings for the organization due to the COVID pandemic?

I heavily suspect we all now better understand and appreciate the life-lifting power of film, the coming together around it, and the sharing of experiencing it. I was so excited to attend SIFF’s opening night showing of Navalny at the Paramount. I couldn’t help continually looking around that beautiful room and watching my fellow attendees take in this great film.

Goals for this year? In five years’ time?

I think my focus for this year will be to really wrap my head around SIFF’s financial position and to set a path forward out of pandemic-mode. We have a tremendous crew and a very committed board in love with SIFF’s mission, which will make such a great difference.

For the longer view, I’ll need to spend some time when I start in August to immerse myself in all things SIFF. I can’t wait to get in the room with colleagues to begin plotting SIFF’s future and partnering with the community to generate even more impact. Ultimately, the future will be about film playing a larger role in more people’s lives and building community around that. Here we go!

Untold Stories Told: Matt Kizer and Native Writers’ Theater

Matt Kizer was just a normal kid growing up in Carson City, Nevada. It was the 1980s and he was a high schooler with an interest in the arts. His school had a good music program. He participated in it as much as he could. He joined the school choir. He was good at it. The choir was good, too. The choir traveled overseas. They got to tour Europe on several occasions. “No one really seemed interested in my heritage,” Kizer said of those teenage years in Nevada. “But, in Europe, I found that people were quite interested in my background. It felt great.” Kizer is a member of the Washoe Tribe. “That was a transformational experience for me.”

Kizer is now 50 years old and living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s also the artistic director at Native Writers’ Theater (NWT), a new 501(c)3 nonprofit under the umbrella of PlayGround, a playwright incubator. “After many years as a performer, working as an actor, dancer, and singer in multiple genres, I decided I wanted to focus specifically on stories, songs, myths, and legends from my tribe, as well as relate my own personal experiences.” Kizer wants that for himself. He wants that for others, too. That’s why he started the Native Writers’ Theater. It debuted last November as part of PlayGround’s third annual Innovators Showcase. “An Evening of New Native Plays” included one of Kizer’s own works, Starlings. The play centered on an Urban Indian having a crisis after hours at a museum. The evening also included works done by Beth Piatote (Nez Perce), Shannon R. Davis (Sami, Potawatomi, Ojibwe), Steven Flores (Comanche, Azteca, Mexica), and others. As Kizer said, “Seen many Native American plays lately? Neither have we. But we know that can change.”

And things are changing thanks, in part, to Kizer. Voices of Indigenous creatives are now being heard and amplified. Kizer has taken note of a plethora of playwrights making those voices heard including Linda Amayo-Hassan (Spirit Lake Dakota, Chicana), Ishmael Angaluuk Hope (Iñupiaq, Tlingit), and Moses Goods (Native Hawaiian), among many others. “A highlight of starting this,” Kizer said, “is making connections with other Native artists. I look forward to future collaborations.”

Native American isn’t monolithic. It’s as varied as America’s landscapes. Everyone’s story is different. There is not one “Indian Story.” Native life isn’t something of the past, a relic; something near forgotten; or found in a museum. “I want to continue to educate the world about who each of us are,” Kizer said. “That we’re still here and we have something to say about ourselves.”

Kizer has been performing in predominantly white institutions his entire life. In high school choir, he did. In the world of classical music that he found himself in. At the University of Nevada, Reno studying voice. His entire career after leaving school. “I have been lucky to have incredible mentors, teachers, directors, and choreographers—mostly white—who have helped me get to where I am today.” But, at the same time, “if it weren’t for the experiences of me being the only Native in the room almost every time, I wouldn’t have had the drive to create opportunities for Native creatives to be seen and heard.”

His new organization is in its infancy. Funding is on Kizer’s mind. Getting the word out to Native communities about the work he and his colleagues are doing is on his mind. He’s eager to start a Native writers retreat somewhere in the Bay Area. He’s currently trying to find a physical space for it. He’s at work creating a series of readings, also. It will happen this coming fall as part of the PlayGround Innovator Incubator Showcase.

Meanwhile, even with all that, he’s writing, eager to tell his stories and the stories of the Washoe people. “We are humans,” he said, “and have the exact same challenges that everyone else has on Earth. We all have to work, pay the bills, feed our families, and keep the lights on.” His light is on his desk, aglow, as he writes, exploring who he is. He says he’s interested in retelling the Washoe Tribe’s legends and contemporizing the tribe’s songs. “Every time I hear a new story, I’m gaining knowledge of what it is to be Washoe.”

Further, every story told tells us a little bit more about who we all are. We all gain knowledge by hearing the stories of others. Native voices are rising. As Kizer stated, “We want to take back our stories and tell them our way.”

Kizer is showing us all the way forward.

“An Evening of New Native Plays” is now available to watch on demand through June 30, 2022. The video is free, but donations are accepted and appreciated.

Mothers and Daughters, a Conversation With Desdemona Chiang and Rosa Joshi on “The Bonesetter’s Daughter”

This is a story of mothers and daughters. Based on Amy Tan’s fourth novel, The Bonesetter’s Daughter deals with the relationship between an American-born Chinese woman and her immigrant mother. It is a chronicle of war and revenge, joy and connection, and profound familial love.

We recently chatted with the playwright, Desdemona Chiang, who adapted it for Book-It Repertory Theatre’s stage, and Rosa Joshi, the production’s director. They discussed mothers and daughter dynamics, representation, and getting feedback from Amy Tan.

Desdemona Chiang: Hi, Rosa.

Rosa Joshi: How are you? How’s it going?

DC: Good. Good. Actually, let me just talk shop. I owe you a final copy of the script. Are you working off the Google Doc? We can talk offline about that. I just realized I should get you a script.

RJ: Yeah, if you want to just…Are you done?

DC: Yeah. I was just going to get you something official so you can officially send to the design team.

RJ: That is so exciting. Congratulations.

DC: Thank you. Sorry, Jonathan. We just totally side barred for a second, but we’re both here.

Jonathan Shipley: This is excellent. I am just curious as to what initially drew you to the story?

DC: This is a conversation that actually happened several years ago, back when Jane Jones and Myra Platt were running Book-It. And they had come to me in 2019. They were interested in doing an Amy Tan novel. The Joy Luck Club was the initial thought but then we couldn’t get the rights to it. They were interested in pursuing a novel of one of hers. We kicked around several options and it was between Kitchen God’s Wife or Bonesetter’s Daughter. And, ultimately, it came down to this piece because of the scope of the story. I was really interested in the fact that it was an intergenerational story, and it spans a wider breadth of cultures than the other books. So the size of the story and the themes are really important to me.

RJ: It’s a story about mothers and daughters intergenerationally. I’ve always been fascinated by that. And it’s rarely often that I get to work on that kind of story because I do so much Shakespeare and classical work. This is so personal in terms [of], “Ok, I have an Asian mother.” This is something that I can actually relate to very immediately and personally and I don’t have to go so far in my imagination.

JS: Your relationships with your mothers. Did they inform your thought process in regard to working on this piece? Did your thoughts of motherhood or family dynamics at all change?

DC: It’s interesting, I actually feel like my mom is not at all like the mothers of this story. I’m an only child, so in some ways I feel a deep kinship with Ruth, the protagonist, as someone who’s like looking into the future, like a crystal ball of sorts. “What’s going to happen with my mom when she gets older?” I definitely feel this idea of a single mom and a single daughter is something that feels very real for me. I had a single mom, and so it was the two of us my entire life. That’s something that I feel really attached to in this play.

RJ: And my situation is nothing like the situation in the book, but I feel kind of jealous that Ruth gets to know as much about her mom’s past as she does, because I don’t think I’ll ever get to know as much about my mom’s past. I do feel like now it’s maybe too late because my mom doesn’t really remember or want to talk about it as much. I get snippets here and there. I’ve only caught glimpses of the life she’s led and what she’s been through. And that, I think, is also fascinating to me in this story: how Lu Ling appears to the world and the life that she’s actually led.

We’re doing this with eight actors. We decided to make them all women and non-binary people, because that’s the kind of work that I also do. That actually was Desdemona’s idea. Then, as we were going along, we decided that it would be an all-Asian cast.

Rosa Joshi

JS: In regard to what initially drew you to the story, what inspired you to actually take it on? This question is mostly for you, Desdemona, about what made you actually put the pen to the paper?

DC: Book-It approached me about the adaptation and I was fortunate that they were kind enough to let me choose the story. I’m actually a director in the theatre field. That’s where the bulk of my work has been, so moving into this new area of writing is kind of exciting for me. I really didn’t even start writing until the pandemic but now that I’ve started doing it, I like playwriting. And adapting, I feel, is a soft way of entering into the world of writing plays, because you’re not accountable for the story. You just have to start thinking about dramatic structure and that’s a lot of what I did anyway as a director. It’s a new door that’s opening for me creatively that I’m really excited to pursue.

RJ: And she’s really good at it.

DC: That makes two of us. You’re very kind.

RJ: No, it’s true. And for me, it was the opportunity to work with Desdemona on this story. For me it’s very much the opportunity to work with an artist that I admire and respect so much and enjoy personally so much.

DC: It feels great to be thinking about a play and be working on a story and not be directing it and not be attached to directing choices. I loved your work so much, Rosa, and I feel so confident putting the story in your hands.

RJ: Thank you.

JS: You mentioned taking something from page to life. What challenges are there as a writer and/or director in creating a piece that just lives on a piece of paper? I mean, obviously there’s challenges, but also the joy. What parts do you leave out? What to leave in?

DC: Yeah. The novel covers so much…I mean, there are entire lines of drama that just are not in this play. We’re only getting about 15% of the novel in the script. The first thing I wanted to do was really hone in on what the story of the play was going to be and through what lens. And once it became clear that this was going to be a story about Ruth unpacking the part of her mother that she never knew. Right? This is a character who’s always known the depressed, grumpy, caustic mother. I never knew the daring, adventurous, risk-taking, bright person that she was when she was younger. And so, to Joshi’s point earlier about never knowing that side of her mom and her having an entire life you never knew about, I wanted that to be the lens of this play. And so, once it became about that, then cutting was kind of easy.

I mean, it was kind of comforting to know that this was Amy’s story that I’m drawing inspiration from, and there’s clever rearranging that I do, but I felt like that gave me permission to, “Okay, if I wanted to depart there and take a little dramatic license,” I could. The only tricky caveat with this is that Amy Tan has to approve this draft before it goes into direction.

JS: You just mentioned Amy Tan having input on your story. Is she planning to attend?

DC: I don’t know. That’s a question for the Book-It folks. They put me in touch with her and her agent and so I’ve been getting some feedback. I haven’t had a chance to synchronously connect with Amy one on one, but her agent has been very generous with feedback.

JS: You also mentioned telling your own story through the lens of the novel. I was wondering what theatre can bring to a story that the novel cannot.

RJ: We’re doing this with eight actors. We decided to make them all women and non-binary people, because that’s the kind of work that I also do. That actually was Desdemona’s idea. Then, as we were going along, we decided that it would be an all-Asian cast. Those choices then affect the lens with which you see the play. What the production can do is help you see it through a very specific lens that is theatrical; that makes you have to imagine these eight people as everyone. And, so, this then informs who the story belongs to.

JS: That leads up to my next question. With your all-Asian all-woman cast, was that a conscious decision on your part to make sure that happened from the start, or was it just a subconscious thought that just happened?

DC: The decision to make it all-women and non-binary, it wasn’t a political thing I was trying to do. Of course I think it’s always important to widen the scope of representation and make sure folks we don’t see play roles. I’m not big on the politics of casting. I cast the shows the way I see it. But in this situation, one of the reasons why I was curious about an all-female cast, was because it was such a mother-daughter heavy story.

RJ: These decisions come out of the art that we are making. They come out of, “What’s the best way to tell this story?”.

JS: The art, the story, is more important than the politicizing of it.

DC: Yes.

…if I can get someone in the audience to leave the lobby and want to call their mom or their daughter or their grandma or a sister after the show, that’s what I would love to happen.

Desdemona Chiang

JS: What are the themes or lessons that you want to impart with the show? What are you hoping audiences take away from the production?

DC: Usually when I work on a piece of theatre, I do have some kind of agenda. And by “agenda” I mean, “What can I get the audience to do, feel, understand about their world and their lives?” And, if anything, if I can get someone in the audience to leave the lobby and want to call their mom or their daughter or their grandma or a sister after the show, that’s what I would love to happen.

RJ: Oh, that’s beautiful.

DC: I think “I want to call my mom afterward” is a good agenda to have, especially for a play that’s, in this case, so culturally specific. I feel like universality is achieved through specificity. I go see August Wilson plays. I’m not a Black person but I can go see that play and be like, “Dude, I understand that family dynamic. I understand the love, the anger, the whatever, that is in the play.” If you have women in your lives, if you have a sister or mother or a daughter or a grandmother, you can call them afterward.

RJ: And to tag on to that, it’s this idea that you might want to know that person better. That you might want to think that whatever mystery is there that you might want to discover.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

The Bonesetter’s Daughter will play at Book-It Repertory Theatre June 8–July 3, 2022. Tickets are available online.

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Oh Reader!, among other publications.

Fantastic Embers: The Art of Live Storytelling

In the beginning, there was story. Humans would gather around the fire to tell stories: how they came to be and why. The embers would rise into the star-dazzled night.

There are Marvel movies now. They seem to be released every other week or so. Bejeweled with cinema’s finest actors, these stories are now told on screens, some as big as buildings. Others, so small as to be placed into a child’s wayward pocket. The special effects of these movies are tsunamis—a flood of action, light, movement, color. They delight.

In March, Book-It Repertory Theatre is presenting Mrs. Caliban, a play that features a character: Aquarius the Monsterman. A story written by playwright Rachel Ingalls, the show is being directed by award-winning Kelly Kitchens. Adapted by Frances Limoncelli, it tells the tale of Dorothy Caliban and her husband, Fred, two pleasant people living pleasant lives, just so long as you don’t mention the children they’ve lost, and as long as she doesn’t yearn for excitement and passion. What’s exciting is a monsterman appearing at your door.

Mrs. Caliban (running March 23–April 17) is a story fantastic—like the ones told by our ancestors on cave walls and by Hollywood’s latest trendy team—but told on one singular stage in front of one singular audience for one singular moment. “Storytelling,” Torrie McDonald, Book-It’s director of marketing and communication said, “is ancient and primeval. So, the immediacy and impermanence of that shared experience of watching theatre—with no filters, buffers, rewinding or rewatching—pulls at the thread within us that runs straight through the ages.”

That thread of magic—one glittery with fantasy, suspense, and the suspension of disbelief—is being seen in theatre scenes all around Seattle these coming weeks. Book-It’s Mrs. Caliban is a stinging blend of fantasy and domestic politics, showing us the joy of finding ourselves within ourselves. ACT Theatre’s The Thin Place (running March 18–April 10), by Lucas Hnath, and directed by Brandon J. Simmons, cofounder of The Seagull Project, asks: Can we talk to the dead? Can we communicate with loved ones that we have lost? The show is having its West Coast premiere. Meany Center for the Performing Arts will showcase MOMIX’s Alice, a surreal take on Lewis Carroll’s beloved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a surreal children’s book if there ever was one. The production is choreographed by MOMIX’s founder Moses Pendleton.

These shows show how audiences, who have seemingly been entertained by most everything (we are inundated with movies, TV shows, web series, and much more), can still be bewitched, bemused, and bedazzled by the simple act of telling a good story well.

headshot of director of the thin place Brandon J Simmons
Director of ACT’s “The Thin Place” Brandon J. Simmons. Image courtesy of artist

Obie Award-winner Lucas Hnath’s play, The Thin Place, explores a realm not far from any of us: death. But, still, far, indeed. As we slowly march through another season of COVID-19, death is all around us, and yet, we ourselves know nothing of death and what lies beyond our living. In the show, a woman says you can communicate with the dead in that boundary between the here and the hereafter. Is she pulling the wool over our eyes? Or are our eyes finally seeing the truth? Haunting and compelling, Hnath’s ghost story packs a punch, a twisty yarn that won’t easily unravel. “The play, of course, is about that hard to grasp space,” said Simmons, who is directing the production. “But it’s also about the invisible, electric space between the actor and the audience, because she is our storyteller.” Stories: old as time and as fresh as now.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865. The children’s book is literary nonsense with Alice falling through a rabbit hole and into a fantasy world of oddities and odd characters. Fans of the work have been falling for it ever since. There’s an entire industry based on the work with blockbuster movies, TV shows, games and more. MOMIX’s Alice (running May 12–14) is one such work eager to showcase its particular point of view on a piece we all know well.

a woman on stilts wears a long white dress while two other woman look up at her from below
MOMIX’s “Alice.” Photo by Andrea Chemelli

MOMIX is a dance company based in Connecticut, founded in 1981 by Moses Pendleton. The company presents works that combine acrobatics, dance, gymnastics, props, mime and film in a theatrical setting. “You can see why I think Alice is a natural fit for MOMIX,” Pendleton has stated. It premiered in 2019. “An opportunity to extend our reach. I want to take this show places we haven’t seen in terms of the fusion of dancing, lighting, music, costumes and projected imagery.” Pendleton is a storyteller of movement.

COVID-19 has relegated us all to isolation and our screens for entertainment. Wonderful, to be able to celebrate art still. No matter how isolated we feel, or how long a quarantine may be, there’s still the opportunity to explore art with one another, and find our common humanity in that way. But something has been missing. “Screens don’t give us access to that thin place that lies between two living bodies in space. Theatre does that!” noted Simmons, enthusiastically. “It’s thrilling to present a play that wants to explore that power.”

Whether it’s talking to ghosts, sitting on a mushroom with a hookah-smoking caterpillar, or inviting Aquarius, a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature into one’s home, the power of story is certainly stronger than the power of COVID-19. The power of story is being showcased with great aplomb on stage, curtains drawn back so that audiences can marvel like they’ve marveled for eons, much longer than any Marvel movie franchise. “Theatre,” McDonald said, “Is a un-replicable experience in magic.” Un-replicable—much like each fire from which the first stories were told by. The embers rising in their particular ways to the dark velvet of our dreams.

Mrs. Caliban will play at Book-It Repertory Theatre March 23–April 17; The Thin Place will play at ACT Theatre running March 18–April 10; MOMIX’s Alice will play at Meany Center for the Performing Arts May 12–14.

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Oh Reader!, among other publications.

We Talk Bringing Holiday Cheer to the Stage With Giovanna Sardelli, Director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”

In this pandemic age, we’re all eager to get back to the way things were. As the holiday season befalls us, we’re all doing our best to re-establish those holiday traditions we’ve held so dear with our friends and family. Picking out just the right tree at the Christmas tree farm. Lighting the menorah with those we love. Lighting Kwanzaa candles with our families. Sipping eggnog with dear friends. There’s a sense of sweet nostalgia this holiday season, perhaps, because of COVID, more than ever before.

Giovanna Sardelli, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s artistic director, has that feeling, too. So much so, she’s not only showcasing one of the greatest holiday movies of all time on stage, It’s a Wonderful Life, but doing so in an even more nostalgic fashion—as a live radio play.

It’s a Wonderful Life, for those who don’t know, tells the story of George Bailey, a man who has given up on his personal dreams to help others in his community. He tries to commit suicide one fateful Christmas Eve night that brings about his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody. Clarence shows George how his life has impacted the lives of others and how different life would be for his wife and the community of Bedford Falls had he not been born.

We sat down with Sardelli to talk about cherished memories, iconic films, and holiday wishes.

Jonathan Shipley: What are some of your favorite Christmas or holiday memories?

Giovanna Sardelli: Years ago, when my mother was still alive, several members of my Brazilian family came to stay with us for Christmas. We have a pretty small immediate family, so it was wonderful to have extended family together for the holidays. It was the first time my sister and I had seen my father and his brother together. We sat around the table telling stories in, what we call, Engliguese, since only my father and one cousin are fluent in both English and Portuguese. While I know there was one, I don’t have any memories of language being a barrier to all the family stories that we shared.

the cast of "It's a Wonderful Life" stand together in 1940s clothing
The cast of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at TheatreWorks. PHOTO BY PACIANO TRIUNFO

What, to you, is the definition of “the spirit of Christmas”?

Kindness and generosity. It always seems to feel like we’re trying harder at this time of year to spread joy and kindness.

What is it about It’s a Wonderful Life that makes it timeless?

In addition to being a beautifully written story, I think it’s because it’s about sacrificing for something larger than one’s self and celebrating those who often feel unseen and unvalued. It offers hope about who we can become. It reminds us of the best within ourselves—our ability to overcome adversity and our ability to support one another. It shows us that we can create a better world together.

What about your production might be surprising to Its a Wonderful Life movie fans?

How magically theatrical it is and how it transcends the radio play format. Also, how it connects to the present day.

Why do the production as a radio play at all?

Because it’s so much fun! Watching a group of five actors bring the story to life—with all the depth and heart of the original—is something to see. Then there is the added bonus of watching the cast perform all the foley. These are the sound effects that create the world of Bedford Falls. In some ways, it makes it a show within a show!

What does a radio play bring to audiences that other forms of entertainment dont?

Well, a radio play asks that you really listen to the story and that you use your imagination and join in the creation of the story with the actors. It has a good campfire feel to the storytelling. It’s a shared experience.

What is your Christmas wish this year?

From the universe, I wish for health and healing for all of us. From my Secret Santa, I wish for chocolate.

It’s a Wonderful Life plays at TheatreWorks’ Lucie Stern Theatre December 1–26, 2021. Tickets $25–60 and are available online.

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Oh Reader!, among other publications.

A Man of the People: Edwin Lindo and Estelita’s Library

In an unassuming building that used to be home to a wine bar, a community library and bookstore lies, ready to be explored. With a focus on social justice, ethnic studies and liberation movements, Estelita’s Library is open to anyone and has something for everyone.

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko. To Be Young, Gifted and Black, adapted by Robert Nemiroff. There is no order to the books on the shelves. There is an element of discovery. Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao, by Benjamin Schwartz. The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Du Bois. Homer’s The Iliad. It’s like someone’s den. A few shelves long against one wall. Another shelf on the far wall with paperbacks. Most of all the books dealing with race, politics, gender, justice. Crazy Laws and Lawsuits: A Collection of Bizarre Court Cases and Legal Rules, by Robert Allen. 

The books on the shelves have been placed there by Edwin Lindo. He’s never run a library before. He teaches at the University of Washington with the Department of Family Medicine. He got his BS in Business Administration/International Relations from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California and a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from the UW School of Law. He’s never worked in a bookstore, either. He runs this place—Estelita’s social justice library, bookstore and community space crammed into a little space on Beacon Hill. It’s across the street from El Centro de la Raza and behind a place called Chop House—a beauty salon.

Edwin Lindo (center) in conversation with patrons
Edwin Lindo (center) in conversation with patrons

Estelita’s was in a wine bar. The old counter now has vintage Black Panther comic books in it, old Black Scholar magazines, too. There are “Democracy is Power” postcards available for the taking. On the walls—African masks, tree branches with little bird nests in them (art created by local Briar Bates). Paper skeletons sweep across the front window. There are Che Guevara posters. An upright piano is shoved in by the window. There’s a church pew. There are a couple of tables with burgundy tablecloths on them to read, or commiserate, or to play chess.

The Responsibility of Intellectuals, by Noam Chomsky. The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka. Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela. 

“This is the sort of place I grew up in,” Lindo says. He grew up in the Bay Area to a Nicaraguan father and a Salvadoran mother. His dad would take him to a restaurant where there would frequently be discussions of art and politics, books and the news of the day. 

“I wanted to bring that here,” he says. “I hated books, I didn’t really start reading until after college. It was when I started listening to my elders that I started reading. They told me that books are where the secrets lie.”

The Rights of Indians and Tribes, by Stephen Pevar. Radical Dharma, by Jasmine Syedullah, Lama Rod Owens and Rev. angel Kyodo Williams. Roots, by Alex Haley.

The books on the shelves are mostly his own. It’s an interesting collection. Behind the counter he has piles of The Black Panther newspapers. The official newspaper of the Black Panther Party began in 1967, founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. He believes he may have the greatest collection of them in the world. Approximately 400 editions of the paper were created. He’s got 380 of them. He’s angling to get the whole set. “I tried to show them off to Bobby Seale. He said, ‘Cool, cool.’” 

A collection of postcards at Estilita’s
A collection of postcards at Estilita’s

The library is named after his daughter, Estelita, and opened in March 2018. The library operates through membership. From $30 to $50 or so, you can have access to the books (about 1,200 are in circulation now and he’s always looking for suitable donations) and have the books for a two-week stretch. Currently, Estelita has 336 members. “It’s amazing,” Lindo says of the growth. And more, the non-profit is already growing. He’s received a grant from the city to open a second location. It’ll be in the Central District. Plans are still being formulated.

The Quran. How to Rap, by Paul Edwards. The Macho Paradox, by Jackson Katz.

More than a place for knowledge to decentralize, it’s a place for the community to gather—play chess, have conversations with strangers, debate. Eager to bring people off the street, Lindo is also wanting to partner with like-minded community organizations. He wants to offer classes, book talks, lectures. “My wife asks me why I spend so much time here,” Lindo says. “It’s because I love it. I can spend hours here—jazz playing on the speakers, people coming in to talk, all these books.”

The Negro Revolution in America, by Louis Harris and William Brink. Native Son, by Richard Wright. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi.

Teenagers sit in the corner of the shop, peruse the titles and chitchat. It’s raining outside and they didn’t want to go home quite yet. Two old women come in, warmly chatting. Two thirty-somethings come in soon after. They ask Lindo about that night’s poetry open mic. “It’s been cancelled,” Lindo says, reluctantly. But then, “That doesn’t mean you can’t have it anyway,” Lindo tells them. 

The old women sit at a table with the thirty-somethings. They don’t know each other. They introduce themselves. They start talking. They get to know each other.

“That,” Lindo says, smiling. “That right there is what this is all about.”

Ryan Henry Ward on Murals in Seattle

Encore recently sat down with the urban artist, Ryan Henry Ward, to discuss the role of children in today’s society, Amazon hackers and where he’d love to paint a mural next.

Even if you don’t know who Ryan Henry Ward is, you’ve seen his work around town. Maybe it’s that weird Sasquatch painting on a building in Fremont. Maybe it’s an elephant on a Value Village wall. Maybe it’s googly-eyed fish, a walrus, a gnome along Interbay. Marking his work “Henry,” his murals have been popping up all over the city for years. 

What sparked your interest in art as a kid? What artists did you look up to? Who do you look up to now?

I grew up in rural Montana and had very little influence besides Sunday comics, Saturday morning cartoons and children’s books. I really was influenced by illustrators. Quentin Blake was my favorite. I was in love with how it felt like his drawings took no time at all to make. I always pushed myself to draw cartoons fast because of him. I liked Shel Silverstein and then Jim Unger, Gary Larson and Ralph Steadman as I got older. Presently, I’m being influenced by Hieronymus Bosch and Alex Kuno. I’ve also had a thread of influence as an adult from Diego Rivera, Keith Haring and, as cliché as it sounds, Picasso and Dali.

Your murals are often full of odd delight and charmed whimsy. Do you picture yourself that way? If not, how would you categorize yourself?

I find myself to be a pretty lighthearted laid-back guy. I tend to have a lot of funny thoughts going through my head most of the time. But I am a full person; I have a definite shadow side and embrace it. It seems to come out in my private work more. I do have a basic philosophy as a public artist and that is to acknowledge that children are part of the public. I think a lot of public artists overlook their responsibility towards the children whose eyes are wide open and seeing everything. I’m no Mr. Rogers but I admire him, and Jim Henson too, and find as an adult that I should take into account the development of the generations that will be responsible for taking care of my soon-to-be geriatric a**.

What do you think is different about a kid appreciating your art over an adult?

It feels like I found an interesting voice that somehow finds people of all ages to speak to. Five-year-olds, teenagers and adults of all ages enjoying the work in the same show is interesting to watch. I think all ages know when something works; when it has intuitive balance and flow. When you look at something and for an unknown reason want to keep looking. I think that experience happens and transcends the age barrier. I’ve seen it happen with my black-and-white work, my bright color work and my imagery that has nothing to do with fun characters. I think I open the door and allow a big audience in, but I think they see something and can’t easily explain why it works for so many. That’s the fun for me. I get to be the scientist behind the concoctions, so to speak, and watch my experimental process take hold in the hearts and minds of people from all walks of life.

What’s your favorite piece that can be seen in Seattle right now? What murals do you miss that are no longer there? 

I always say my favorite piece of art is the one I’m about to paint. But of the stuff that exists, I’m most proud of the work I’ve done for Flatstick Pub and the ongoing relationship I’ve developed with those guys. The installation on the corner of Mercer and Westlake is really worth experiencing. I had been dreaming of full room interactive installations for a while and I was finally able to do it. I’ve lost a handful of murals, mostly due to the tearing down of old buildings and putting up new ones in their place. It’s hard to see your babies go but it’s also the nature of the game. It’s sad when I lose one because I know how attached the community gets to them and how they become a part of their lives. When someone gets a hold of me and asks for permission to replace or cover it with something new, I feel a responsibility to historic preservation of the work and basically tell them no. Of all of them, I wish my first one was still here. That was on the Triangle Lounge in Fremont.

You came close to being able to paint the top of the Space Needle in a competition. What happened there?

Oh, the Space Needle saga. Q13 hired a computer forensics scientist and found an Amazon employee hacked into the voting program and swayed the process. It was weird because I had to remain neutral although I was upset because so many people put so much time and effort into voting for that. In the end they found it was hijacked. I felt horrible for my fans that put the time in and also felt bad for the other artist that was chosen that had to deal with the whole thing on her end. Basically, I don’t enter competitions anymore and have no interest in being involved in games that involve artist’s careers or lives.

If you could paint a mural on anything in Seattle, what would it be?

It would be the Seattle Aquarium. I love that place and that wall is a beauty.

Heidi Durham on the Nonprofit Art with Heart

For 20 years, Art with Heart has been an innovator helping kids build resilience, self-regulation and social-emotional skills to heal from Adverse Childhood Experiences. They use art-based, age appropriate, therapeutic activity books to help abused and traumatized kids heal. They have served 190,000 children so far and are on a mission to provide resources to at least 10 percent of the 35 million kids facing trauma in America in the next 10 years.

How did you get involved with Art with Heart?

After over a decade at Starbucks, a year in Ethiopia and two years working at a local brand strategy and design firm, I met our founder who was ready to pass the torch after 20 years. I was so impressed with what she had built. Motivated by the reality that 35 million kids are struggling with various adversities and inspired by the power of art to help kids heal by accessing the part of the brain where trauma is stored, I jumped at the chance to join. 

What sorts of kids participate? What types of traumas/adversities have they faced? 

Heidi Durham, Art With Heart CEO
Heidi Durham, Art With Heart CEO

Kids who take part in Art with Heart curriculum are often trying to cope with an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). These kids are not alone. A staggering 35 million American children are struggling with one or more ACEs; 28 percent are dealing with physical abuse, 27 percent with substance abuse, 20 percent with sexual abuse, 13 percent with domestic violence and 11 percent with emotional abuse. After exposure to ACEs, kids have twice the risk of heart disease, three times the risk of depression and a greater risk of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being victimized by violence. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network estimates that one in four kids has experienced a serious trauma by age 16—that’s eight children in a school class of 32. Eight kids who can’t pay attention, sit still long enough to read, or concentrate on the math problem on the chalkboard because their central nervous systems have been hijacked by traumatic stress. If they’re not helped, those eight kids can’t make up for lost time. They’re likely to be shuffled on to the next grade, labeled “disruptive” and isolated socially while struggling to cope with overwhelming emotions. Knowing so many children are struggling to cope with ACEs with no resources and not enough adults trained in trauma-sensitive interventions is what drives us. Their teachers, parents, family doctor and other caregivers are often at a loss for how to help. They may not understand the effects of trauma on a young, developing brain or have the skills to reach these kids. They may be too strapped for time and money to give kids what they truly need: trauma-sensitive, guided, therapeutic activities that help them safely express their challenging emotions and build resiliency skills for a healthier, happier future. 

What are some of the most powerful experiences you’ve had while interacting with the kids? 

Art with Heart is successful if kids finish an art project and feel like art is a coping strategy for them when faced with difficulty. There are so many stories of how art is a powerful tool to help kids through trauma. An 11-year-old said of the program, “Art helped me to get my feelings out on paper. Doing these actives let me know that there is someone out there in the world that has the same feelings as me.” A 16-year-old said, “Over the course of my life, I’ve experienced many negative emotions, there were some good ones as well. I have trouble expressing my emotions in a non-harmful way, so these art projects are a good way to express these emotions.”

Art With Heart painting activity

Why art? How does art reach a child when other things don’t?

Talking about trauma is difficult, in large part because it’s stored in the visual, nonverbal part of our brains. This is how creative expression has a unique role in healing—making art connects the head, heart and hands like no other method that exists. 

How can someone help?

Make a gift online. Come to an event. Volunteer.

You can learn more about Art with Heart’s curriculum, programs and how to get involved by visiting

Music Meets Literature with The Bushwick Book Club

Ever been inspired to write a song based on Moby Dick or Ready Player One; The Outsiders or Delta of Venus? The Bushwick Book Club is a group of musicians who create original compositions inspired by books they read. These compositions are then presented to a live audience and their fellow songwriters. 

Encore Stages recently sat down with Geoff Larson, Bushwick’s executive director, to discuss playing bass, Commander Toad and how music can help illuminate literature.

What’s your background?

I’m the executive director of Bushwick Northwest, the parent organization to The Bushwick Book Club Seattle and STYLE: Songwriting Through Youth Literature Education. I graduated from Western Washington University with a degree in Classical Performance on the upright bass while studying Jazz and Composition. I’ve spent 20 years working as a professional musician in a variety of styles, having the opportunity to tour the world. I now focus on my executive director role at Bushwick and producing events, education programs and recorded music in the Seattle area.

Geoff Larson
Geoff Larson

What is Bushwick Book Club and how did you get involved in it? 

Our goal is to ignite passion for literature and support musicians in their creative endeavors. More than anything, Bushwick is a community for artists to gather and share their compositions while supporting those around them.

I moved to NYC in 2009 with my jazz quartet, Das Vibenbass. While living in the city I ended up performing with a variety of groups and seeing some amazing performances, including The Bushwick Book Club right there in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was one of the most electric songwriting showcases I had ever seen. When I made the move back to Seattle, I knew I would need to start up a Bushwick chapter. I gathered a crew and we performed our first event in 2010.

How can music help illuminate literature? How can literature help illuminate music?

Music is something that can bring out emotions in an unexpected way. The way a performer choses to represent their inspiration certainly challenges each listener with their own experience with the same text. Each reader has a unique take on a single passage and will represent their experience accordingly. And then a listener will even have a different inspiration from the music. It’s a beautiful cycle of ideas and creation. Attaching a story to music can help bring a listener on a journey. This is something I always love to do with my instrumental music. I love hearing what journey a listener created while listening to my music. It’s actually a game I like to play inside the classroom with our education program, STYLE.

What books growing up touched you? What books have you gravitated towards as an adult?

In my youth, I loved adventure and exploration. These have been found in the simplicity of Beverly Cleary or in Commander Toad, although I could not deny the beautiful poetry of Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss. I have fond memories of my parents reading me those stories. As I grew into high school age, I found Kurt Vonnegut, still one of my favorite writers, and John Steinbeck. As an adult, I’ve counted heavily on those around me to guide me towards what they love. Science fiction is something I love beyond all. The creativity and thought towards the future cannot be matched with these incredible writers. I have to note that Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow has become one of my top reads. It feels so real to me.

How does one become involved in Bushwick? Are you seeking out singers?

Bushwick is always looking for more musicians to perform in our programs. All you need to do is share one song inspired by the written word with us, and provide us with your online presence. We love meeting new performers and bringing more artists together to foster support and collaboration.

We also love volunteers! It’s a wonderful way to help our organization charge forward and get the chance to support local artists and see our performances. You can volunteer by contacting us through our web page.

Favorite Bushwick memories?

Bushwick has too many to count—from our multiple performances at Benaroya Hall and McCaw Hall, to performing with a full orchestra at Town Hall Seattle. My favorite moment is picking up a guitar and performing that first song back in 2010. It was my first performance on guitar and vocals and my goal was to make sure everyone was comfortable to bring their own songs to this audience.

What are you looking forward to most next season?

I am ecstatic that we will have a place to call home next season. Thank you to the Hugo House for providing us with a location for most of our events. Our partnerships are a big deal to us. This also includes Town Hall Seattle, Seattle Arts & Lectures, The Vera Project, Jack Straw Cultural Center and Seattle7Writers.

As for our events, I’m looking forward to our Parable of the Talents event on April 20, 2019 at Town Hall Seattle. Working with our curator, KEXP’s Riz Rollins, is a fantastic experience, and I cannot wait for this second performance (we did Parable of the Sower last season). Octavia Butler is one of the best science fiction writers I’ve read, and the musicians found so much to create.

If you could perform in front of any author, living or dead, who would you pick? What sort of tune would you play?

This answer could change on any given day, but I’ll pick one for today. I’m going with Mary Doria Russell. I know that the song I would write would be inspired by The Sparrow and would be performed with my upright bass with my dropped D. There would be a solid drone with that low note and throughout the rest of the bass giving sense of urgency and waiting (I know it’s weird). I think I might focus on the loneliness our characters might feel while on a long journey through… Ok I won’t give anything away. Read the book!

How can someone help Bushwick?

Come to a show. Bring your friends! You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll be supporting local musicians.

Seattle Modern Orchestra’s Jérémy Jolley

Seattle Modern Orchestra (SMO) is the only large ensemble in the Pacific Northwest solely dedicated to the performance of contemporary classical music. The professional new music ensemble, conducted by Julia Tai, has 18 musicians performing in many different configurations, adding to Seattle’s artistic landscape and cultural dialogue.

Jérémy Jolley, SMO’s co-artistic director (along with Tai), is eager for SMO’s distinct voice to be heard. He recently sat down with Encore to discuss the meaning of modern music, the challenges in performing it and Echoes of Tinder.

Tell me a bit about yourself.

I was born in Lyon, France and grew up in the French Alps. I moved to Seattle in 1997, pursued composition studies and received my Bachelor of Arts and Master of Music degrees in Composition from the University of Washington. I’m the co-artistic director of SMO, also the artistic collaborations manager at the Seattle Symphony.

What is Seattle Modern Orchestra? How is it different than other orchestras in the area?

Seattle Modern Orchestra focuses on music that relates to the present or recent past. It is a modern orchestra that explores what music can be.

Seattle Modern Orchestra

How did you get involved with SMO? Why was it important to you?

In June 2010, Julia Tai organized a concert featuring Steve Reich’s Tehillim under the name Seattle Modern Orchestra. In August of that year, after returning from a new music festival in Germany, I was looking forward to creating a way to consistently present contemporary music in Seattle. Julia and I had met during our studies at the University of Washington, where she had conducted one of my works, so I contacted to see if I could join her effort with SMO and we launched SMO’s first season in 2010–2011. Seattle area audiences must have access to all of the different types of music being created today. Experiencing different types of thought and expression is key to living in today’s society.

People have a perception of what classical music is. What does SMO do to change those perceptions?

Today’s performing groups, including SMO, are taking a critical look at whose music has been performed and whose has not. SMO’s mission to perform the music of today gives us the chance to challenge all these preconceived notions associated with “classical” music. We are always experimenting with the concert format and asking our audience for their input. Overall, there is an attitude of welcoming people to a concert as if they were being welcomed into our homes.

Who are some of your favorite modern composers?

Ah! There are too many to list here, but if you insist; some composers that I return to regularly and recommend exploring are Giacinto Scelsi, Luigi Nono and G’rard Grisey. Their unbound love for sound and its expressive potential is very compelling to me.

What are some of your favorite SMO memories?

All of my favorite memories of SMO are a variation on the same experience, that is, at a concert, while listening to the works being played; or after the performance, looking at the facial expressions of the audience. The faces of wonder, excitement, bewilderment. I typically sit on the side of the auditorium, and to see the humble and thankful looks that audiences and performers give one another is magical.

What are you looking forward to in the coming season?

This season is very exciting for me because I’ve only heard one of the pieces of our season performed live! I’m looking forward to discovering them deeply as we prepare them for our three concerts. This coming season we will get to play with Yigit Kolat and his Echoes of Tinder for ensemble and electronics. We will also have a concert celebrating flutist/composer/conductor Robert Aitken. Aitken is from Toronto, Canada and will play with and conduct the ensemble music by Toru Takemitsu, Brian Cherney, Iannis Xenakis and his own. Our last concert of the season will feature the American composer and vocalist Erin Gee who will perform a few of her Mouthpieces with the ensemble. These are works in which she explores the nature of vocal sounds and their relation to instrumental sounds. It is a uniquely beautiful experience.