Keith Randolph Smith Returns to His Favorite City With ‘Jitney’

When actor Keith Randolph Smith got on the phone to talk to me about his upcoming performance in Jitney at Seattle Rep, the first thing he wanted to talk about was how much he loves Seattle.

“I’m really excited to get there,” Smith said. “It’s one of my favorite cities in this country.”

The day we spoke also happened to be the day before Smith left New York for the Jitney tour. He was gracious enough to take time out of an errand-filled afternoon to talk about his love of August Wilson, making history on Broadway, and what it means to perform Jitney at Seattle Rep twice—nearly 20 years apart.

Danielle Mohlman: August Wilson is the first playwright whose work I truly fell in love with. I remember reading Gem of the Ocean in college and that was it for me.

Keith Randolph Smith: I love that play too.

Actor Keith Randolph Smith. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Oh my god. It’s so good! Do you have a favorite August Wilson play?

Oh man, it’s so hard. Like you, I loved Gem of the Ocean. It’s such a spiritual journey—and a beautiful journey of self-realization and discovery. But I also love Jitney, which I’m working on now. I usually say whichever one I’m working on at the moment is my favorite. But they all have a special place in my heart.

Jitney deals with community. It deals with a time where I was actually alive—in 1977—versus, say, Gem of the Ocean which is set in 1904. But I was actually alive and conscious in 1977. And so, I relate to the time period. Seventies music, 70s fashion, what was going on in the world. It reminds me of people I’ve met in my journey of life along the way, whether they’re relatives or not. I’ve had so many people come up to me after Jitney and go “You remind me of my uncle!” And the people who tell me this are not African American. They relate to the characters and how they’re dealing with the situations they’re in. It’s really a beautiful experience.

It’s one of the few August Wilson plays I’ve never seen.

Man, I can’t wait for you to see it! You sit there and go, “How can he make all of these different people out of nowhere?” And we remember them and we care about them and we get mad at them. It’s like you actually get to know them by the end of the play. What a masterful job he did.

I didn’t even realize—until this week—that until the Manhattan Theatre Club production in 2017, Jitney had never been on Broadway. Did it feel like a historic moment when you were working on it?

Philosophically speaking, when history is being made, it definitely feels historic. But you also have a feeling about whether what you’re doing fulfills some sort of creative urge in you. We knew that it was the last of his 10 plays to be on Broadway, so we were very aware of that. But it wasn’t something that we discussed all the time. We just went about our work like artists practicing our craft.

Cast of 'Jitney' with Keith Randolph Smith second from right in Manhattan Theatre Club production.
Cast of ‘Jitney’ with Keith Randolph Smith second from right in Manhattan Theatre Club production. PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS

Yeah. Focusing on the present moment instead of what it means.

Yeah. And that’s only looking back at Broadway in hindsight. But that information doesn’t necessarily feed the creative process. What feeds the creative process are verbs, actions.

What were some verbs that were fueling that experience for you?

Oh, to be honest, to be open, to be authentic, to find the truth, to be present, to listen, to go after what it is your character needs as though it was life and death. What makes something imminently watchable is when we see a character going after what she wants in a very determined way. She needs something, and so we can get on board with that. And where we get bored is when a character doesn’t need anything.

Yeah, that drive—that urgency—is so important. Because it dictates why we’re here watching this story being told.

True. It engages you. It pulls you in. It welcomes you. And it can make you upset and angry and frustrated. You go through some emotions, but you’re engaged.

I feel like when I get angry in a theatre, at a character, that’s a success of the production, of the playwright, of the actor. You know, that I’m so emotionally invested that I feel anger for someone that isn’t real.

Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am. How many times have I seen shows where it’s just “I don’t like you! Why are you like that? Leave her alone!” And I have to say “Keith, you know that’s a fictional character in a make-believe situation.” They pulled me into their lives and their stories and I care about them.    

Keith Randolph Smith (left) in Seattle Rep’s 2002 production of 'Jitney.'
Keith Randolph Smith (left) in Seattle Rep’s 2002 production of ‘Jitney.’ PHOTO BY CHRIS BENNION

I’d love to talk to you about your character Doub. How did you prepare for this role? What draws you to him?

At the very beginning, I listened to a lot of music: Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Marvin Gaye. This is music I grew up on; I graduated high school in 1974. I grew up on funk and Sly and the Family Stone and Chicago and The Doobie Brothers, and War and Power. And I also did three years in the Army. My character is a Korean War vet. I wasn’t old enough to be in the Korean War and I wasn’t old enough to be in the Vietnam War. But there’s that aspect of the military that affects a person and how they see the world.

I came to Seattle Rep to do Jitney in 2002. I was playing Booster, who is the son that gets out of prison. And almost 20 years later, I’m playing a different role.

What is that like to revisit the same play in a completely different character’s body?

The biggest difference that I noticed was when I was Booster, the jitney station was a place I hadn’t been to. You know the first time you go to a new school—if your family moves. That first time you walk in the building, it’s kind of like “Okay, this layout is different. They don’t have enough light in the hallways.” Or when you go to somebody’s church and you notice they’re all a little different. You feel a little outside. It’s welcoming, but you’re still a little outside. But as Doub, who works at the jitney station, I feel very at home in that space.

What does Seattle mean to you? What are you most looking forward to about this experience?

The fresh air! The air is so clean in Seattle. The fish market! The Sound! Going to the movies downtown! We’re coming in March, so football season will be over, but I would love to see the Seahawks play a game. I always try to see sports whenever I go to a new city. I have friends I’m looking forward to seeing—Cheryl West, Tim Bond, Valerie Curtis Newton. I’ve always said if I retire, I could move to Seattle. I’ve always loved that city.


August Wilson’s Jitney runs at Seattle Rep from February 28 through March 29 at the Bagley Wright Theater. Tickets are available online or at 206.443.2222.

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

Rachel Atkins Makes ‘The Turn of the Screw’ Her Own at Book-It

Rachel Atkins has a long and wonderful history with Book-It Repertory Theatre. She spent several years as a teaching artist in the education department before writing her first play for the company, an adaptation of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, in 2005. Fifteen years later, almost to the day, Atkins will open The Turn of the Screw, an adaptation she’s been periodically pitching Book-It for years.

The Turn of the Screw has been on my list for a long time,” Atkins said. “And I think it’s been on their list for a long time too. I’m certain I’m not the only adaptor to suggest that The Turn of the Screw would be a good Book-It style production. And things just fell into place.”

After simmering on the idea for several years, Atkins has found a way to make this Henry James novel wholly her own.

Playwright Rachel Atkins. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Danielle Mohlman: What drew you to The Turn of the Screw initially?

Rachel Atkins: There is something about this story where you read the whole thing and you never really know what’s going on. And everybody thinks something different is happening. I’ve talked to Carol Roscoe, who’s directing it, about how much her experience with this book has changed. She remembered what she thought was the truth of the story when she first read it in high school. And then reading it years later as an adult, she now thinks something completely different. And I think there’s just something really interesting about a story that leaves so much open for readers and audiences.

Even in the structure of his narrative—the frequency with which he uses pronouns but doesn’t identify who he’s talking about. What “he” does he mean in this sentence?  It could be anybody. And the challenge is: how do you take that and turn it into a play that people are still going to be able to understand and follow, but still leave some essence of that mystery?

And having to make some decisions, I’m sure, about who those pronouns belong to.

Yeah, absolutely.

We’re speaking before the start of rehearsals. Is there a moment or character relationship that you’re looking forward to exploring in rehearsals?

There is, but I sort of don’t want to tell you because it’s part of the mystery of the story.

You don’t have to tell me.

I will say that one of the things that I had a lot of fun with was bringing in some other materials into the story. I mean, it’s a novella. It’s short. This may be the shortest mainstage Book-It production ever, just because it’s really tightened up. One thing I did was pull in other materials of songs and poems and things that the children would be reading or reciting or studying. I’ve tried to use that stuff to draw out more of the mysterious, weird creepiness of the story and what might be happening with these children.

Shannon Lee Clair and Amy Driesler in ‘The Turn of the Screw.’ PHOTO BY AARON WHEETMAN

That sounds so incredible and creepy.

I hope so. That’s what I’m going for.

Because some of those nursery rhymes from back in the day…

I got some creepy stuff in there, so we’ll see.

What excites you about working with this cast of Pacific Northwest actors?

I’m really excited that we’re telling this story with an all-female cast. That’s something that Carol [and I] are both really excited about. I mean, we’re really excited about this cast. We’ve got this really strong group of actors. And the idea of this particular story—about a young woman who takes her first job as a governess and is sent way out to this isolated situation, way beyond her depth. And the idea of telling that story only through female bodies feels really right.

I love that. And I loved seeing that echoed in the reading of This is Not (Y)Our History at Seattle Public Theater, where you had an all-female and non-binary cast playing both male and female roles.

Yeah, and for a totally different reason. With that piece, which is about the suffrage movement, it just feels like a women’s story. And I felt really strongly that not only would there be no men on stage, there would be no men involved in the production.

Of course, the women’s suffrage movement is a big topic right now as we approach the centennial. And I keep hearing about other projects that people are working on across the country. And every time, it’s either that men are writing it or men are in major artistic positions and I’m like “Come on, people. Let them tell their story!”


The Turn of the Screw runs February 12 to March 8 at Book-It Repertory Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 206.216.0833.


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

Olaf in Broadway’s Touring ‘Frozen’ Will Melt Your Heart

Upon its debut in 2013, Disney’s Frozen almost instantly became part of the zeitgeist of the 2010s. A cultural phenomenon in its own right, it is no wonder that Frozen has transcended the realm of film and, with music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and book by Jennifer Lee, has metamorphosed into a Tony-nominated Broadway musical.

I am of the mind, however, that the name Frozen is an oxymoron; the show is filled with warmth. This oxymoron is perhaps most embodied by Olaf, a charming snowman with a distinct affinity for summer. I had the opportunity to interview F. Michael Haynie, who brings the iconic snowman to life in the Broadway touring production at The Paramount Theatre

Eleanor Cenname: When you portray Olaf, I noticed you use a puppet. Did using the puppet change the way you approached your performance?

F. Michael Haynie: Yes and no. Olaf the “character” has nothing to do with the puppet, so the approach isn’t that much different than normal character work. That being said, the performance of the character is SO much of the incredibly designed Michael Curry puppet. I had amazing teachers, including my puppet guru Lorenzo Pisoni, and amazing cast mates and a creative team that was patient with me while I learned the basics. And special shout out to my physical therapist Taylor Rossi!

Actor F. Michael Haynie. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Can you describe the audition process for Olaf?

It was great. This creative team was so generous and open to my interpretation of Olaf that it made it challenging and exciting all at the same time. Some of it was with the puppet, but mostly they were looking for an actor. I’m very honored that I was asked to be a part of this production.

What is the most challenging part of being in the production for you?

The physical demand of this show is remarkably unique. So there are some places you hurt that you didn’t know could hurt. Again, shoutout to my incredible physical therapist for helping me maintain my health while also learning to be more in control of my body. Puppeteering is such a new physical language for me and it is challenging and thrilling.

In what ways do you feel you have influenced or brought a unique portrayal of Olaf to stage?

Olaf is, at his core, two things: Jennifer Lee (director and writer of Frozen and Frozen II) and Josh Gad (the voice actor for Olaf). That’s his DNA. The stage production opened and added a new strain of DNA to that: Greg Hildreth (original Broadway cast Olaf). When I got the opportunity to originate this version of the show I’d like to think that I added to that DNA again. So, to paraphrase a line from our show, he’s a little bit of “them” and a little bit of “me.” And since I base him on Caroline Innerbichler and Caroline Bowman (our Anna and Elsa) he is about as unique as they come.

This show has been impactful for a lot of young people, how do you handle the responsibility of portraying such a beloved character?

It’s terrifying. I’m only kind of kidding. Olaf gets entrance applause because he’s an icon. I’m not. But I hope that by the end of the show audiences are happy they met my take on that little scamp.

F. Michael Haynie in Frozen North American Tour.
F. Michael Haynie in Frozen North American Tour. PHOTO BY DEEN VAN MEER

How do you think the transition from screen to stage has impacted the production?

The bones of the story that the entire Frozen film team created are still there. But there is a tone that can be achieved on stage with real-life people (and real-life puppets) that can reach audiences in a different way. As a huge fan of many animated mediums, I feel that live theatre is a very separate but equally excited storytelling realm. Even if you’ve seen Frozen before, there is nothing like seeing it live on the stage.

Do you have any advice for young people who might want to pursue musical theatre?

Consume as much art as you can. There are so many media platforms nowadays that you can watch anything all the time. See theatre in your hometown. See tours. See movies. Watch TV shows. Read books. Play video games. Listen to music. Watch the news. Study ANYTHING. The arts need rich minds who are ready to contribute to the world right now. 


Frozen is now playing at Broadway at The Paramount through March 1. Tickets are available online or at 206.682.1415.


Eleanor Cenname is a 10th grader at The Downtown School. A logophile at heart, Eleanor is also a self-proclaimed theatre nerd who merges her love of language and theatre into a passion for arts criticism and arts writing. Eleanor also enjoys writing science fiction and won MoPop’s 2019 Science Fiction Short Story Competition. In her spare time, Eleanor competes in triathlons, listens to podcasts, and drinks copious amounts of tea.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit. 

Eric Ting Digs Into the Complexity of Trauma With ‘Gloria’ at A.C.T.

When director Eric Ting and I hopped on the phone during his lunch break, we immediately started comparing Branden Jacob-Jenkins trivia. I was coming into the conversation as a fan, watching his work from the audience as I moved from city to city, fortunate to find Jacob-Jenkins’s work in each new hometown. And while I’m a fan, Ting is a friend and a close collaborator.

“Basically, I’m always going to say yes to an opportunity to direct his plays,” Ting said. “He’s an extraordinary writer. And for me personally, any time I have an opportunity to work on his plays, I come out of it a better person.”

Ting spent years developing Appropriate with Jacob-Jenkins, going on to direct that play at the Mark Taper Forum in 2015 and An Octoroon at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2017. Our conversation was in the middle of the Gloria rehearsal process, a time of great discovery for Ting and the cast.

Director of ‘Gloria’ Eric Ting. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Danielle Mohlman: What excites you about working on Gloria now? What makes it right for these 2020 Bay Area audiences?

Eric Ting: What this play offers is a kind of examination of the sort of depersonalization of our society—the conditions with which we dehumanize each other and disconnect from each other and miss each other’s pain. And [Jacob-Jenkins] contains it all in an office comedy. It’s largely—on its surface—a comedy about office culture. But he’s just an incisive observer of human behavior. And so the joy and pleasure of working on a play like this is identifying all of the very complex, contradictory subtext that unfolds in these plays. The conditions of living today are conditions that are often contradictions of itself. And I think that’s something you find in all of Branden’s characters and plays. These are people that are living with intense anguish and pain and also intense love.

Yeah, and one thing that I’m fascinated by is the fact that this is at its core satire, but dealing with very real issues. And I’m not going to spoil what those real issues are. But how are you navigating that juxtaposition between the reality of tragedy and the satirical, comedic elements?

Can I ask you what you mean when you say “satire”? We were literally having this conversation in rehearsal the other day about that word. What is your definition?

I think that my definition is probably not the right definition.

No, no. I mean, neither is mine.

When I think of satire, I think of that biting reality that’s not necessarily laughing with you, but laughing at you. Which is probably not how Merriam-Webster would describe it.

No, no, that’s great.

Eric Ting and cast in rehearsals for 'Gloria' at A.C.T.
Eric Ting and cast in rehearsals for ‘Gloria’ at A.C.T. PHOTO BY BERYL BAKER

I think I’m also using that word because it’s being used in the marketing that American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) is putting out.

Totally. And there’s a big difference between marketers and directors.

And maybe we should be talking about that instead.

Well, this is an interesting play because that central trauma around which the play pivots. The social commentary really kicks in in the second half of the play because it’s so unexpected. And Branden is so smart and how he wrestles with it is through the eye of someone who has a deep understanding of why it happened. And that’s partly what makes it so funny, you know, is that what’s unfolding on stage is so familiar.

And even though there’s all sorts of layers of complexity in Gloria—it’s not just what does office culture include? It includes conversations around privilege and class. It includes conversations around generational differences. It includes conversations around aesthetic and who is deciding the value and worth of a thing.

We were talking the other day about this notion of the assistant editors. They’re these three people who spend all their days tearing things apart. And what does it mean to exist in a world where your primary action is surgical? Your whole thing is about the dissection of art and culture. For me, Gloria is a person who just wants to see good in the world and she keeps being confronted with these people who want to tear it apart.

On some level, one of the things that we keep reminding ourselves is this need to really come at these characters with immense compassion and generosity. We need to understand why they do what they do, and not simply leave them on stage as a symbol of a corrupt culture, or of a society in decline.

And here we are in the Bay Area—the tech capital of the world. And when we talk about the things that have the potential to contribute to the depersonalization and the dehumanization of our world, it’s not hard to look around and be confronted by those impulses, to disconnect from what you’re seeing, to disengage from it as a coping mechanism or survival instinct.

I want to talk a little about your role as artistic director at Cal Shakes if that’s okay.

Sure!

Eric Ting, cast and creative team in rehearsals for 'Gloria' at A.C.T.
Eric Ting, cast and creative team in rehearsals for ‘Gloria’ at A.C.T. PHOTO BY BERYL BAKER

This is going to sound like a silly question, but when you Google your name and Cal Shakes, the first thing that comes up is the tree that was planted to commemorate your arrival in 2015. So I’m wondering: how is the tree doing?

The tree is good and healthy. It’s grown—it gets bigger every year. You know, just before I got here, the Bay Area was in the midst of a drought. And then I arrived and all of the sudden it started raining. Cal Shakes is a beautiful space. Part of what it’s known for is the vista of rolling golden hills in the backdrop, which we use as part of the visual experience of the plays. Every so often, we work with somebody who hasn’t been back to Cal Shakes in a while and they come and they’re like “What happened? The trees got so tall. Can you cut them down?” And we’re like, “We can’t. It’s not really our property.”

And plus, you want the trees to thrive!

Right, exactly! It was a really amazing moment. We have an extraordinary volunteer corps called Will’s Weeder’s and they come out every year at the beginning of the season to prepare the ground for the public. And they take care of the gardens around the theatre. It was a gesture of welcoming to plant that tree in my honor. And it’s definitely something that I think about. I’ll sit up there on the hill and read plays, or take phone calls there from time to time.

And it feels like it’s your tree.

I guess so. You’re the first person to ever ask me a question about that tree!

Well, I feel honored.

Revised on February 11, 2020: A previous version misnamed the organization “Will’s Weeder’s.” It was stated as “Will Leaders.”


Gloria will play at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater February 13–April 12. Tickets are available online or at 415.749.2228.


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

Director Anne Kauffman Hopes to Open Up Conversation Around Death With ‘Wakey, Wakey’

When American Conservatory Theater Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon called Anne Kauffman to ask if she would direct Wakey, Wakey by Will Eno, she was thrilled. She not only had a long friendship and working relationship with MacKinnon, but also a deep desire to work on one of Eno’s plays. She describes herself as “a big fan” of his work—high praise from a director who regularly works with Amy Herzog, Jordan Harrison and The Bengsons.

“I was very, very interested in how this is like an anti-play,” Kauffman said. “Will Eno is sort of a non-cynical Samuel Beckett. He has a way of really putting a microscope up to humanity and looking at all of its flaws, but also its huge capacity for joy. And I think that this combination is crucial at this moment.”

We had the opportunity to talk right before the holidays, while Kauffman was at Berkeley Repertory Theatre directing Becky Nurse of Salem, Sarah Ruhl’s latest play. We covered everything from death and dying, to what it’s like to work with Tony Hale.

Danielle Mohlman: I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Wakey, Wakey deals pretty explicitly with death and what happens—or doesn’t happen—after we die. How do you tap into that as you prepare to go into rehearsals with this play?

Anne Kauffman: I’m middle-aged and I’ve dealt with the death of one parent. And the death of that parent had a significant impact on the choices I made in terms of work in the ensuing years. As my little sister said about losing my mom, “I feel like I’m forever changed.” And I’ll never be able to go back and look at the world in the same way. Not that it’s always sadness, but there’s a fundamental change. And I also think when you deal with sick parents—and you deal with death around you—that you start to realize that this country is very unwilling to look death in the eye. We sort of sweep it under the rug. And, in fact, it needs to be taken out and examined and celebrated, the way we celebrate birth in this country. So for me, Wakey, Wakey feels like a step in the direction of opening that conversation up.

Oh, for sure. And I don’t know if this is an explicit link in your work, but I fell in love with Hundred Days about a year ago and that play also deals with death and the fears surrounding it.

Yeah, and I feel like in both pieces we deal with the inevitability. The idea of resisting it or fearing it—there’s something about the inevitability of death that forces you to shift your perspective on it.

Actor Tony Hale who stars in ‘Wakey, Wakey’ at A.C.T. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

You’ve said before that you’re really drawn to plays that mess around with language. Is that something you’ve latched onto with Wakey, Wakey as well?

Oh yeah. For sure. I think that Will Eno is one of the best language playwrights we have. And I think what’s so incredible about him is the mundanity of his poetry. He doesn’t put together words to aspire to something lyrical. He actually takes words and puts them together in certain chains to open up new meaning—like pedestrian discovery. His poetry has these instantaneous and ephemeral flights of beauty that land right back in the mundane pieces that he’s put together.

I don’t know how else to say it. It’s like this inspiration in the pedestrian. Or finding the profound in this certain combination of images that he puts together. And it makes me feel like “Oh. I can do this.” Not that I can write this, but that this duty is within my grasp. I own this duty too—and it’s made of me.

Oh, I love that. How did you come to the decision to cast Tony Hale? I imagine you don’t approach directing any differently when someone is a household name, but do you think at all about how fans of his work might be surprised by this play?

I think what’s so extraordinary about Tony is that he’s a Beckett clown for the 21st century. And it’s a perfect match because of that. The greatest comedians have a really deep understanding of pain and the profound. It feels completely and utterly matched. It seems extraordinary that Will [Eno] didn’t write it for him.

Tony Hale in ‘Wakey, Wakey’ at A.C.T. directed by Anne Kauffman. Photo by Kevin Berne

I don’t know Tony that well. We were able to meet up a few months ago in New York for breakfast. And I felt a real kinship, a real affinity with him. I feel like, you know, we’re of a certain age. I keep saying that, but Will is too, and there is something very profound about middle age. And I feel really connected to the way Tony talks about the play, the way Tony talks about his life. It feels like a conversation, rather than a making of a theatre piece. And that’s the thing I’m so looking forward to in terms of this one person show. 

To be honest, it’s not normally a thing I gravitate towards, but it does have an extraordinarily different feel because it’s basically you and the actor having a conversation with the playwright and with the themes. And then we bring that conversation in front of an audience. It’s very intimate.

I know your work takes you all over the country. What are you most looking forward to about being at A.C.T.?

I’m friends with Pam [MacKinnon] and I adore her—I think the world of her. And I’ve always loved A.C.T. I actually went there. In 1988, I was in their summer training congress, when I wanted to be an actor. So I’ve trained there, I went to undergrad at Stanford, and I have lots of friends and family in the area. This is really a homecoming of sorts. My mom is from San Francisco, my dad is from the peninsula. It just holds a lot of meaning. And I have a really strong connection to it, from my childhood through college. It really is a second home for me.


Wakey, Wakey by Will Eno runs January 23 to February 16 at American Conservatory Theater. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 415.749.2228.


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

Karen Lund Returns to ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ with ‘She Loves Me’ at Village Theatre

To say that Karen Lund is easy to talk to would be a gross understatement. Lund, who has served as associate artistic director of Taproot Theatre Company since 1993, is making her Village Theatre directorial debut this month with She Loves Me, and the joy she’s bringing to the pre-production process is contagious.

Within minutes, we’d talked about everything from the 1940 movie The Shop Around the Corner—which serves as the musical’s source material—to our shared love of Laura Benanti, who played Amalia when the musical was last on Broadway. “I love her so much,” Lund said, matching my energy for the 2016 Broadway cast album. “Have you seen her on [The Late Show with Stephen] Colbert?”

It’s clear that She Loves Me is a deeply personal story for Lund, one that’s been part of her life for over 20 years—from her first viewing of The Shop Around the Corner to You’ve Got Mail and beyond. And after directing three to four shows a year at Taproot Theatre for the last several seasons, Lund is ready to work away from her artistic home base.

“The thing is, I’ve been raising kids,” Lund said. “And I just haven’t wanted to be away from home that much—especially when they were younger. I’ve really had a lot of artistic fulfillment at Taproot, so I haven’t necessarily gone searching. But now’s the time.”

Karen Lund, director of ‘She Loves Me.’ Courtesy of Taproot Theatre Company

Danielle Mohlman: Why this musical now? What makes it right for 2020 audiences?

Karen Lund: I found myself sitting across from [Village Theatre artistic director] Jerry Dixon, talking about how they chose this season. And what he was really looking for was a season that would bring joy to his audience. He had a list of plays and he would rate them based on how joyful they were—and She Loves Me kept rising to the top. And I have to applaud him. Right now, I think we all need an antidote to some of the toxic stuff that we’re hearing in the news. These characters are very earnest and very simple. No one is trying to be the next best great this or that. Their idea of happiness is a great love. And a steady income and a family. It’s really simple for them.

And, of course, this takes place in a really turbulent time. It’s 1930s Europe where the Depression was as rough there as it was here. And to have a job and a steady income was difficult—so you valued it so much more. I think in a lot of ways the play asks us to value the simple things, like your connections with your family and your connections with your friends, and know that those have worth. And it’s so sweet and so simple. And yet it’s so difficult for us to do that right now.

And we see these characters in this sweet pocket, even though it might not feel like that on the inside, because World War II is going to be worse. And they just don’t know what will happen.

Right. But what we do know is they’re going to have each other. And it’s not just about the romantic relationships. It’s about this family of perfumery workers who go through a difficult time and actually become closer. The support they give each other to be better people is just wonderful.

Randy Scholz and Taryn Darr in 'She Loves Me.'
Randy Scholz and Taryn Darr in ‘She Loves Me.’ Photo by Tracy Martin

It’s way closer than coworkers. There are real, deep friendships there.

Yeah. You know they’re going to last. You know they’re going to support each other during the war. That’s how I see it, at least.

Is there a particular moment or song you’re excited to explore in rehearsals?

I’m really interested in the relationship between Georg and Amalia. They are really intellectual equals, which doesn’t typically happen in stories from that era. They read the same books, they have the same philosophy of life. They have razor-sharp wit. There’s a lot of sparring that happens between them and I’m really excited about creating those moments. I think their battles are going to be outstanding; they’re going to be super fun to watch.

Oh, that’s so exciting! I do want to pivot a bit and talk about arts administration—and your role as associate artistic director of Taproot Theatre. How does arts administration inform the way you direct?

Oh wow. You know what it is? I’m always very mindful of the audience. I have to be, because of my work as an arts administrator. But I also feel like it’s my pleasure to be. At Taproot, we’re in an ongoing conversation with our audience—about the world around us, about truth, about beauty, and about how one person can make an impact on the world. When I was offered the opportunity to direct She Loves Me, one of the first things I said was, “Tell me about your audience. Tell me what they’re looking for.”

And I want to be clear: I’m not talking about pandering to an audience. I’m talking about knowing them and meeting them where they are, so I know how best to challenge them. I have this theory that if you can make somebody laugh, you can actually tell them some pretty hard truths. So, I need to get you comfortable. You feel like you’re in your home, you’re laughing, your heart is open. And then I can tell you a hard truth that might change the way you think or the way you behave.

Eric Ankrim and Mark Emerson in ‘She Loves Me.’ Photo by Tracy Martin

One thing that I love about Taproot is that there’s consciously a dramaturg attached to each play, which feels like a rarity, especially in Seattle. Can you talk a little about the value of dramaturgy in Taproot’s artistry?

I just find dramaturgy to be so important to the work that we’re doing. I don’t care what the play is: dramaturgy can add so much to the depth and breadth of the actors’ work on stage. Any little thing that you learn can spark your creativity in ways that you couldn’t ever imagine. And it’s not just for the actors. Dramaturgy can inform props, the set, costume design. It helps me as a director. I always think, if I wasn’t a director, I might be a dramaturg. Because I love it so much.


She Loves Me runs January 16 to February 23 at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah and from February 28 to March 22 at the Everett Performing Arts Center in Everett. Tickets are available online or by calling 425.257.8600.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And how long ago was that?

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

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

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

Oh wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

This is an open invitation, then.

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


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


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

Richard Nguyen Sloniker Channels His Angelic Side in ‘The Bishop’s Wife’

Richard Nguyen Sloniker is a charming comedic actor. So appealing that he’s doing his second Cary Grant role at Taproot Theatre Company this year. After successfully portraying the hapless Mortimer, nephew of the murderous aunties in Arsenic and Old Lace, he’s back as the much more urbane and, yes, charming angel Dudley in The Bishop’s Wife this month.

For those who caught this black-and-white 1947 classic on late night television, the harried Bishop (originally played by David Niven) is so busy raising money for a new cathedral that he’s neglecting his family at Christmas. When praying for a miracle, he gets Dudley (Cary Grant), a far too handsome angel who seems more concerned in making sure that the Bishop’s wife has a pleasant holiday break than helping the Bishop. A variety of comedic confusions ensue although all is well by the Christmas Eve service.

This Taproot production directed by Karen Lund uses the radio play version of the popular Christmas movie, adapted by Karen and Mark Lund, and sets the staging at a fictional “KTTC” complete with commercial jingles and sound effects. So Sloniker essentially plays an actor playing an angel. We talked to him about the challenges and joys of this Christmas play as well as switching his career from science to theatre in college.

Richard Nguyen Sloniker as Dudley in Taproot's 'The Bishop's Wife.'
Richard Nguyen Sloniker as Dudley in Taproot’s ‘The Bishop’s Wife.’ Photo by Erik Stuhaug

Rosemary Jones: Every actor has to decide whether or not to watch previous performances of a role. Did you want to watch Cary Grant’s performance as Dudley or did you want to stay away from the movie?  

Richard Nguyen Sloniker: I did watch the movie after the first rehearsal when Director Karen Lund suggested we watch it for the style of the time period. By then I had already made some personal choices for Dudley. The movie was a useful resource, but ultimately the character I created was out of my typical work and not Cary Grant’s performance.

The format of The Bishop’s Wife is essentially a play within a play, as you’re performing the radio version onstage. What are some of the fun aspects of this?

The best, by far, is working with the cast. It’s such a treat to not only act with Chelsea LeValley (Julia, the Bishop’s wife), Calder Jameson Shilling (Henry, the Bishop) and everyone, but to watch everyone’s performances outside of my scenes. I’m blown away at the talent Karen brought together. If you include Music Director Michael Nutting, who composed the score and attended many rehearsals, there are four talented pianists within this company! Amazing.

What are some of the challenges of doing this as a “radio” performance?

This is my first radio play! I quickly realized there are different techniques involved. I’m used to being off-book and looking into the eyes of my scene partner. But with scripts in-hand, you have to balance reading the text, engaging with your scene partner, making sure the audience can see you…all while speaking into a microphone. Talk about walking and chewing gum!  

You’ve performed in many of our regional theatres, Village Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre, ACT Theatre, Seattle Rep—what distinguishes a Taproot show for you?

Karen Lund (associate artistic director), Mark Lund (design director) and Scott Nolte (producing artistic director/CEO). They are always welcoming to actors. Even when visiting, I’ve always been offered good conversation and kind words. Both Arsenic and Old Lace and The Bishop’s Wife felt like a homecoming.  

Cast of 'The Bishop's Wife' at Taproot.
Cast of ‘The Bishop’s Wife’ at Taproot. Photo by Erik Stuhaug

How did you go from earning a B.S. in Cellular, Molecular and Developmental Biology to a M.F.A. from University of Washington’s Professional Actor Training Program?

When I was younger I always loved science. I thought I’d grow up to be a doctor. But I have also always performed in theatre. Even while I was working toward my undergraduate degree I was still performing in Seattle fringe theatre. When it came time to decide on graduate schools, I thought that if I became a doctor I wouldn’t be able to perform again. I couldn’t live a life without performance. So I auditioned for one grad school: the University of Washington School of Drama. And luckily, I was accepted! I still love science, and regularly read scientific articles. I don’t think that will leave me anytime soon.

How does having studied both science and the arts make you a better artist?

I approach my characters very rationally. I am a Stanislavski, action-based performer. I need to know physiologically what my character wants, and what tactics they will attempt in order to get it. My science background keeps me asking why characters do what they do; what textually-based clues can we derive from a script?  I’ve never been one to base a performance on “feeling.” I have also never played the color orange.


The Bishop’s Wife is playing now through December 28 at Taproot Theatre Company. Tickets are available online or at 206.781.9707. 


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

Bringing Hanns Eisler’s Music Back to Life

Coming to Bing Concert Hall this December, Hell’s Fury examines the extraordinary life of composer Hanns Eisler. Known for his Marxist politics, Eisler was exiled in turn by three countries—and three of the most powerful ideologies of the twentieth century: Nazi Germany, McCarthyist United States, and communist East Germany.

A highly theatrical recreation of Eisler’s remarkable journey of expatriation and migration, Hell’s Fury resonates in a world of borders and ever-increasing fear of the other. The centerpiece of the production is Eisler’s ironically titled Hollywood Songbook. Written while he was composing Oscar-nominated movie scores in the early 1940s, the song cycle is a lyrical outpouring of wit, anger, and pain.

Stanford Live talked with Hell’s Fury director Tim Albery about bringing Eisler’s life and music to the stage.  

Stanford Live: How did the idea originate to bring Eisler’s music back to life?

Tim Albery: Listening to a recording of The Hollywood Songbook for the first time at the start of this century, I immediately sensed the inherent theatricality of the songs. As I learned more about Eisler’s extraordinary story, the notion of a “day in the life” of Eisler began to take shape.

I was attracted by the fact that Eisler, although a very distinguished composer, is largely unknown. If fictional, his life story would seem utterly incredible; the fact that, with all its unlikely twists and turns, it is true makes it all the more surprising and strangely exhilarating. And his coruscating self-knowledge deflects any potential sentimentality at his cruel fate.       

‘Hell’s Fury’ premiered at Luminato in Toronto over the summer. Photo by Bruce Zinger

What directorial challenges or surprises emerged as you balanced Eisler’s story with the historical context and its contemporary echoes, as well as language and art?

As the narrative began to evolve, the happiest surprise was finding that many of the songs, though all written in Hollywood in the 1940s, applied equally well to Eisler’s later life in communist East Germany. It is something of a liberty to repurpose the songs in this way, but once rehearsals began, their use outside of their original context seemed entirely appropriate.

The challenge throughout was deciding how much biographical information an audience needs and how to include it. I was eager to present an emotional journey told through songs and not a history lesson, so the story of Eisler’s travels and travails between the three ideologies of Nazism, capitalism, and communism is revealed as allusively as possible. The singer and the pianist live out Eisler’s life within the very real world of a mid-twentieth century recording studio. The setting is constantly transformed in surprising and unsettling ways using light, video, and sound to reveal the inner landscape of the songs.

Pianist Serouj Kradjian and baritone Russell Braun. Photo courtesy of Luminato

Discovering which should be the final song of the show was crucial. “Elegy 1943” is a cry of pain at the relentless cycle of history: “From age to age we destroy our neighbors because we fear them.” With this song, Eisler immediately becomes our contemporary, as we witness once again the rise of nationalism and populism, and a determined assault on all the valiant attempts since World War II to devise global laws and institutions that would temper the worst instincts of our species.        

What do baritone Russell Braun and pianist Serouj Kradjian bring to the piece in their portrayals of Eisler’s personal or musical interiority?

Serouj is the brooding introvert of Eisler’s almost bipolar nature, and Russell the ironic, savage, and playful extrovert. The roles are sometimes merged, sometimes almost reversed. Like twins, they each have something of the other. They co-exist while apparently unaware of each other.

A Canadian who was brought up in Germany, Russell is bilingual and bicultural, great assets for discovering Eisler. He is also an entirely instinctive actor, who, in rehearsal, quietly finds his way to the truth of the moment. Serouj listens and breathes with Russell—voice and piano sound as one. And he can turn on a dime; a serious song morphs into a cocktail bar vamp, doodling an improvisation for a movie score crashes into one of Eisler’s manic Piano Sonatas.

‘Hell’s Fury’ is a one-act show running 70 minutes. Photo by Bruce Zinger

Why is it important to bring Eisler’s life and his song cycle—haunted by McCarthyism, displacement, and, even still, beauty—to a contemporary audience, most of whom did not live through the horrors and movements that defined twentieth century?

Displacement is still with us and growing daily—displacement by war, poverty, and increasingly, climate change. The response of many governments is to deliberately breed an atmosphere of fear and contempt for those who can be branded as “not one of us” on grounds of ethnicity, religion, or political views, which is the essence of McCarthyism. Can we really say that fascism or uncontrolled capitalism are merely relics of the twentieth century? And do we not hear contemporary politicians glad, once again, to call themselves socialist, a term that was a death knell for electability only a few years ago? The cycle of history does not stop. Eisler’s life story is mirrored in the lives of countless others today, and it is bracing, salutary, and moving to hear in his songs how relevant his experience remains.


This Dialogue with Director Tim Albery was originally published in Stanford Live’s November/December program. Used with the permission of Stanford Live.


Hell’s Fury, The Hollywood Songbook is Produced by Luminato, Soundstreams & Pinkhouse Productions with support from Opera North, UK. Hell’s Fury will play at Stanford Live’s Bing Concert Hall December 6–7. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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