Pacific Northwest Ballet Opens Their Season With Two Musical Powerhouses

Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana choreographed by Kent Stowell is a visual extravaganza where a 2,500-pound golden wheel rotates above more than 100 dancers, musicians and singers. The second work, Agon, marks a high point in the partnership between choreographer George Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky. We talked to Music Director and Principal Conductor Emil de Cou about the musical challenges and payoffs of this evening at the ballet.

Rosemary Jones: This particular version of Orff’s Carmina Burana was choreographed by Kent Stowell for the opening season of Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. What do you think of it today?

Emil de Cou: People forget that that Carmina Burana was originally done as a piece of theatre. I’ve done it as a symphony concert many times, but when you add dance, lights, costumes and a set, then it is a rare opportunity to see it as Orff meant it to be seen. I love what Kent did. The piece is one of the trickiest and the best that we do at Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Pacific Northwest Ballet Music Director and Principal Conductor Emil de Cou.
Pacific Northwest Ballet Music Director and Principal Conductor Emil de Cou. Photo by Griffin Harrington

During rehearsals, what’s your most frequent reminder to the orchestra and the singers?

Use the language! I remind them that even if you don’t understand the words, the audience needs to understand the text as written; that the sound of the word adds excitement. There’s the very loud opening of “O Fortuna” and then it gets very hushed and quiet. The trill of the “r” and the hard “t”, that makes it sound that much more sinister and spooky. The orchestra plays this brilliantly. We have the Pacific Lutheran University Choral Union as the chorus again. We also had them last November for Jupiter Ascending. They are so beautiful to hear and a real joy to work with.

You have spoken about the responsibility of a ballet conductor to support the dancers, to the point of changing up your conducting in response to what’s happening in a live performance. In conducting the choir and the orchestra while musically supporting the dancers on stage, are there any particular moments in Carmina Burana that are especially tricky?

It’s not like we’re doing Swan Lake or Romeo where I can change on a dime. It’s very much in the Balanchine aesthetic where the music comes first. So, what we can do [as an orchestra] is more fine tuning. There’s “In Taberna” where  all the men are on stage, very rhythmic and bawdy. Rhythmically the composer has taken a lot of ideas of Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring, creating neo-primitive music. Orff goes back to this primitive prehistory music idea where everything is based on rhythm. Right after that is the “Cour d’amours,” which feels like very idealized Debussy harmonies. It’s very yin and yang, as we are going from bawdy, boisterous drunkenness to the female soloist on stage. It’s also very fun to perform.

PNB principal dancer Lesley Rausch in 'Agon.'
PNB principal dancer Lesley Rausch in ‘Agon.’ Photo by Angela Sterling

Part of the excitement of Carmina is having the choir visible and suspended over the stage. What are some of the challenges of that staging and having them almost as far away from you as possible?

The chorus is located up against the back wall, about 20 feet above the stage, and wearing hoods. They can’t hear each other well. They do have their music, but it is lit very dimly. The staging is against all the things that choruses are used to doing. It’s really tricky.

When do you know for certain that it is going to work out and be a great night of music and dance?

I feel like that when the “O Fortuna” comes back. Up to that moment there’s umpteen things that could go wrong, and as a conductor, you can’t let your guard down. When the soprano sings this very high “D” that seems to come out of nowhere, you can tell that you’re there.

PNB principal dancers Lindsi Dec and Seth Orza with company dancers in 'Carmina Burana.'
PNB principal dancers Lindsi Dec and Seth Orza with company dancers in ‘Carmina Burana.’ Photo by Angela Sterling

So how do you feel about the pairing of Carmina Burana and Balanchine’s Agon?

They are polar opposites. Carmina is like a Cecil B. DeMille epic on stage. Agon is very distilled. Agon is a masterpiece of Stravinsky’s but it doesn’t work as an abstract concert piece like Carmina. With Agon you need the dancers. The piece doesn’t come to life without that element. There’s this one moment where the audience always bursts into this huge cheering—and I think that’s the only time that a 12-tone composition gets huge ovation. Because it’s in the middle of Agon and because people listen with their eyes at the ballet.

Carmina Burana and Agon are opening Pacific Northwest Ballet’s season as a double-bill performance showing September 27–October 6. Tickets are available online.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, and others. Additional work can be seen at

SF Opera Borrows the Jumbo Screen at Oracle Park

It takes a lot of people to put on a show, and that’s never more true than San Francisco Opera’s annual partnership with the San Francisco Giants for Opera at the Ballpark. Returning on September 21 to Oracle Park, this year’s simulcast will be Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet.

Transmitting in high definition live from the stage of the War Memorial Opera House to the new 71-foot high Mitsubishi Electronic Diamond Vision Board, the Romeo and Juliet simulcast will be 50 feet wider and 20 feet higher than the former board. Since 2006, the partnership between the Giants and San Francisco Opera has brought an incredible free arts experience to over 300,000 people of all ages.

To answer such vital questions as the best place to sit and the best snack to munch, we turned to San Francisco Opera’s Managing Director, Production and Simulcast Executive Producer Jennifer Good; Simulcast Producer and Content Coordinator Jeremy Patfield; and Simulcast Producer and Logistics Coordinator Jodi Gage.

Jodi Gage, Jennifer Good, and Jeremy Patfield. Courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Rosemary Jones: What are some of the technical challenges of doing a live simulcast to the largest movie screen in San Francisco?

Jennifer Good: At the opera house we always get to rehearse in the weeks leading up to the first live performance. So overall, we find that we have to exercise our “wing it” muscles since we have limited time to run through all the technical factors during our single load-in day and the day of the simulcast.  We’re really grateful to the San Francisco Giants for their expertise as we transition into their venue!

Do you change any of the blocking of the opera for the cameras?

Jennifer Good: Once a production opens at San Francisco Opera, we try to keep things as consistent as possible for the singers and other cast members. So though we may make some slight tweaks in the staging if absolutely necessary for the simulcast performance, we have to do that before we record the preceding performance as our back-up. We do make lighting adjustments to optimize the ballpark crowd’s experience, but we’re careful not to compromise the artistic integrity of what the audience at the opera house sees.

Sound is always a concern for opera lovers. How does this sound in the ballpark? Any suggestions on the best place to sit for the maximum effect?

Jeremy Patfield: We have to give a huge shout out to our generous partner, Meyer Sound!  They provide us with the highest quality sound equipment for use at Oracle Park, which we test for hours leading up to the simulcast performance. Also, many of our IATSE Local 16* sound crew have years of experience with live concerts in big venues along with their expertise with opera and the more intimate theatre setting of the War Memorial Opera House. We synchronize the sound and visual elements at Oracle Park so that they are aligned at home plate. We feel like every seat in the stadium is a great seat from which to watch and listen!

Opera at the Ballpark 2017. Photo by Stefan Cohen/San Francisco Opera

For the audience, how close is this to what they would experience in the opera house?

Jeremy Patfield: We’d like to think that the powerful singing, storytelling and production values are as intense and meaningful in the ballpark as they are at the opera house. It’s the live audience in both locations that amplifies the energy that the performers bring to the stage and screen.

So, what’s the best Oracle Park snack for pairing with Romeo and Juliet: garlic French fries or hot dogs?

Jodi Gage: Well, this is a French opera after all.  So one would think that people might lean toward the French fries. But we’ve heard that the Capulets won’t eat the same snack as the Montagues, so we think the hot dogs still have a fighting chance.

How family friendly is this opera and this event?

Jennifer Good: The opera Romeo and Juliet and the simulcast event are both perfect for families!  This is one of the most well-known stories in the world and it touches on many themes that resonate in today’s world. Parents can give their children an introduction to the story of the fated young couple in advance, in so many ways, since there are countless modern accountings of Shakespeare’s play.

Pene Pati and Nadine Sierra in Gounod's ‘Romeo and Juliet.’
Pene Pati and Nadine Sierra in Gounod’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

What’s the best part of this annual event for San Francisco Opera?

Jodi Gage: The audience! It’s really such an amazing chance for us to bring opera to our community in such a fun, casual setting at Oracle Park with our great partner, the San Francisco Giants!

*Editor’s Note: IATSE Local 16 is the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada.

San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Giants present Opera at the Ballpark, a free live simulcast of Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet (Roméo et Juliette), on Saturday, September 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Oracle Park. The event is free and open to the public, but advance online registration is recommended. Register at Entrance to the stadium begins at 5:30 p.m.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, and others. Additional work can be seen at

Seattle Rep Teams Up With the Community to Put on a Show

We talk to Public Works Director Angie Kamel about how Seattle Rep’s Public Works program centers on the joy of theatre, and how it lives up to their motto: “theatre of, by, and for the people.”

Seattle Rep’s Public Works program is an ambitious attempt to create theatre relevant to communities and those within them. After successfully launching with a citywide production of The Odyssey in 2017, the program has provided workshops, classes and conversations about theatre. This summer, they’re back to rehearsal as more than 100 community members prepare for a musical version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the Bagley Wright Theater in early September.

Public Works Director Angie Kamel.
Public Works Director Angie Kamel. Courtesy of Seattle Rep’s Public Works

Rosemary Jones: How did the idea for a series of community classes, dialogues and grand performance come about?

Angie Kamel: Public Works began as a program at New York’s Public Theater for community-based theatre. It’s certainly a lovely way for a regional company to be involved in community. Our Artistic Director Braden Abraham was interested in this type of work for some time. He was so excited about [what New York had done] and wanted to make it happen. He and Marya Sea Kaminski kept talking about the future of Seattle Rep here. Marya was interested in a similar type of work and [began the program at the Rep]. In 2016, we held our first classes.

How does the program work for Seattle Rep and its partners?

We are looking for deep, long-term relationships with members of our community and building relationships with existing organizations. We host classes and special events throughout the year to create an appreciation of theatre-making in general. Our partners vary. We have seven partners at the moment and some have been with us since 2016. Some of our participants, like Path with Art, create arts access for folks who are low or no income. For the acting classes at Seattle Central College, we are embedded in classes. We work with Ballard NW Senior Center, Byrd Barr Place, Jubilee Women’s Center, the Boys & Girls Clubs of King County and, most recently, Compass Housing down in Redmond. At Compass we have a multigenerational group with the youngest participant being six and our oldest in her 70s.

Rehearsal of 'The Odyssey.'
Rehearsal of ‘The Odyssey.’ Photo by Jim Bennett/Seattle Rep’s Public Works

What are some of the ways that you spark conversation around theatre and the community?

We host a meal around every mainstage show, two potlucks a year, and find other ways to support leadership of different organizations. [One] of our goals [is] to build enough relationships so that we can get together in our upcoming season to create cross-cultural communications and intergenerational connection—to have young people from Boys & Girls Club building relationships with Ballard NW Senior Center, for example. We want to emphasize human commonality and build ties across experiences.

How does the performance of As You Like It build those relationships?

It’s deeply rooted in the values and goals of the program. Musical theatre is a great opportunity for joyful expression. This is theatre for anyone who wants to participate and creates a big, dynamic, exciting opportunity for people on the stage and in the audience. They get to exercise various aspects of their creativity. It’s not only members from our workshops and partnerships. Beyond that, we’ve opened auditions to [the] general public in our region who are interested in the values of the work that we are doing. There are five Equity actors in the show, a number of actors who participate in the fringe scene and a number who feel a real connection with spirit.

Rehearsal of 'The Odyssey.'
Rehearsal of ‘The Odyssey.’ Photo by Jim Bennett/Seattle Rep’s Public Works

There’s also a bunch of community groups who will be on stage.

[A] big part of what we are doing is redefining the participation of professional musicians. Regular musicians who work in musical theatre as well as a number of cameo groups or feature artists [are in the show]. We’re working with a number of incredible groups like the Seattle Hand Drummers, Lucha Libre Volcánica and LQ Lion Dance. Local puppeteer Sarah Lovett is loaning one of her rainbow serpents.

So, this is a big show and a lot of work.

It’s fully costumed and with 100 plus people needing costumes, our costume shop was moving full speed ahead this summer. We want everyone in the show to get the same level of respect as any artist who walks through door.

Performance of 'The Odyssey.'
Performance of ‘The Odyssey.’ Photo by Jim Bennett/Seattle Rep’s Public Works

What do the theatre professionals get out of this work?

There are ways that we produce theatre that aren’t particularly friendly or welcoming or comforting. The pros have learned so much during the process of The Odyssey. A lot of folks did not necessarily know what it was going to be [until] once it happened and saw this is how we can do things differently to support the actors, the director and crew in a really beautiful way. That’s so incredibly good and valuable. Our director for As You Like It, Timothy McCuen Piggee, brings joy. His spirit is perfect for this work. He talks about a big part of what makes this show interesting is the bonds between family, chosen and otherwise. How it’s about reconciliation, love and understanding.

Seattle Rep’s Public Works’ As You Like It will play at the Bagley Wright Theater September 6–8.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, and others. Additional work can be seen at

David Samuel Talks Touring With Willy Wonka and the Gang

Seattle audiences will spot a familiar face in the touring production of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory landing at The Paramount Theatre at the end of this month. Playing the father of golden ticket recipient Violet, David Samuel hopes that greater diversity in the show will help children connect with a story that he’s loved for years. He talked to Encore Spotlight about his “late” start in musical theatre, why diversity is so important in casting, and what type of chocolate he’d make in his factory.

Rosemary Jones: In earlier interviews, you mentioned that you came to musical theatre late. What inspired you to try this career?

David Samuel: When I say I came to musical theatre late, I mean that I didn’t have the typical “I grew up in dance classes and singing lessons from the age of five” story. I started considering musical theatre around the age of 19, when I took a musical theatre history class as a part of my degree requirements at the University of Maryland, College Park. I had a number of great teachers at that school, and Scot Reese was the musical theatre professor. I then went to graduate school at Brown University/Trinity Rep for my MFA in Acting. In that program we had a lovely singing teacher, Kathryn Jennings, as well as our head of voice and speech, Thom Jones. He really made me believe I had a voice, and I can’t thank him enough. 

Actor David Samuel. Courtesy of Broadway at The Paramount

What were your earliest experiences as a professional actor after college?

After graduate school I moved to New York City and musicals were not really on my mind. I did Shakespeare Off-Broadway at Classic Stage Company and as the universe would have it, my first show was with a who’s who of New York actors, one of them being André De Shields. 

A few months after our show closed, André called me and asked if I wanted to be in the upcoming production that he was directing of Ain’t Misbehavin’ with Crossroads Theatre at NJPAC. I said yes, and it was the most challenging thing I had ever done. The rest of my cast (including Borris Anthony York, who is in this production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) was so supportive and shoved with love all through our brief rehearsal process.

All of these experiences and lessons fueled me as I went in and out of audition rooms for months, ending up in front of Telsey Casting Director Rachel Hoffman and the creative team—Jack O’Brien, Matt Lenz, Josh Bergasse and Ali Solomon—for this production. Thankfully, whatever I did in that audition room worked in my favor.

Noah Weisberg, David Samuel, Brynn Williams and company in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.'
Noah Weisberg, David Samuel, Brynn Williams and company in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

You also worked in Seattle recently. Can you talk a little about what you did here last summer?

Last July, I was fortunate enough to be in The Williams Project’s production of Blood Wedding by Federico García Lorca, playing Leonardo. The Williams Project is a Seattle-based “theatre ensemble that strives to make theatrical excellence accessible to diverse and engaged audiences, while paying our artists a living wage.”

We performed at Equinox Studios, a studio space created for artists and artisans to collaborate, and we had local vendors sell food and drink prior to, and during the show. It was a beautifully immersive experience and I am grateful that Ryan Purcell, the artistic director (and a Brown/Trinity graduate), asked me to be in the production. 

The cast of Roald Dahl’s 'Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.'
The cast of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

In this return visit to Seattle, what do you want to do first in your time off? 

When I’m not performing, I’d love to go see The Williams Project’s latest production, The Bar Plays, which is two plays, Small Craft Warnings by Tennessee Williams and The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan, performed in repertory. I’d also love to check out Pike Place or find some live music in the city. 

When did you first encounter Charlie and his trip through Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory?

I went to a small Lutheran school in Hyattsville, Maryland and I remember that the 1971 film with Gene Wilder was one of the only things we were allowed to watch. I have very fond memories in primary school and middle school of watching this film, munching on a bag of Cheetos and getting swept up in Charlie’s journey.

Though the Beauregardes are not the focus of the story, I hope with our presence on stage the audience is inspired to imagine and create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive world for themselves and the generations that come after them.

David Samuel

It’s lovely that there’s greater diversity in this version. What do you think it means to the audience to have the Beauregarde family be African American in the musical?

I think diverse, inclusive and equitable representation is extremely important, to say the least. When we were performing in Los Angeles, a young black girl came up to me and said, “You were great! You looked just like my Dad up there.” I was honored that she saw her life reflected back to her through the performances of my castmates and I. A similar interaction happened in Baltimore, when one of our Willy Wonka understudies, Clyde Voce (who made history by being the first African American Willy Wonka), went on for Noah Weisberg. A white mother came up to us holding back tears because by seeing Clyde Voce perform as Willy Wonka, she was able to have the opportunity to explain to her young son the importance of diversity in casting and why people of color should have more opportunities to be seen all across the entertainment landscape. 

Though the Beauregardes are not the focus of the story, I hope with our presence on stage the audience is inspired to imagine and create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive world for themselves and the generations that come after them.

The cast of Roald Dahl’s 'Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.'
The cast of Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

Since you’re playing the very proud father of Violet Beauregarde, what Violet moment is your favorite in this show?

First of all, Brynn Williams (who plays Violet Beauregarde) is the sweetest human being and a vocal powerhouse. I learn so much from watching her onstage. All her moments are my favorite. If I had to pick one, it would be something that future audiences may not be able to see but speaks to the skill that Brynn brings to the role of Violet. One night, Violet’s microphone was not working and our audio team handed Brynn a handheld wireless microphone so that she could perform “The Queen of Pop.” She commanded that stage and brought an electricity that could only come from having to commit to a sudden change so quickly. She’s a rock star for that.

So, if you did win a chocolate factory, what would be your treat of choice?

I would try to combine baked goods and chocolate. Some sort of a chocolate bar with brownie bits and caramel. 

See David Samuel as Mr. Beauregarde in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory playing at Broadway at The Paramount July 31–August 11. Tickets are available online.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, and others. Additional work can be seen at

Dancing Like its 1929 in ‘Bright Star’

Bright Star, the musical currently playing at Taproot Theatre Company, keeps toes tapping with the stories of two couples, Alice and Jimmy Ray in the 1920s, and Margo and Billy in the 1940s. Filling the stage with period-appropriate and lively dance numbers was the job of choreographer Katy Tabb, whose work has been seen at Village Theatre, Seattle Symphony and Showtunes, among others. Tabb talked to Encore Spotlight about how she tackled this show and how a solo moment amid couples dancing became her favorite.

Rosemary Jones: Bright Star tells two interrelated stories set in different time periods. How did you set the dances to reflect that?

Katy Tabb: Historical research is always a huge part of my choreographic process and certainly informed the movement in this case. The show flashes back and forth between the 1920s small-town Zebulon, and 1940s big city Asheville. At the Zebulon “Couple’s Day Dance,” I wanted to make sure that the dance truly felt like an exciting social event in a small Southern town rather than a highly choreographed or refined performance. The script details very specific steps as called out by the Dance Caller in this scene—it was a very fun challenge to decide how to interpret these commands. For the number “Another Round” I incorporated swing dance that was en vogue in 1940s America. It was important to me to accurately reflect what was happening in the dance halls as soldiers returned home from war.

Choreographer Katy Tabb.
Choreographer Katy Tabb. Courtesy of Taproot Theatre

You’ve choreographed some really big shows, like the recent Newsies at Village Theatre. When you’re prepping for a Newsies or a Bright Star, what are your initial steps? 

Every show process starts with reading the script and listening to the score at least three times as I begin generating ideas for the choreography, followed by immense historic research. I will often listen to the popular music and watch film clips from the era (or eras) of a show to begin wrapping my head around the pulse and movement of the time period. Once I have some “big picture” ideas, I spend lots of time with the director discussing their vision and brain storming together. Typically auditions and casting follow—this step is always a very exciting part of my planning process. Watching future cast members in auditions always inspires new ideas! Actual movement invention and detailing of steps really begins in earnest after I know the cast and their unique skills. I typically have a very detailed plan for every number before heading into rehearsal, but my very favorite part of choreographing a show is exploring, changing and fine-tuning all of this brainstorming with the actors and creative team in the rehearsal room.

You regularly teach dance and also how to audition. What are your favorite classes to teach?

I absolutely love teaching Musical Theatre Dance—a class which allows me to explore the many styles of dance in theatre. On any given day, this class can explore a Jerome Robbins ballet, the specificity of Bob Fosse’s style, the athleticism of Newsies, the contemporary flavor of Wicked and beyond. Movement and dance in theatre requires versatility of its performers. Not only do actors need to be remarkable storytellers, they also need to have the “tools” to best tell their story. I find that the performers who continue to keep up with consistent training in a variety of dance styles (a tall order for a working artist) bring a greater wealth of possibility to a rehearsal room.

What type of training do you recommend for musical theatre performers?

Performers who have trained with a variety of dance teachers and choreographers tend to retain choreography more quickly and prove to be more adaptable to change and exploration during the creative process. I encourage all actors, whether they are a “trained” dancer or not, to take foundational ballet classes that will give them the dance vocabulary, fundamental technique, and connection to their physical instrument necessary for working with most choreographers in theatre.

Brain Pucheu and Brenna Wagner in the 1920s couple's dance.
Brain Pucheu and Brenna Wagner in the 1920s couple’s dance. Photo by Erik Stuhaug

Space is a bit of an issue on the Taproot stage—as is the closeness of the audience—so how do you choreograph in those parameters?

Interestingly enough, I find that having strict parameters actually frees space for creativity in my planning—these limits create structure for me to play within. I particularly love choreographing on Taproot’s Jewell Mainstage because it allows me to explore more interesting three-dimensional staging than I may be able to explore on a more traditional proscenium stage. On the Taproot stage, I constantly have to make sure that actors are changing direction to ensure that every audience member can experience the show completely—this requires a consistent flow of movement that is not necessarily required on the larger stages. Though space for dancing is more limited, I find that the opportunities for creative formation changes are particularly exciting in this space.

Which number was the biggest challenge?

Margo’s beautiful song “Asheville” was the number in this show that I most struggled with at first. The song itself is so beautiful, it could easily be done with Margo singing solo onstage in a spotlight, but I really wanted to utilize creative staging that would help to illustrate Margo’s experience as well as utilize the wonderful male backup vocalists in a unique way. I ultimately decided to play with staging a scene with the two customers (backup vocalists) in her bookshop; the movement “freezes” and “unfreezes” to highlight how Margo is feeling. Finessing this concept in tandem with specific, detailed lighting cues was very challenging. Despite it also being the most challenging number for me to create (and one of the more deceptively simple looking numbers), “Asheville” has become my favorite number in the show. The song is so sweet and I am proud of the full team collaboration and heart that went in to its creation.

Bright Star is now playing through August 17 at Taproot Theatre Company. Tickets are available online.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, and others. Additional work can be seen at

Celebrating Love, Revolt and Transformation in Seattle Men’s Chorus’ Upcoming Concert

For their summer concert, the Seattle Men’s Chorus (SMC) commemorates Stonewall’s 50th anniversary with pop music of the 1960s and a commissioned work. Executive Director Steven F. Smith promises the Summer of 69 concert will be full of chart-topping and culture-defining songs to send its audience dancing out the door.

Rosemary Jones: The summer of 1969 may have been called “The Summer of Love”, but it was also a summer of profound social change. What do you think were the most pivotal events that summer?

Steven Smith: Music events like Woodstock might have been part of a culture of love and openness for certain folks, but I think 1969 was about the distillation of righteous anger and action. Stonewall was a flash point for the simmering rage and frustration against discrimination in the LGBT community but it did not happen in isolation. At the same time, Vietnam War protests and rampant racial discrimination were roiling the country. The country was angry. What was pivotal was the need for change from the status quo.

Executive Director Steven Smith. Courtesy of Seattle Men’s Chorus

How do the songs selected for this concert reflect what was happening beneath the surface, as well as the headline-making events?

We wanted to explore the sense of division and “coming-apartness” in the country at that time. In addition to Stonewall, you had “hippies” and war protesters descending on Woodstock, Nixon’s law and order campaign, and the unifying wonder of the first moon landing. If you turned on the radio in 1969, the “Top 40” pop music of the day reflected that culture clash in a way that you don’t hear today. We’ve got the funk of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” juxtaposed with Frank Sinatra’s old school “My Way.” And Neil Diamond’s ultimate sing-along “Sweet Caroline” and Marvin Gaye’s iconic “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” The music reflects the convergence of culture, sex, identity and politics in a way that began to redefine America.

The concert also includes the new musical work “Quiet No More.” Can you describe this piece?

It’s a suite of music theatre style songs commissioned by more than 20 LGBT choruses around the country, including SMC, for this 50th anniversary of Stonewall. It’s a bit of history and a bit of forward-looking inspiration to continue the fight for equality. Because the patrons of the Stonewall Inn (who became victims of police brutality during the uprising) were gay and lesbian and trans folk and people of color, we found diverse composers who reflected these identities to create a collection of songs about what happened during the riot, what it felt like and how it has inspired and reverberated in our community since then.

What’s the one song that you can’t get out of your head after listening to rehearsals?

For the finale we wanted a sense of celebration and unity, so the classic Edwin Hawkins’ gospel song “Oh Happy Day” has had me dancing and swaying all week. It’s timeless and joyful.

Summer of 69 with the Seattle Men’s Chorus takes place at Benaroya Hall, June 21 at 8 p.m. and June 22 at 2 p.m. Tickets can be found online.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, and others. Additional work can be seen at

Training Up the Next Generation of Theatre Artists

Fifty years ago, as the Summer of Love engulfed San Francisco, the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) expanded its class offerings to hold its first Summer Training Congress for actors. Today, its educational offerings and related community programs continue to inspire theatre artists year round.

From a Master of Fine Arts program to summer intensives for teens, education at A.C.T. is designed to be rigorous and to take full advantage of the professional theatre company they occur in.

“The summer training program is the oldest education program,” said Melissa Smith, A.C.T.’s conservatory director. The program, begun by Robert Goldberg, served as a way to keep the actors training, to grow the number of actors available and to give them work teaching. Today, it’s difficult to attend any of the Bay Area’s many theatres without finding an alumni connected to one of A.C.T.’s programs.

“In the mid-1980s, they launched the M.F.A.,” said Smith, who came onboard in 1995. “Right before I came, the accrediting body asked us to make the M.F.A. a three-year program.”

Also launched in the 1980s was the Young Conservatory program that provided more intensive training for younger actors. “Summer is a very busy time for us,” said Susie Falk, interim director of education and community programs. “We have the audition-based musical which is a very competitive program every year. We’re doing Into the Woods this summer and the students get to perform at the Strand with members of the M.F.A. program in the cast.”

The Young Conservatory offers three different age levels of programs, from elementary to high school, ranging from one-week to three-week classes. All the classes take place at the company’s studios near Union Square in downtown San Francisco. Classes this summer include improvisation, singing and dancing, voice and speech, on-camera acting, Alexander technique, audition preparation, stage combat and introduction to Shakespeare, among others.

“It’s high caliber training with professional theatre artists,” said Falk. “We want them to gain confidence and collaborative skills, as well as have a high quality experience. Many will pursue theatre for a college or graduate degree program.”

“Connections between the M.F.A. program, the Young Conservatory and other education programs have grown to become an important part of the experience,” said Smith. “Around 2007, the M.F.A. launched the Shakespeare school tour. It began as a pedagogical tool and with wanting our actors to perform in different spaces. Once the education program launched seven years ago, they took on the booking of Will on Wheels.”

A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts program. Photo by Alessandro Mello

Today, M.F.A. students work with younger students year round throughout the conservatory programs and on-site visits. “Our collaboration began with Downtown High School because they were meeting up in the halls,” said Smith. “It got rolling in a grassroots way and then we took it over.”

Downtown High School teachers Charmaine Shuford and Robert Coverdell work with A.C.T.’s M.F.A. students to create a theatre project each semester. “Our students examine a theme each semester. Our partnership with A.C.T. is great because they provide tickets to see their shows and read the plays that they [will perform]. We partner with their M.F.A.s. At the end of the semester they help us put on a show. This spring we looked at identity: what are the forces that shape our identity? Environmental pressures, biological pressures, all the thing that impact teenagers,” said Coverdell.

Working with M.F.A. students and their instructors, the teens at Downtown High School crafted their show around this theme.

“A.C.T. dreamed big for our students,” said Coverdell. “For some of [DHS students] it is their first time going to the theatre and they’re always really appreciative of it. A lot of these students don’t ever get a chance to get their work showcased the way that we showcase it here. After they do [their performance], they are always so proud of themselves. You can feel that joy and accomplishment. Audiences come and are amazed by the work that the students put into it.”

Last year, one audience member noticed that a piece about changes in the Mission District featured District Supervisor Hillary Ronen. “One of our students who grew up in the Mission wrote a play and Hillary Ronen was a character in the play. One of Hillary’s friends saw it and texted Hillary. Then they invited us to go perform at City Hall. The student who wrote the play is so proud of that,” said Coverdell.

 The inspiration goes both ways, for those who teach and those who perform. “At the end, all the M.F.A. students have the experience of working with Downtown High School students in their first year,” said Smith. “This experience of working with somebody who is younger and looking up to them is inspiring. Many discover that they want to go on to community work. It’s a great gift. It works both ways, a great gift to them and to the Downtown High School.”

A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory.

As the founders hoped in the 1960s, this connection between the San Francisco community and a professional theatre has become one of the program’s strengths. “A couple of things set us apart,” said Smith. “We are the only freestanding M.F.A. in the country. The fact that we are freestanding and attached to a professional theatre, right here we are apart. Engagement with Young Conservatory, the engagement in the summer programs, and the citizen-artist pieces that happen in the community are truly unique as well. Three features that you wouldn’t get someplace else.”

For all the students who move through A.C.T.’s educational offerings, Falk and Smith see the importance of arts education going beyond just an appreciation of the theatre. “For all of our residencies we’re working together to deliver the content,” said Falk. “It’s important for these students to work on writing, acting, speaking from their own voice and own experience. It’s great to see how these kids can grow. We have a residency with one of the chapters of the Boys & Girls Club. One of the students didn’t speak for the first two years in the program and then she was up there on stage, acting the lines that she wrote.”

“I believe that people have different talents and aptitudes,” said Smith. “For some people, computer programming is an endless walk up a hill. There are people who are born into this world who want to grow up and make art. I think people who are studying the arts are preparing themselves to lead creative lives. We train them to go out into a world that is hungry for them.”

More information about A.C.T.’s M.F.A. program, Young Conservatory and other educational programs can be found on A.C.T.’s website.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, and others. Additional work can be seen at

Anjelica McMillan Gives Us a Taste of the ‘Dream’ at Book-It

For her debut at Book-It Repertory Theatre, Anjelica McMillan plays Neni Jonga, a recent immigrant to the United States, in Behold the Dreamers.

Seattle audiences know McMillan from her work at Theater Schmeater, Annex Theatre and The Horse in Motion, among others. We talked to her about what it was like to portray both the character and the text of Imbolo Mbue’s award-winning novel.

Rosemary Jones: How would you describe Book-It’s style?

Anjelica McMillan: I’ve seen a lot of Book-It plays and always really enjoyed them. I thought they did good work and especially work that addresses controversial topics. It’s important for a theatre to open new perspectives. I saw the recited narrative as a Brechtian device*, not to take you out of the play but to remind you that you are watching a piece of theatre and that what is happening isn’t necessarily happening. That can be a comfort if something is intense.

Has acting in a Book-It show changed your perspective?

Now that I’ve been working with Myra [Platt, the director and adapter for Behold the Dreamers], I know that she thinks of the narrative as an inner monologue. That’s new for me—to be speaking my inner monologue out loud. Also having to find a specific object to give that narrative to, not necessarily talking to [the] audience and breaking the fourth wall for them.

This novel seems like it addresses issues that we’re all discussing now.

It is very timely because of the immigration issues in our country right now. I think back to Welcome to Braggsville (2017). That was the show that made me want to work with Book-It. Because that dealt with the controversy of racism in such an interesting way.

Does the characters’ race or status as immigrants matter the most in this story?

I think the piece speaks more to immigration than it does about race. The big question is whether or not Jende will achieve his green card and they will be able to stay. There are some interesting parallels to some black experience in this country—they end up working for a wealthy white family, which could happen to any black family. Beyond those parallels, you do see some micro-aggressions from the white characters.

Headshot of Anjelica McMillan
Anjelica McMillan. Courtesy of Book-It

How would you describe your character?

Neni is fearless. She is somebody who sees the world as her oyster. She sees anything is possible because she is no longer living under the burden of her family telling [her] what she can do. She’s also changed by what happens. She gets to the States with this innocence and that changes. She also gains an inner strength.

Would you describe yourself as a similar person or different from Neni?

I am kind of a shy, reserved person. I would be much more likely to see myself as not qualified for a job. I can shortchange myself. Neni never does that! She doesn’t have any sense of why couldn’t she do that. She’s exuberant and full of life and energy. In preparation for playing someone like that, I obviously re-read the book and continue to re-read and highlight certain passages. I’m learning to be more free in my body, to embody that youth and exuberance that she has. I’m having a lot of fun playing her and being able channel that energy.

What do you want the audience to understand about Neni?

That Neni is a strong woman, and that she wants to be an independent, strong, interesting African woman. To have a glimpse of what people in Cameroon are like. People assume that everyone in Africa is poor and think of Africa as one nation. There is so much more to Africa. Also to see that certain truths are universal. As they see the characters, they will find something in common with these people. It’s important to consider issues of immigration and how we treat immigrants in this country.

What’s your favorite moment as Neni?

I really enjoy playing her right after Jende gets hired. She is so excited about him starting a new job and just peppers him—she showers him with questions like confetti. It’s a fun scene to play. They’re just recently married so there’s this joy that comes from being in a new marriage and living a dream—it’s fun to play that scene with Sylvester [Foday Kamara, actor who plays Jende Jonga].

*A Brechtian device is a technique to distance the audience from emotional involvement in the play through reminders of the artificiality of the performance. Coined by German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. Also called the alienation effect or distancing effect.

You can see Anjelica McMillan in Behold the Dreamers at Book-It Repertory Theatre now through June 30.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, and others. Additional work can be seen at

Price Suddarth Creates a Signature Ballet Reflecting PNB’s Dancers

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s final show of the season, Themes & Variations, marks the return of Price Suddarth’s Signature to McCaw Hall. The PNB soloist created this piece for PNB’s mainstage repertory in 2015, and it conveys the same fabulous energy that Suddarth has brought to his dance performances in Seattle since 2010. It’s also a highly personal piece crafted from the friendships and knowledge of the company’s dancers that only a true insider could have.

Rosemary Jones: How does your career as a dancer influence your choreography for Signature?

Price Suddarth: As a choreographer my movement style is extremely physical—likely stemming from my own similar movement quality as a dancer currently. In the studio, I begin within the confines of the classical ballet vocabulary, then begin to operate beyond it by developing and “stretching” the physicality within each step. Through this extreme physicality it is possible to research notions like kinetic energy—how it flows through the body and how to demonstrate that to an audience. In the end the desired effect would give the viewer a sense that the dancer is both fighting hard to shape their movements while also being blown through the air like a leaf in the wind.

Signature gives every dancer a distinct movement—their signature style as it were—and you spoke at the time about how connected the choreography was to your work with these dancers in the past. Did you need to adjust anything in the choreography for the 2019 presentation?

Choreographer Price Suddarth. Photo by Lindsay Thomas

In the creation of Signature every section had its own specific theme, largely influenced by the original cast. Coming back to it now I’ve been adjusting and tweaking to tailor these sections to the current dancers while also preserving the original intent. I always say there are 16 members of the cast—15 dancers and myself. While some dancers are new, there are some returning as well as myself. The changes in the piece correspond with those that have happened in the dancers themselves as well as in myself as a person and choreographer over the past few years.

The music is gorgeous and references Vivaldi while actually being an original composition for Signature. How did you work with composer Barret Anspach to achieve this?

Barret Anspach and I corresponded over a two-year period brainstorming how to incorporate Vivaldi music into a new composition and also how to tailor it to dance. Barret is the brother of a former PNB company member so luckily the language of ballet was not an entirely foreign concept to him.

Why was it important for the music to sound familiar to the audience?

Because Signature was my first introduction to the larger Seattle audience as a choreographer, I wanted to make a statement of who I am.  I wanted there to be elements of the whole show that were easily recognizable, demonstrating a common starting place where I would jump from.  My movement goes beyond classical ballet vocabulary thus the music needed to start from a place of understanding and then push past.

Where do you see your career as a choreographer going?

I can’t exactly be sure what’s next. Over the last five years since the premiere I’ve been working with various companies around the country as a choreographer. I’ve been greatly influenced by many different styles and many different voices in various environments. As a result, I’ve found a strong push to develop a very specific choreographic voice to call my own.  I’d love to bring that back to Seattle again.

Which is harder: standing in the wings waiting to dance or sitting in the audience waiting for a piece that you choreographed to be performed?

I’m one hundred percent more nervous waiting for a piece of mine to be performed than preparing to dance myself. There’s something terrifying about giving up all control—even just for 30 minutes between curtains. No matter how much trust you have in your dancers there will always be that brief moment where you can’t do anything and are forced into a passive role while you watch your very personal idea be placed on display for 3,000 people to see.

Price Suddarth’s Signature can be seen as part of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s last performance of the season, Themes & Variations showing now through June 9.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, and others. Additional work can be seen at

Creating the Million Dollar Musical at Village Theatre

The return of Million Dollar Quartet marks the homecoming of one of Village Theatre’s most successful musical developments.

The return of Million Dollar Quartet marks the homecoming of one of Village Theatre’s most successful musical developments.

Workshopped in 2006 as part of Village Originals Festival of New Musicals, Million Dollar Quartet appeared on Village Theatre’s mainstage in 2007 and topped a million dollars in ticket sales for the company. 

Based on a true story of an all-day jam session between Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, the show went on to a Broadway run in 2010, a Tony Award for Levi Kreis (the Jerry Lee Lewis in the original Village Theatre run) and a host of reappearances everywhere from London’s West End to Harrah’s Las Vegas, as well as on Norwegian Cruise Lines.

As Village Theatre’s Executive Producer Robb Hunt recalls, the show was a hit with the staff as well as the audience from the first. “We did some casting in L.A. and some here, put it in Festival in 2006, and it was very exciting. It was unusual but we did [the Festival production] with a full band when typically it was just a piano.”

Executive Producer Robb Hunt.
Executive Producer Robb Hunt. Courtesy of Village Theatre

For a show to rocket out of the Festival to a full-blown production was unusual as well. “We’ve been honing our craft for many years. We did our first new musical back in the 1980s and it’s a very slow process,” Hunt said. More typically, shows workshopped in the Festival go back to the writers to rework. “When musicals start as readings at the Festival or a writers residency, we may come out with a scene or a whole act with that process. You move things around—such as songs go from act one to act two. It’s not like designing a car where all these engineers know exactly how it is going to end up and how you are going to do it.”

But Million Dollar Quartet took shape almost immediately. Creators Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux “had this concept from the get-go,” said Hunt. The only real hitch in development was trying to secure the rights for all the songs referenced in the show. “We had certain rights for [Village Theatre] but they couldn’t get some for Chicago and New York runs. They had to work really hard to adjust for that. That’s some of the things that I remember about the original run.”

For Brandon Ivie, associate artistic director at Village Theatre, Million Dollar Quartet is not just “such a feather in our cap” it’s also a musical that provides some necessary cheer. “We’re living in real tough times. It’s really easy to get beaten down by the world. This provides relief. This provides a moment for people to sit and have a great time. This is about an amazing turning point in American music,” he said.

Village Theatre’s new production features a new all-star cast and creative team that includes links to the past productions. “For this show, casting is a huge challenge,” said Director Scott Weinstein. “Not only do we need amazing actors and singers, but they also need to be virtuosic musicians. When you add on the need for them to look and sound like the iconic stars that they are embodying, the challenge only increases. Luckily, we found an absolutely incredible cast!”

The current production features Skye Scott as Carl Perkins, Brian Grey as Johnny Cash, Jason Kappus as Elvis Presley, John Countryman as Jerry Lee Lewis, Matt Wade as Sam Phillips, Cayman Ilika as Dyanne, James “Rif” Reif (who appeared in the 2007 Million Dollar Quartet at Village Theatre) as WS “Fluke” Holland and Chris Jones as Brother Jay.

2019 production of 'Million Dollar Quartet' at Village Theatre.
2019 production of ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ at Village Theatre. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Weinstein himself served as the associate and resident director of the Broadway production of Million Dollar Quartet. He also oversaw the Equity National Tour, Chicago and Las Vegas productions, and currently directs the resident productions on Norwegian Cruise Lines and at the Lawrence Welk Theatre. Joining Weinstein is music director and country music superstar, Chuck Mead who has been with the show from Village Theatre’s first outing to Broadway and back to Village Theatre again. Rounding out the team of this all-new production is scenic designer Andrea Bryn Bush, lighting designer Geoff Korf, costume designer Esther Garcia and sound designer Brent Warwick. 

Million Dollar Quartet will play through June 23 at Village Theatre in Issaquah before moving to the theatre’s Everett performance space for a month-long run June 28 to July 28.

In the meantime, Hunt, Ivie, Artistic Director Jerry Dixon and the rest of the Village Theatre team continue to hunt for the next big musical.

“The trick is to get a variety and diversity in the subject matter, the type of music and the story lines,” said Hunt. “We try to mix it up so we have a great variety for our audience. It’s sort of an art. Lots of good material that we evaluate that belongs at some point—but we’re only doing five shows a year.”

John Countryman and Skye Scott in 2019 production of 'Million Dollar Quartet.'
John Countryman and Skye Scott in 2019 production of ‘Million Dollar Quartet.’ Photo by Mark Kitaoka

“[Our workshops and festival] are developing musicals in so many different stages of the game,” said Ivie. “Definitely we are in a moment when voices that used to not be considered commercial are now being considered. I’m seeing a shift in who is telling the stories. Women writers, trans writers, people of color have started being considered seriously. That is changing the stories that are being told and that’s very exciting.”

For next season, Village Theatre will be presenting another new musical that they are developing, Hansel & Gretl & Heidi & Günter, and hoping it will go beyond their run in spring 2020.

“That’s the challenge that we have. We love the success that Million Dollar Quartet had. We’d like more of those. We’d like more that are picked up by others and published,” said Hunt. “So, we are inviting other commercial producers to see [a reading of Hansel & Gretl & Heidi & Günter] and see if we can generate interest so that they will help us move it forward.”

Million Dollar Quartet is playing at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre now through June 23. It will then run at Everett Performing Arts Center June 28—July 28.

Check out Village Theatre’s full 2019/20 season on our Events Calendar.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish Magazine, Capitol Hill Times, Encore, and others. Additional work can be seen at