Tamilla Woodard Forges a New Way Forward With ‘Top Girls’

When Tamilla Woodard opens Top Girls at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) later this month, the production is sure to make some noise. Top Girls, perhaps the best known of Caryl Churchill’s plays, follows an aspiring executive named Marlene and her imagined dinner party with strong, complicated women throughout history—including Pope Joan and explorer Isabella Bird.

It’s a beautiful and savage play about ambition, feminism and the wounds we gain as we shatter that glass ceiling. I had the opportunity to speak with Woodard before rehearsals began. Together, we discussed why Top Girls is the perfect play for 2019.

Danielle Mohlman: What drew you to Top Girls initially?

Tamilla Woodard: The play was written just as Margaret Thatcher was coming into power and it’s a response to this idea of capitalism—and how feminism and capitalism are in conversation. What does it mean for women to have economic freedom and liberty? And how do we operate within this system as leaders? Do we follow the patriarchy because there are no other examples of how to lead—or do we forge a new way? And really what I’m really keen about is this idea of “Do we forge a new way?” We have a lot of examples of how women have had to occupy roles of leadership by mimicking the really destructive—or non-constructive—systems that men have created.

That leads really beautifully into my next question: Why this play now?

Well, very little has changed since the 1980s. It’s really eye-opening that the conversation hasn’t shifted very much. There’s a scene in Top Girls that is so deep, so rich, so intricate that there are things I didn’t see until I saw the actors on their feet in auditions. And I was like, oh my gosh. To watch a woman ask another woman to give up her job to the man because the man’s feelings were hurt. (Laughs.) You know? And it was my casting to make that ask happen between a white woman of privilege and a black woman who had to do all sorts of things to acquire the position that she has.

I think there is a growing awareness that there is no reimagining of systems. Those systems cannot be rehabilitated. What we have to do now is step forward as creators of the world…

Tamilla Woodard

Oh wow. That just makes me think about how the common refrain in political conversations is “Oh, women are too emotional.” But it’s truly the men that are getting their feelings hurt.

Right! And like, my feelings aren’t supposed to hurt, therefore you are doing something wrong. You know? Here’s what’s new about 2019: I’m so excited and deeply terrified by the world, such as it’s becoming known to us right now. I think there is a growing awareness that there is no reimagining of systems. Those systems cannot be rehabilitated. What we have to do now is step forward as creators of the world—in response to the circumstances in which we really live, not in response to old ideals.

Yeah. Wow. To step back from Top Girls and talk a little more broadly about A.C.T., you also directed Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats last season. What excites you about returning to San Francisco and A.C.T.?

San Francisco is such a surprising city to me. First of all, there are so many theatres per capita, creating so many different kinds of work. But also, the fact that there’s a kind of libertarianism plus liberalism that are so in conversation with each other. Mainly because you’re all the way out west and the get it done on your own, let people do what they want to do, kind of feeling about things. But also, there’s like “We should have some social services that can support them doing what they want to do.” So it’s interesting. There’s no city like it out there. There’s a lot of concentrated wealth. There’s a lot of independence.

Cast of 'Men on Boats' at A.C.T. directed by Tamilla Woodard.
Cast of ‘Men on Boats’ at A.C.T. directed by Tamilla Woodard (2018). Photo by Kevin Berne

I’ve never thought about it that way.

So that’s a challenging audience. I don’t know what people will think of this play. You don’t want to make anything highbrow, but also people are highbrow. So it’s a beautiful challenge as an artist.

Is there something you’re looking forward to exploring in the rehearsal room—something that you’re just itching to get into A.C.T.’s space to explore?

I’m really keen on getting how the opening dinner party devolves and how far we can go with that. I have a really strong idea and instinct about where we go, and the debauchery that happens at the end and what gets revealed and how we evolve into a nightmare. And I’m super keen on the opposite thing that happens in the last moments of the play. We have an Ibsen-like scene that’s a boxing match with words. I want for that to feel as activated, as adventurous, as chaotic as the first scene of the play.

Top Girls runs September 19 to October 13 at American Conservatory Theater at Geary Theater in San Francisco. 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.

Amina Edris Celebrates an Artistic Homecoming With ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the San Francisco Opera

When Amina Edris takes the stage as Juliet in Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, she’ll be returning to a city that she loves and a familiar, welcoming stage. Edris, who was born in Egypt and raised in New Zealand, earned her post-graduate degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music before receiving a two-year fellowship appointment at the San Francisco Opera. “I’m so happy to be back because it does feel like my artistic home,” Edris said. “It was almost as if I grew up there, you know what I mean?”

Edris is covering the role of Juliet for fellow opera singer Nadine Sierra, singing the role at the final performance on October 1. She was kind enough to speak with me the day before Romeo and Juliet rehearsals began, sharing her thoughts on the character Juliet, why San Francisco feels like home and what she’s looking forward to about that October 1 performance.

Danielle Mohlman: What drew you to the role of Juliet? What is it about this role that excites or challenges you?

Amina Edris: I think a lot of people of my age group—or even younger—are familiar with the story of Romeo and Juliet. They’ve seen movie versions of it or they’ve seen a theatre version. And it’s just relatable. It’s just a grand love story. And for me, I have a particular close affinity with French music. As a French speaker, I’ve always been drawn to the French repertoire. So Juliet for me was just a natural progression really. And I love the idea of being able to play a young woman. She’s young, she’s in love. And you sort of get to see her journey. She falls in love very quickly and then, you know, they go through a series of obstacles. And of course, her death at the end. You’ve got to like a little bit of drama on stage.


It’s always interesting to play those kinds of roles that have a big arc. A lot of the time I get to play roles like the maid or the ingenue, you know? And there’s not much happening in the progression of the character. Whereas for Juliet specifically, she goes through quite a lot. She has a big journey. And of course it ends with, you know, with their death scene. But it provides a good platform. It provides a good dramatic platform for the singer that is playing that role.

Amina Edris as Countess Ceprano in Verdi's 'Rigoletto.'
Amina Edris as Countess Ceprano in Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo by Cory Weaver

And do you feel like that is pretty specific to roles written for women? In terms of characters not receiving a full arc, I mean. Or is that pretty evenly distributed across male and female roles in opera?

That’s a very good question. I don’t know! Obviously it depends on what your voice type is. Earlier on, I started singing a lot of soubrette roles*. I’m not a soubrette. Roles like Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro—roles where there’s a lot happening in the story of the opera, but there isn’t necessarily a lot happening in terms of the character arc for the character herself. And I feel like that sort of replicates in many other roles—like Susanna [in The Marriage of Figaro], Zerlina [in Don Giovanni], Despina [in Così fan tutte], Norina [in Don Pasquale]. Do you know what I mean? They all have a similar poof. Whereas, Juliet has a big journey. Which is really fun to play and explore.

Your job takes you all over the world. What makes San Francisco special?

I don’t know if this is going to be really corny, but I think it’s the people and the friendships that I’ve made here. I did a postgraduate diploma at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music before getting into the Adler program at the San Francisco Opera. And I ended up spending a much longer time period in San Francisco than I initially thought I would. Because when I first moved here I thought, “Oh I’m just studying for a year and then I’m going elsewhere—wherever the world takes me.” And when you get to spend that much time in one place, I tend to get attached to the people and the friendships more than the place.

Amina Edris and Pene Pati in 2018 The Future is Now Adler Fellows Concert.
Amina Edris and Pene Pati in 2018 The Future is Now Adler Fellows Concert. Photo by Kristen Loken

Yeah. And when you spend that much time somewhere, especially early in your career, the city starts to live in your body.

Exactly. And it just kind of feels like home, in a way. 

I saw that you’ll be performing opposite your husband Pene Pati on the October 1 performance of Romeo and Juliet. It’s a ways off, but what do you anticipate that experience will be like?

My husband and I were in the young artist program together at the San Francisco Opera—and we were Adler fellows together as well. And then last year we got to do our first proper opera together: The Elixir of Love. We got to play each other’s love interest and that was a lot of fun—being able to sort of feed off each other’s energies onstage. He was my love interest in the show and I was his love interest in the show. And we had duets together and all sorts of scenes together. But it was a comedy opera. And this time, with Romeo and Juliet, it’s a full-blown romantic opera in itself. So it’s a different tone.

I’m glad that it’s a fun experience for the two of you to perform together.

Oh absolutely.

*A soubrette is a soprano who sings supporting roles in comic opera; generally a coquettish maid or frivolous young woman in comedies.

Romeo and Juliet runs September 6 to October 1 at the San Francisco Opera. On October 1, Amina Edris will perform the title role. 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.

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, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

A Conversation with Lindy Hume, Stage Director of Seattle Opera’s ‘Rigoletto’

Lindy Hume creates a contemporary production of Verdi’s tragedy which explores, rather than overlooks the sexual assault and misogyny that is rampant within the opera. Bringing a relevant Rigoletto to audiences in a post-#MeToo era takes a feminist perspective and some inspiration from modern-day political figures.

Stage Director of 'Rigoletto.'
Stage Director Lindy Hume. Courtesy of Seattle Opera

Why did you update Rigoletto?

Lindy Hume: The problem with not updating Rigoletto is that a Renaissance-era codpiece-cloak-and-hose setting in a fictional court of Mantua lets the licentious Duke off the hook for his appalling treatment of women. Verdi turned a famous philanderer into a rock star by giving him some of the best music to the most misogynistic lines ever written (Act 1 “it’s this girl or that girl, they’re all the same to me …” and in Act 3 “women are unreliable …”). These are two of the most jaunty, charming, popular tunes in the entire operatic repertoire, with a bravado that’s guaranteed to win the audience over. Even contemporary audiences in a post-#MeToo world, who can’t help but gasp at his shameless audacity and brazenness, adore those arias—which is what makes them so brilliant! I created this production for New Zealand Opera in 2012. I found inspiration for the spirit of this bad boy Duke of Mantua in Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister, who at that time was breezing through his “bunga bunga” sex trial with his signature blend of political incorrectness, immaculate tailoring, and dazzling—if cosmetically enhanced—smile. Where better to set the debauched action of Rigoletto than the colorful, charismatic, spectacularly excessive “Berlusconi Court”? Even now that Silvio has retreated from public life his reputation is the stuff of legend.

So, this interpretation isn’t about Donald Trump?

It’s not explicitly Trump’s America, or Berlusconi’s Italy, but a modern, highly recognizable version of the dystopian, brutal, corrupt society Victor Hugo and Verdi imagined as the background for the tragedy of Gilda and her father. The court’s treatment of Monterone, the heartbroken father of a girl whose reputation the Duke has publicly ruined, quickly descends from boredom to murder. Tired of the old man ranting, the Duke sentences him to death in a state-sanctioned execution. As a feminist and a fan of Verdi’s wonderful observation of human behavior, how could I resist bringing these worlds together in an imagined scenario where the excesses of obscene wealth, the corruption of high political power, and the moral void of the court all vibrate with an undercurrent of fear, violence, misogyny, and criminality? This is the world of Verdi’s Rigoletto, and our own.

Madison Leonard in Seattle Opera's 'Rigoletto.'
Madison Leonard in Seattle Opera’s ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo by Sunny Martini

Why do you choose to explore sexual assault in the theatre?

As we have seen in recent years, particularly through the #MeToo movement, sexual assault is an issue across society that women have been living with for centuries, and increasingly have decided to confront wholesale. My response is not only from the perspective of a feminist woman director, but from that of an average audience member (opera audiences are mostly women, as you know). For years, I’ve been frustrated that this art form has not called out sexual assault and violence, but often celebrated it. For example, Wikipedia says: “the Duke sings of a life of pleasure with as many women as possible,” and mentions that “he particularly enjoys cuckolding his courtiers.” In the most famous and beloved operas—Rigoletto, Don Giovanni, Carmen, Tosca, Madama Butterfly—the tragic heroine is part of the vernacular. Sopranos must rehearse how to fall, be stabbed, brutalized, and thrown across the room, behaviors they would never accept in real life. In 2019, if opera aspires to be a progressive, future-focused art form with relevance in contemporary society, then it must evolve and be responsive to a changing society. The topic of sexual assault and violence against women in opera is right there in front of us, either to explore, or to ignore.

Originally published in Seattle Opera’s Rigoletto program. Used with permission of Seattle Opera.

Rigoletto is onstage now at Seattle Opera through August 28. Tickets are available online.

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, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

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, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

Jeffrey Lo Realizes a Decade-Long Dream with ‘The Language Archive’

To say Jeffrey Lo wears many hats would be an understatement. Not only is he the casting director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, he’s also the director of The Language Archive and a playwright in his own right. “I’ve been fortunate to hold many roles at TheatreWorks,” Lo said, “and the joke is by the time my new business cards get printed, I’ve already changed titles.” I had the pleasure of speaking with Lo over the phone as he headed into tech rehearsal for The Language Archive, which opened July 10.

Danielle Mohlman: Can you share a little bit about The Language Archive? What drew you to this play initially? And why this play now?

Director of 'The Language Archive' Jeffrey Lo
Director of ‘The Language Archive’ Jeffrey Lo. Photo by Tasi Alabastro

Jeffrey Lo: You know, The Language Archive is a play that I have actually been trying to get the chance to direct for about ten years.


Yeah. I find this play to be one the most beautifully written pieces of theatre I have ever come across. It’s a play about both the beauty and possibility of language, but also the limitation of language. It’s about allowing human beings, as messy as we are, to express ourselves and share how we’re feeling with one another.


And I find that to be so beautiful. So much of this play lives in this world of beautiful coincidences and things happening for a reason. And I think that me getting the opportunity to do The Language Archive now, as opposed to any other time in the ten years that I’ve been chomping at the bit to work on this play, lands in line with that “everything happens for a reason” theme. The first time I ever saw a staged reading of a play was a workshop reading of this play—while it was still in development.

Oh wow.

I was still an undergraduate aspiring playwright and director at UC Irvine. And I just found myself in awe of the language and in awe of the process of a stage reading. I had never seen that before. There was a playwright in the back, Julia Cho, who was taking her notes and revising things as she was going. And there was a group of actors who had three rehearsals beforehand and were just beautifully performing this intense language on stage for us. And I was just in awe of it.

Emily Kuroda emphasizes the importance of love in 'The Language Archive.'
Emily Kuroda emphasizes the importance of love in ‘The Language Archive.’ Photo by Alessandra Mello

After I finished college, I had my directing apprenticeship at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and they were doing The Language Archive. So I ended up getting to observe and assistant direct that play and Julia Cho was in the room there. And I fell in love with that play all over again. This was in 2011, maybe my first or second professional theatre job out of college. And it was a time where, outside of school, I had interacted with very few artists of color. That experience working with Laurie Woolery, who is a Latinx director, and the way she mentored me, the way she spoke to me really made me feel like I belonged.

It’s one of those things where everything about The Language Archive has just made it so I have to direct it. And to be able to do that as the first show of the 50th season at TheatreWorks—the final season of Robert Kelley, who I have worked for basically my entire professional career—it’s a real honor.

I rambled. I’m so sorry.

No, that’s really beautiful. All of that was so wonderful. You have such a long history with this play. I’m like, oh my god, can I come see this play?

Oh, please do. Please do.

Jomar Tagatac reflects on how to communicate with wife, Elena Wright, who recently left him in 'The Language Archive.'
Jomar Tagatac reflects on how to communicate with wife, Elena Wright, who recently left him in ‘The Language Archive.’ Photo by Alessandra Mello

What is it about TheatreWorks that keeps you coming back? I don’t want to put the words “artistic home” in your mouth, but you did say that like you’ve been there your whole professional career, so what is it that keeps you engaged in TheatreWorks and excited to come to work every day?

I’ve learned that TheatreWorks’ culture is rare. I didn’t know this until I started to work as a freelancer at other theatres, but so much of what draws me to TheatreWorks is the culture that our Founding Artistic Director Robert Kelley has created. I don’t think he ever imagined TheatreWorks was going to become as large as it is today. I don’t think that he ever imagined that, fifty years later, he was going to be on stage at Radio City Music Hall holding up the Regional [Theatre] Tony Award. He really runs this company as just a group of friends just wanting to put on some plays. And as the company has continued to grow, although there’s a lot more paperwork, that feeling of we’re just buddies trying to put on some art that we feel passionate about is still tangible within the room. And I think that’s what keeps me coming back. Because I now know that that’s not how it always works out.

I’m sure people ask you this all the time, but it’s easy to think about Silicon Valley as this tech magnet. But I know that it’s so much more. How do you marry the startup and tech culture of Silicon Valley with the artistry and exploration of theatre in your work?

I’m born and raised in the Bay Area and it’s pretty wild to see how quickly it’s changed. I think once we’re able to engage folks who work in the tech and startup industry, that’s going to allow our art to flourish even more than it already is. But having said that, I like to think that I run my rehearsal room in a way that the most exciting—and safest—tech startups seem to work. I want all of my artists [to] feel like rehearsal is a safe place to take your biggest risks, to be as creative as possible. That way, we can find the most interesting ideas together.

The Language Archive opens TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s 2019-20 season, now playing through August 4 at Lucie Stern Theatre. Tickets are available online.

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

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, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

A Conversation with Choreographers Dammiel Cruz, Miles Pertl and Kiyon C. Ross

Dammiel Cruz, Miles Pertl and Kiyon C. Ross aren’t yet household names, but they will be. Cruz joined the Pacific Northwest Ballet as an apprentice in 2016 and was promoted to the corps de ballet later that same year. Pertl joined PNB as a corps de ballet dancer in 2015 after being a corps de ballet member at both Stuttgart Ballet in Germany and Het Nationale Ballet in the Netherlands. And Ross joined PNB in 2001, the very same year he created his first piece of choreography. He’s been the NEXT STEP program manager at PNB since 2012, a position he held simultaneously with his career as a soloist at PNB before retiring from dance in 2015.

Together, these three represent the past, present and future of choreography at the Pacific Northwest Ballet and beyond. And because we have sunshine on the brain, we wanted to talk to them about their experience choreographing for the outdoors and how performances like Sculptured Dance (2016–2017) and NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN (2018–present) affect the way they choreograph.

Danielle Mohlman: How does choreographing for an outdoor performance compare to choreographing for a more traditional theatre space?

Dammiel Cruz, choreographer for the 2019 NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN: Choreographing for an outdoor setting can be very different. Luckily a lot of the movement involved in my piece can be easily performed outside. Sometimes dancing on concrete or grass can limit one’s ability to turn well. Either way, I believe dancing outside is a great way to get more of the community involved in the arts! 

Miles Pertl, choreographer of Riding the Wave for the 2018 NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN: Dancing outside offers the dancers and the choreographers a completely different experience. The audience is so close that you can hear every “Oooh,” every sigh, every chuckle. This is a stark contrast to dancing on the stage at McCaw Hall where the audience appears as a black void, only making themselves known by their applause at the end of the performance. Before OUTSIDE/IN, I had danced in both of the first two years’ iterations of Sculptured Dance and fell in love with it. I was exposed to choreographers I had never worked with, met amazing dancers from our city and got to dance outside and mingle with those watching. It was so cool!

Kiyon C. Ross, choreographer of Do. Not. Obstruct. for the 2016 Sculptured Dance: When choreographing for traditional spaces, I know generally what I have to work with. There’s usually a square space with a number of wings for entrances and exits. Sometimes there’s a space for dancers to cross over behind the cyclorama. And usually there’s a curtain—and at the very least top lighting and side lighting. Creating a site-specific work requires the same level of planning, preparation and creative process as choreographing for the stage. But being in a space already occupied by art (like the Olympic Sculpture Park) and using that art as an inspiration, is unforgettable. I certainly had to approach the site-specific commission with flexibility. But that flexibility allowed me to find new ways of expressing movement. It forced me to consider bodies in space in ways that were completely unorthodox to me.

Kiyon C. Ross’s 'Do. Not. Obstruct.' at Summer at SAM: Sculptured Dance, 2016.
Kiyon C. Ross’s ‘Do. Not. Obstruct.’ at Summer at SAM: Sculptured Dance, 2016. Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

What was your most joyful experience choreographing for Sculptured Dance?

Ross: The most joyful experience for me was being able to share my art with so many people. Making art accessible and approachable is extremely important—especially for an art form like dance. Sometimes going to the theatre can create barriers for people, both economically and socially. Having art in your community where you live and being able to access it with your friends and neighbors is a meaningful experience. Seeing the faces in the crowds—and seeing people take a moment from riding their bikes, walking their dogs or their evening strolls to appreciate dance in a space that is meant to be shared by everyone—is certainly a cherished memory from this experience.

PNB’s outdoor performances are free to the community. Talk to me about the importance of accessible art in our community.

Cruz: I absolutely love that PNB’s outdoor performances are free of charge. I believe it’s incredibly important to have accessible art not only in our community, but communities everywhere because it gives the opportunity for all minds to be inspired. Art provides an outlet for people to express themselves. 

Pertl: Art doesn’t need to feel high-minded or elite. By providing accessible art, we provide a place where our entire community can gather. Each one of us gets bogged down with work, school and personal drama. But when you come to an event like OUTSIDE/IN or any of the other events around our city, you are entering a place of community and shared experience. You get a glimpse into the artists’ lives and their experience might mirror your own. Many of the artists I know are creating art not for the money, but for the opportunity to share it with everyone.

This Dialogue has been excerpted and lightly edited from three separate interviews, all conducted in April 2019.

Danielle Mohlman is a nationally produced feminist playwright and arts journalist based in Seattle. Her play Nexus is among the 2015 Honorable Mentions on The Kilroys list. She is an alumnus of the inaugural class of Playwrights’ Arena at Arena Stage and the 2018 Umbrella Project Writers Group.

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, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.