Investing in the Future of Washington’s Arts Community

ArtsFund and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation announced a historic investment in Washington’s arts and culture sector. The Community Accelerator Grant, one of the largest private grants for the arts, will help deliver $10 million dollars in funding to cultural organizations across the state of Washington in early 2023.

The Community Accelerator grant is intended to boost organizations whose primary mission is to produce or support arts and cultural activities, improving their ability to invest in their teams and missions. To celebrate this announcement, ArtsFund CEO Michael Greer and Lara Littlefield, Executive Director, Partnerships and Programs on behalf of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation discussed the growth and future of the arts and culture sector in Washington state and how investing in arts is an investment in healthy, thriving communities. For more information and to sign up for updates about the grant, visit ArtsFund’s website.

two headshots. the first is of Michael Greer smiling in a suit and tie. The second is of Lara Littlefield in a green blazer.
Michael Greer / Lara Littlefield. COURTESY OF ARTSFUND

Michael Greer: Hi Lara, and great to be having this conversation. This program is critical to the future of many communities at a time when we need it the most. We are witnessing a cultural sector that has weathered a tumultuous several years. Art making survives because it’s human nature. However, our institutions and organizations that support that work, and the public’s ability to engage with art and culture are facing a structural change in how that work is done. Organizations are finding new ways to relate to one another and the communities they serve. They are getting closer to their neighborhoods and finding new ways to reflect the values and the diversity of their communities.

What’s exciting about the Community Accelerator Grant is that it advances our ability to invest in the future of a vibrant arts and culture scene and all the benefits associated with that. This program will support organizations’ ability to celebrate creative expression, tell important stories, and inspire people of varied ages, backgrounds, and lived experiences. And unrestricted funding allows organizations the capital they need to support their mission. This flexible funding gives communities the ability to invest in their greatest needs, and ultimately foster a stronger arts and culture ecosystem for all.  That support will strengthen our communities and create a better quality of life for everyone, across all of Washington State.

three young girls wearing hijabs are outside painting on easels.
DNDA summer youth program. COURTESY OF DNDA STAFF

Lara Littlefield: When the foundation was considering how best to invest in the future of our arts and culture sector, we knew one of the most important aspects was to ensure that resources were getting to grantees quickly and seamlessly. We were looking to accelerate the funding process, making it frictionless for arts and culture organizations who already have so much on their plate. The Community Accelerator Grant’s model allows these organizations to access and distribute funds based on needs they are defining. It is important that our arts and cultural organizations regardless of size or location, are trusted and supported by funders—we can ultimately learn a lot from grantees. As a funder supporting the most pressing needs in the arts and culture sector, we will analyze and share the data we get back to help determine needs-specific trends for arts organizations of all resource levels around the state.

MG: The Community Advisory Panel is really the heart of how this program will be responsive to the needs of the sector right now. As a funder, we stay as close to our grantees as we can, but there are limitations based on positionality and power dynamics. By bringing in a Community Advisory Panel to support the decision-making, both in the creation of the guidelines and requirements, as well as in the evaluation of the applicant information, we get closer to the true needs of the sector. The cultural sector has been historically funded through a lens of “excellence”—but who gets to define what that means and for whom? An approach like the Community Advisory Panel allows us to center decision-making conversations with community members.

We are being intentional with the make-up of this panel. Not only does the Community Advisory Panel aim to represent the geographic scope of Washington State, but the individuals who are sitting on the panel also reflect a wide array of lived experiences, including Black, Indigenous, and people of color, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities. Through this process, we want to ensure that decision-making is closest to the impacted communities.

two black men work in a glass blowing studio. one stands observing and the second sits turning an orange glass object.

LL: The Community Advisory Panel was an especially important aspect of being more inclusive and prioritizing community input into our approach to funding arts, culture, and heritage organizations.  We want to learn from this process to help other funders better embrace collaborative approaches to grantmaking, especially in a sector like arts and culture that is so deeply embedded in and critical to the communities their organizations serve.

MG: As you noted, Lara, it is vital to get these resources distributed to grantees quickly and seamlessly. The Community Accelerator Grant will be open from January 4–31, 2023, with distributing of funding by the end of Q1 2023. It’s a fast timeline for us as a grantmaker, but it’s been developed so that we can both get feedback on the creation of the program and move quickly to move resources where they are needed most. For people looking to sign up to get updates about the program as soon as they are available, please visit ArtsFund’s website.

About ArtsFund

ArtsFund supports the arts through leadership, advocacy, and grantmaking in order to build a healthy, equitable, and creative Washington. Founded in 1969, the Seattle-based nonprofit has been building community through the arts for more than 50 years. ArtsFund was originally founded to bring corporate and civic leaders together to help establish and sustain our region’s arts and cultural institutions. Over its grantmaking history, ArtsFund has supported more than 650 arts organizations with more than $100 million in grants, and provided valuable leadership and advocacy.

About Paul G. Allen Family Foundation

Founded in 1988 by philanthropists Jody Allen and the late Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, the foundation invests in communities across the Pacific Northwest to enhance the human experience of arts & culture, center under-served populations, and mobilize young people to make impact. In addition, the foundation supports a global portfolio of nonprofit partners working across science and technology solutions to protect wildlife, preserve ocean health, and create lasting change. The foundation also funds the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, which works to advance cutting-edge research in all areas of bioscience.

The Healing Power of “Moulin Rouge!”

Few productions pack visual panache, catchy pop tunes, and unabashed emotion like Moulin Rouge! The Musical. Loosely based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman, the story was reworked for the musical’s Broadway premiere in 2019 and won 10 Tony Awards.

The North American touring production, which includes 70 songs and is slated to visit nearly two dozen cities, will stop at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre December 14 through January 1 to offer local audiences a uniquely immersive experience filled with romance, drama, and glitz. Conor Ryan portrays Christian, a young Englishman entangled in a tragic love story with the show’s cabaret star Satine. He shared his experiences performing in this epic musical production.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

TODD MATTHEWS: This is the first time Moulin Rouge! The Musical will be performed in Seattle. Does that add any pressure to your performance?

CONOR RYAN: Well, for all the cities we’ve been to, it’s the first time the community has seen it in their hometown. I wouldn’t say there is any added pressure. I would lean in the opposite direction and say it’s a real joy to experience a community discovering the show for the first time. Once in a while, you meet audience members who saw it on Broadway. But most of the time, we are blessed with audiences highly anticipating the show because they love the movie but couldn’t get to New York City to see the show. It’s exciting to feel that energy. Some people come to the show dressed in costumes. Some people see the musical five, six, seven, or even 10 times! It’s a gift to be in a show that draws that kind of attention, to be a part of something that so many people love.

a large group of people stand together singing with their arms up in the air in exuberance
The cast of the North American Tour of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.” Photo by Matthew Murphy

Are there differences and similarities between the movie and this touring production?

I’m happy to report all the things audiences love about the movie are still there—scenic elements, popping colors, and high energy. This show was written almost 20 years after the movie was released, so there are nearly two decades of new pop music that the music supervisor and the creative team were able to explore. Not only do we have those classic songs audiences love about the movie, but we’ve also got some Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Adele. Those moments in the show are thrilling because audiences aren’t expecting them. For example, I get to sing Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” Every time that song starts, the crowd goes crazy because they love it and are not expecting it. Also, the movie is a movie, and the show is a Broadway show. Just by the nature of it being a different art form, it has a different feel. It grabs you differently when you’re physically in the same space as the performers.

Moulin Rouge! is a huge spectacle often described as a “visual feast.” How do you maintain your energy and prepare for that night after night?

I’ve done some demanding roles before, but never quite on this scale and never for this long. Something I’ve struggled with is the “long game.” I’m one of those performers who doesn’t know how to give less than 120 percent every time. It feels good to wring out my soul and leave it all on the floor. But, unfortunately, it’s not the most sustainable way to perform. I’m learning to take as best care of myself as possible. Instead of doing eight shows a week, I do seven. I get a ton of sleep. I drink tons of water. This show is so vocally demanding that sometimes I need to go on complete vocal rest. That’s very difficult for me. I’m incapable of being in any social setting and not talking. It’s about finding balance. It’s a journey.

What appealed to you about the role of Christian?

As soon as I heard they were making a Broadway show, I was manifesting, “Please, put me in that role.” I was always drawn to that character—his love of life and passion for his art. I feel like Christian is not that different from me. It’s one of those roles that fit like a glove.

The character of Christian is being held back by a group of dancers with unsettling lighting.
The cast of the North American Tour of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.” Photo by Matthew Murphy

Have you been able to put your stamp or signature on the character?

The creative team allowed me to bring so much of myself to the role within the show’s structure. They encouraged and supported me in singing the songs my way, unique to my voice, and bringing my raw emotion to the role. I love the journey Christian goes on, even though it ends up being tragic. I love the joys of the first act and all the pain and anguish of the second. I love the experience of going out there and bringing out my soul. I’m drenched in sweat by the end, but it feels so good. It’s a dream come true. Honestly, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

Is there one song you look forward to performing every night?

There’s this beautiful duet, “Come What May,” between Satine and Christian. As you said, the show is such a spectacle. It can sometimes be a sensory overload with the lights, orchestration, costumes, and choreography. Don’t get me wrong—it’s all delectable, fabulous, and magnificent. But I look forward to the scene in which Courtney Reed, as Satine, and I sing “Come What May.” I hold her in my arms, look her in the eyes, and for that moment, it feels like we’re alone. It’s not necessarily relaxing, but it’s so pure. It’s the last time the audience gets to indulge in Christian and Satine’s love before things get complicated.

a group of people look off into the distance as the man in front sings in front of a set that has a large heart
The cast of the North American Tour of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.” Photo by Matthew Murphy

Is there anything else you would like to share with audiences about your experience with this show?

No one escaped the pandemic and its effect on our planet and society. The experience of Moulin Rouge! and live theatre truly feels like a gift. For two years, my self-esteem took a hit after being labeled “non-essential.” After being unemployed for so long, it feels like live theatre—and this show in particular—is as essential as ever. People leave the show feeling moved and connected. I’m so grateful that I get to re-emerge from the pandemic in such a meaningful way. Audiences communicate back to me—either at the end of the show at the stage door, on social media, or during the bows at curtain call—that we make a difference in the world. It never gets old to hear that.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical will play at The Paramount Theatre from December 14, 2022 to January 1, 2023. Tickets are available online

Todd Matthews is a Seattle-based writer, editor, and journalist whose work has appeared in Earshot Jazz, HistoryLink, Real Change, Seattle magazine, and other publications in print and online over the past 25 years. A graduate of the University of Washington and the author of three non-fiction books, he has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.

A Family Affair

Local theatre audiences are in for a treat this fall as Faith Bennett Russell and her daughters, Be and Sarah, will share the stage for the first time in a full production when Taproot Theatre Company presents A Night with the Russells: The Legacy of Us (September 21–October 22, 2022). Faith, Be, and Sarah recently sat down together to talk about this 90-minute cabaret that promises to send audience members leaving with a song in their hearts.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

TODD MATTHEWS: What will audiences experience during the show?

BE RUSSELL: We’ll share songs that have very personal meanings to all three of us. Songs that either highlight, amplify, or mirror our journeys as artists. I don’t want to give too much away because I want it to be a surprise for our theatergoers. But audiences can expect musical theatre, pop culture, and faith-based songs—songs from all different canons that inspired our individual and collective journeys and represent who we are.

FAITH BENNETT RUSSELL: We will ask our audience to be involved. Get up and dance. In the time we’re in, there needs to be invitations to dance and sing. Not only are we celebrating our work and our journey, but we’re also celebrating community. Also, it’s a call for transparency and exposure, which I feel are necessary. It’s time to take the masks off—I don’t mean the masks necessary to keep us healthy, but the figurative masks—and just walk in our authentic selves. There’s been so much loss. There’s so much happening in the world. I’m hoping it gives the audience permission to be, like, “Let’s all be real together and confess it has been hard. Yes, I can relate to that story.”

Is this really the first time the three of you have been on stage together in a show?

BR: As far as a full production, yes. Sarah and I have been in many shows this season together, which has been such a joy. We did 9 to 5: The Musical. We did Mamma Mia! at Village Theatre. Faith and Sarah have been on stage together, as well. Sarah and I had a cabaret in 2019, in which our surprise guest was Faith. Also, Taproot Theatre had a benefit event in 2012, and we sang Stand by Me together. The audience had an amazing response to the three of us singing in harmony and being on stage at the same time. That kind of gave us the bug: What if we tried to do something together?

three black women are dressed in church dress and appear to be singing
Be Russell, Bethanie Willis and Tracy Michelle Hughes in “Crowns” at Taproot Theatre. PHOTO BY ERIK STUHAUG

How does this show compare to your experiences working on large-scale musicals?

SARAH RUSSELL: This is so much more personal. We’re telling our story. It’s scary to put yourself out there in a very vulnerable way—This is me. Take it or leave it. It’s exciting and scary, but that’s the motivation to do it. It makes you stronger.

What is the Russell family legacy?

FBR: We’re Jamaican-African American, and our people are storytellers. On my dad’s side, my great grandfather passed stories down. Our family would gather around and tell colorful, fun stories. My father continued that legacy of storytelling. After dinner, he would get his guitar out, teach us old Jamaican songs, and tell us stories attached to those songs. Also, I’m a pastor’s kid. Both my parents are preachers. Preachers know how to tell a story. That started my passion for wanting to act and tell stories through songs, dance, and dialogue.

BR: It’s also the legacy of what Taproot is in our lives as artists. Sarah and I grew up at Taproot. Faith was pursuing theatre as a profession, and we were homeschooled and came to the theatre with her during rehearsals and performances at seven and four years old. So, there’s a real special legacy as far as what being on the Taproot main stage means for us. The word “legacy” in the show’s title is not accidental.

Be and Sarah, as kids, did you appreciate what was going on at the time with your mom and Taproot?

SR: I didn’t realize that wasn’t normal. I had a great time. Don’t all kids go to the theatre with their mom and watch the plays, know all the choreography, and sing all the songs?

BR: It wasn’t just at Taproot. Faith invested in so much of our education and experience—going to the ballet, plays, and museums. Faith introduced us to so many things to give us the opportunities to find out what we loved. We watched so many movie musicals—Cats, Grease, West Side Story, The Sound of Music. We grew up being taught the canon and experiencing it on stage. As a child, it felt like this is what we do. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized how grateful I was for that education and the fullness of what it means to engage in the richness of life.

FBR: I just want to say my son’s name, Peter Russell Jr., because he also was at Taproot Theatre growing up. If he was typically abled, I believe he’d be an actor, too. He enjoyed the music and being around the storytelling. He keeps me grounded and real and authentic. He’s definitely present with me in the work that I do.

sarah russell stands center stage singing in Big Fish
Sarah Russell in “Big Fish” at Taproot Theatre. PHOTO BY ERIK STUHAUG

What will it be like on opening night with the three of you taking the stage together for this show?

FBR: It’s giddiness! It’s a joy I can’t describe. My heart bursts with so much joy.

SR: I know I’ll be nervous. I’m usually nervous before shows. Once I step foot on stage, I’m fine. But I will be on stage with the people I laugh with the most—the people who know the goofiest side of me. It’s going to be so much fun. I can’t wait.

BR: I might be a little biased, but I admire Sarah and Faith as artists. It’s a real privilege to share the stage with them. Also, I feel like there’s a special kind of groundedness and energy that only family can bring out of you.

A Night with the Russells: The Legacy of Us will play at Taproot Theatre Company September 21–October 22. Tickets are available online.

Todd Matthews is a Seattle-based writer, editor, and journalist whose work has appeared in 425, Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, City Arts, HistoryLink, Real Change, Seattle, South Sound, and other publications in print and online over the past 25 years. A graduate of the University of Washington and the author of three non-fiction books, he has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.

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

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

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

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

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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

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

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

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

Your, personally, favorite SIFF memories through the years?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goals for this year? In five years’ time?

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

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

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

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

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

Desdemona Chiang: Hi, Rosa.

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

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

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

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

RJ: That is so exciting. Congratulations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosa Joshi

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

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

RJ: And she’s really good at it.

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

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

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

RJ: Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DC: Yes.

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

Desdemona Chiang

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

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

RJ: Oh, that’s beautiful.

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

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

The interview has been edited for clarity.

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

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

“Romeo y Juliet” at Cal Shakes is a Bilingual Adaptation with Two Female Leads, Director KJ Sanchez Talks About Keeping the Classic Story Relevant

For a lot of people, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet might be the paragon of indecipherable literature from a time that we can’t remember, or much less care about. But what happens when you revamp Romeo to be a badass woman with a lasso, set the two on the Wild Western frontier, and pack it with just as much emotion as there is action? What you get is Romeo y Juliet, an exciting bilingual reimagining of Shakespeare’s timeless classic that refutes all dirt upon the play’s name. 

Adapted by Karen Zacarías and directed by KJ Sanchez at the California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes), the play takes place in Alta California, during the time of Spanish colonialism. It grapples with themes of love, youth, and disillusionment, asking the question: What happens when the adults don’t show up for the young people?

I had the privilege of engaging in an animated conversation with director KJ Sanchez about the message of the play and its relevance to today’s youth. We discussed the genesis of her love for Shakespeare during her own youth, and how her identity and personhood shape her role as a director.

Esha Potharaju: Out of such a wide array of plays that you’re free to direct, what made you choose Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?

KJ Sanchez: I have been in love with this play for 30 years. I actually played Juliet back in 1994, when I was very young. And I’ve just really loved it. So when Cal Shakes was talking to me about plays that I was interested in, I had mentioned I was interested in Romeo and Juliet, and that Karen Zacarías had begun writing this adaptation of it. Eric Ting, the artistic director of Cal Shakes, found out about it, so he connected the two of us. Knowing that I was always interested in this play, and knowing that Karen wrote this piece, he put us together.

Why did you choose to direct this specific adaptation of Romeo and Juliet? What was it that interested you about Zacarías’s adaptation of this play?

It was the idea of marrying two languages, Spanish and English, and particularly here in this area because Northern California, in so many ways, is a bilingual culture. And I, being a Latina myself, I felt like it was a really great way to access a language that when I was young, I felt like it was distant from me—that I felt like I was an outsider to Shakespeare’s language—until I had a mentor who taught me how to read and speak and understand Shakespeare, and I fell in love with it. It just felt good to sort of marry the language of my home and of my family with the language of Shakespeare. It felt like it opened up a whole world for me, and I think it’s going to open up a world for a lot of members of Latinidad to see themselves in these roles and to hear their language married with Shakespeare.

two men stand speaking during play rehearsal
Juan Manuel Amador and Orlando Arriaga in rehearsal. PHOTO BY JAY YAMADA

On that note, why do you believe that these creative decisions that the adaptation madelike setting the play in Alta California, during Spanish colonial ruleare important?

Actually, setting the play in Alta California, was my decision that I offered to Karen the playwright, which she agreed to and baked it into the play. I put it in Alta California, because it was a time where there was a lot of violence. The Spanish fought the Indigenous people and First Nation people to take their land, and then Mexico fought Spain to kick them out, and then the U.S. fought Mexico and invaded. And so there were battles after battles. It was a time when people were really quick to violence. And also, it’s the Old West, it’s the Wild West, it’s the Gold Rush, and that was a really intense time. So I wanted to put the play in a time that would feel like a pressure cooker. Like everybody’s under so much stress, and that explains why everybody’s so quick to violence. And then making Romeo a woman—I would imagine how hard it would have been at times to be a woman who’s in love with another woman. And so that just puts more pressure on Romeo and Juliet, and it helped me understand how high the stakes are for both of them.

I love how you chose to place emphasis on pressure in this play. How do you interpret the original play of Romeo and Juliet?

It’s a play about so many things. But I think the main thing for me is that the adults all fail the young people in the play. Even those that are well-intending, like Friar Lawrence. Every adult does a disservice to the children, to young people. And the young people are just trying to be their authentic selves. And they have no options because nobody is intervening to help these kids. And that’s a major thing that attracts me. I think it’s still so true today. It’s like, where did kids go when all the adults in their life failed them?

One of my favorite rappers is Chance the Rapper. When I first hear his music, I can’t quite understand every single line because he’s speaking so quickly, and he’s inventing words and making plays on words…And I think that’s the case with Shakespeare, too, because he was doing the exact same thing in his time as Chance the Rapper is doing now. So I think that young people can come to this show and just let the language kind of wash over them and let meaning be found.

KJ Sanchez

That’s beautiful. I didn’t expect this play to grapple with that sort of thing, to delve into that feeling of just being lost as a kid. I’ve never really heard that interpretation before, but that puts it into so much more context. That just makes me want to ask: Do you believe that a Shakespearean play can still endure amongst teenagers and children?

I do. I hope so. I’m a huge fan of rap music. One of my favorite rappers is Chance the Rapper. When I first hear his music, I can’t quite understand every single line because he’s speaking so quickly, and he’s inventing words and making plays on words. So it takes me a couple of times to listen to it, to get all of the nuances. But when I listen to a track for the very first time, I just sort of relax and don’t worry about understanding every single word yet. I just get the gist of it. And I think that’s the case with Shakespeare, too, because he was doing the exact same thing in his time as Chance the Rapper is doing now. So I think that young people can come to this show and just let the language kind of wash over them and let meaning be found. Just let your mind bounce off of the wordplay and take away what you will from it. It doesn’t have to be a task. It doesn’t have to be anything hard. It can be actually just a pleasurable, visceral experience.

How does this adaptation carry on that theme of feeling lost as a young person from the original?

Because Romeo is a woman in our version, she has nobody to turn to for help, because she’s such an outsider. So I think it’s going to be really clear. And in the staging, you can see the friendship of these young people and how they really hang on to each other. And then the adults, like Capulet, Juliet’s father: once Juliet says, “I’m not going to marry Paris,” he is rough with her. He’s really stern. And he switches into Spanish. And what he says in Spanish is really visceral and intense. I think that you will recognize those kinds of parents who are like, “Do as I say, no matter what, and if you don’t do what I say you’re out on the street, and you’re not my daughter anymore.” We’re really leaning into those themes in the play.

I think it chronicles our time because through the lens of Shakespeare, what we’re really looking at is the age-old question of, Are young people allowed to be their natural authentic selves?’ And if their society, and leaders, and parents, and mentors do not see them for who they really are, there’s inevitable tragedy.

KJ Sanchez

I love that a lot. KJ, the motto of your company, American Records, is, to create theater that chronicles our time and serves as a bridge between people.” How do you think your direction of this play reflects this motto?

Oh, my gosh, thank you for doing your research! I’m so honored that you read about that. I think it chronicles our time because through the lens of Shakespeare, what we’re really looking at is the age-old question of, “Are young people allowed to be their natural authentic selves?” And if their society, and leaders, and parents, and mentors do not see them for who they really are, there’s inevitable tragedy. And so, how it chronicles our time is that we’re in a moment of crisis, where I think that there are too many adults that are not actually paying attention to what young people are going through right now. I mean, I’m so sorry on behalf of all of the older people; I’m so sorry to you who’s young that what you hear from us is, “Our planet is a mess. Our society is a mess. When are we going to learn our lessons when it comes to social justice?” And then we’re like, “Good luck with that! See you later.” We need to own up to the mistakes we made, and we need to be better.

I know that the play was originally scheduled for 2020, but it was canceled because of the pandemic. What feels different between these two productions?

I think the balance of Spanish and English is more nuanced. I think that I had more time to do research on Alta California. I think the play is just more well-baked than it was the first time. I think when we would have put it up originally, it would have been strong, but I think that the pandemic just gave it much more time to simmer. It was just really nice to think about the play and think about what language means to me when we were having conversations. It just raises the stakes for everything for me.

a group of people stand around a table during rehearsal
Brady Morales Woolery and Hugo Carbajal. PHOTO BY JAY YAMADA

What feels the same between the two productions?

That the play is one of the best plays ever written. That the idea of marrying Spanish and English is a really good idea. That Juliet is one of the strongest characters in the canon of theater. And the idea that some themes last forever.

How do you as a director put your imagination into a play that’s already been written, but also avoid overriding the instructions that have been intended by the original playwright?

It’s a delicate balance, and it really is just trial and error. I think in order to be a director, you have to have a pretty decent, positive relationship with failure. It’s almost like walking around a house in the dark. You don’t know where the coffee table is until you bump into it. I don’t know what is right or wrong until we bump into things and learn in the room. 

What were some unique artistic decisions that you took with the play, like with costume design or set building?

One fun one is Romeo. There were a lot of really strong women at the time that for many reasons were running their own ranches in Alta California. Maybe because the men were off fighting, or maybe the men got abducted and were taken as hostages. There were all sorts of reasons why women were running ranches. And so our Romeo is a cowgirl. She’s just been out herding cattle and she has a lasso. She has a whip and she’s wearing chaps and she’s kind of a badass. It’s really fun.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Romeo y Juliet plays at California Shakespeare Theater, May 25—June 19, 2022 at the Bruns Amphitheater. Tickets now are available on Cal Shakes’ website.   

Esha Potharaju (she/her) is an avid lover of the arts and a high school junior based in California’s Bay Area. She is a firm believer in the importance of diversity in the arts, because the arts shape culture, and culture shapes policy. She strongly believes that education is liberation and interns with CreateCA, working with teachers and students on a local level to raise funding and community support for arts education in her district. She is a journalist on the editorial staff of the TeenTix Press Corps, helping support youth to pursue opportunities in art criticism. In her free time, you can find Esha enthusiastically scribbling something into a sketchbook or over-analyzing comics and cartoons with her best friends.

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.

All the World’s a Song in Village Theatre’s “Songs for a New World”

The world is back to being a stage and Village Theatre is returning with it. The company’s first mainstage production since the pandemic began, Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, will be running from January 12–February 13, 2022 in Issaquah and February 18–March 13, 2022 in Everett.

Each song in the show features an independent story, but they all highlight characters on the precipice of potentially life-changing decisions. Teen writer Kyle Gerstel sat down with performers Alexandria Henderson (Woman 2) and Cal Mitchell (Man 1) to discuss their experiences returning to live theatre, as well as the burning relevance of the show’s theme of inciting change to create the life you want to live and the world you want to live in.

Kyle Gerstel: When were each of you first introduced to the show?

Cal Mitchell: I was first introduced to the show my freshman year of college, [but] I didn’t really know what it was about until I got in a room with a bunch of other musical theatre people and [realized] there’s so much more to it.

Alexandria Henderson: I’m actually not very familiar with the show; I know of a song or two based on pageantry [and] audition books, like girls who sing “Stars and the Moon,” which is a very popular number, but other than that I didn’t know the whole show before now.

Each of you play a wide variety of characters in the show, so how do you differentiate them while maintaining a sense of honesty?

Henderson: I personally love being an ensemble member. Lead roles are fun, but I love being in the ensemble because you can make up your own person, make up your own backstory, and it’s kind of like doing that, but for each of these songs. Every song we sing in the show has a theme that can resonate with someone. 

What have you learned from participating in the production?

Henderson: The music is very difficult, [but] in a good way—it thrills me to say how difficult it is. It’s kind of taking me back to being an active learner.

How do you think the theme of choice is relevant going into 2022?

Mitchell: I think in this next year, there are a lot of people that are going to have to look at their surroundings, look at where they are, and look at who they are. Where is my precipice moment? Where do I make a big change that can literally affect which way I go in my life?

Henderson: I’m looking forward to 2022, but I’m healthily cautious now. We have to do what we can to make sure we can stay at work in 2022, [and] as far as choices are concerned, making the choice to get vaccinated and mask up.

What is your advice for high schoolers that wish to pursue theatre considering the current college climate?

Mitchell: Going into college, know that you are what you get out of it and what you get out of it is what you make out of it.

Henderson: Be a filter, not a sponge. This career is a lifelong learning process.

Mitchell: Another thing is—I wish someone had told me this while I was still young—understanding that you’re not everyone’s cup of tea and that’s fine. Some people’s taste buds are a bit off, but you’re still worthy of working and you’re going to be right for something. You just might not be right for what you expect.

Have you clicked right back into performing live despite the current precautions or has returning to normalcy been a slower transition mentally?

Henderson: I think the difference is that we’re all coming back with this newfound gratitude and reverence for what we do. Everyone is especially concerned about our health and wellness, including mental health and wellness. It feels like home, but bumped up a notch. Yes, we’re back to doing what we love, but also there’s a new air breathing into it.

Songs for a New World plays from January 12–February 13, 2022 at Village Theatre Issaquah and February 18–March 13, 2022 at Village Theatre Everett. Tickets are available online.

Kyle Gerstel is a 15-year-old musical theatre geek who couldn’t be happier to have found TeenTix in 2020. In addition to writing for TeenTix and his school newspaper The Islander, Kyle frequently performs with Youth Theatre Northwest and works with Penguin Productions to foster an equitable theatre community. When not in rehearsal, you can probably find him writing comedy songs, rewatching Airplane!, or using the Oxford comma.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do the production as a radio play at all?

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

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

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

What is your Christmas wish this year?

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

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

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

Jonalyn Saxer Talks About Her Return to the Stage and the Enduring Nature of “Mean Girls”

Mean Girls is making its way to The Paramount Theatre in Seattle next week, November 16–21, and we have all the best gossip about the musical known for its gossipers.

Teen writer Aamina Mughal sat down with Mean Girls Broadway star Jonalyn Saxer, who plays Karen Smith, and talked about how it felt being back on stage and what has changed about Mean Girls since Tina Fey’s iconic 2004 movie was released. She highlighted the heart and love in the show and said that stories like this one evolve and change, but the core of it, the lessons it has to teach, are timeless. 

“We’re coming back into this with so much joy and gratitude,” said Saxer. “So the joy you’re seeing on stage is not just our characters’ joy.” Jonalyn Saxer is the longest-running cast member on the Mean Girls stage which opened on Broadway in 2018. The show will be in Seattle from November 16–21, 2021 at The Paramount Theatre.

headshot of Broadway actor Jonalyn Saxer

Aamina Mughal: You’ve been with the show the longest so what has that experience been like, seeing it on different stages? 

Jonalyn Saxer: It’s really crazy because so much has changed throughout the years and the versions and the companies. It’s so funny, Megan [Masako Haley]—my Gretchen–calls me the resident Mean Girls historian because we tried so many things. That’s why I think the show is so successful, there’s not a joke or a method or a plot point that we didn’t try. We tried everything. You know what I mean? We just tried everything to get to the version that we have now, and that includes doing the version that was on Broadway and then making versions on tour. 

Actually, quite a few of the changes for tour were things that were in D.C. that then got brought back in, which is really cool. If you know the music at all [from] the cast recording, our opening number is quite a bit different and that’s because it’s a combination of “It Roars” and our old opening number “Wildlife,” which is really exciting. Some parts of it have been updated even since the pandemic because, you know, time has passed and some of the jokes aren’t good anymore, funny anymore. We adjusted those kinds of things. 

Did you watch Mean Girls before you were in the show? Did you enjoy it?

Yes, absolutely, I grew up watching Mean Girls. I loved the movie, always thought it was hilarious. And I remember when the posting came out, five or six years ago now, that it was being made into a musical, I was like, I have to be in that. I have to be in it. It’s funny because …I don’t think [people in my generation] consciously realize how much [we] quote the movie…it’s just part of the vernacular of everyday life in the world now, which is really a blast.

So how does it feel to remake, or put a new spin on something that’s so iconic that it’s just part of our vernacular?

Yeah, yeah, well I think one of the best parts about the musical is there’s so much new stuff. Comedy, you have to be surprised, it always comes from an unexpected place where you’re like “oh!” You know, fear and comedy actually [both need to be] surprising. So the lines that get the biggest laughs in our show are not the ones from the movie. Because people already know those, they know the punchline already. And sometimes “She doesn’t even go here!” will get a little whoop-whoop but all the funniest lines and the ones that really surprise the show are the ones that’re new. And so it’s really exciting…for Tina [Fey] and for us to find the new parts of it. 

three teen girls sit at a cafeteria table talking with one teen girl standing near them
Pictured (L-R): Megan Masako Haley (Gretchen Wieners), Mariah Rose Faith (Regina George), Jonalyn Saxer (Karen Smith), and Danielle Wade (Cady Heron) and the National Touring Company of “Mean Girls.” PHOTO BY JOAN MARCUS

And also to make our characters—you know this is not the early 2000s anymore, and to update all of those things. What I like about our creative team is they really allow us to do our own versions of the character. Not even just from the movie but from other people who’ve played them. I think it’s so successful because we really bring our own heart and our own souls into our characters and that helps us tell our story in new and more impactful ways. 

How do you think Mean Girls has evolved for a new generation? You mentioned that “it’s not the early 2000s anymore.”

Yeah, I mean just right off the bat, people don’t do group calls on landlines anymore and so we have more social media aspects in the show. It is wild to come back to this after the pandemic, after a year and a half. We’re putting on our costumes and we’re like “Wow! Would Regina even wear skinny jeans anymore?” It’s so crazy…the best thing about it, and why I think the movie is still so successful and why the musical is successful is [that] even as our show gets older and older, bullying, unfortunately, is still existing in almost exactly the same ways. You know like the vernacular of how people treat each other in high school when we’re all so insecure and looking for a laugh or looking for people to like us. That never changes, whether the costumes or the words change, or the music or the social media, those things still last throughout. 

Mean Girls plays at The Paramount Theatre November 16–21, 2021. Tickets are nearly sold out and are available online.

Aamina Mughal is a sophomore and student writer in the Greater Seattle Area. She attends Eastside Preparatory School where she competes on their debate team and her work has been published on the TeenTix blog. She’s a music enthusiast who spends her time writing about art, thinking about it, or trying to make it. She serves on the Youth Advisory Board at the Museum of Pop Culture as a self-described pop-culture nerd. 

Seattle Opera’s “Flight” is the Start of a New Era in Filmed Opera

Director Brian Staufenbiel will make his Seattle Opera debut with one-of-a-kind opera Flight, which will be available for at-home viewing from April 23–25. Based on the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived in the Charles de Gaulle Airport for 18 years, Flight blends comedy with a deep and honest exploration of the human condition.

When I spoke with Brian, I was curious to learn about his approach to directing opera. Flight is unique in so many aspects: it’s a modern opera, it’s a comedy, and it was entirely filmed on-location at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Lily Williamson: Comedic modern operas seem to be few and far between. What approach did you take to directing this work?

Brian Staufenbiel: This is an unusual opera, in the sense that it’s almost a dark comedy—there’s a lot of exploration of the human condition and how we treat each other, how empathy works. There are many archetypal characters that sort of evolve throughout the piece, and at the same time, there are moments of vaudeville that make you laugh your head off.

I think that the quantity of action and the collision of characters in the context of the piece make it quite active and funny. It’s a beautiful manifestation of emotion and the piece flies by. But yes, you’re correct when you say that there are very few 21st-century comic operas. Comedy is hard, people are jaded, and you’re up against The Office and Seinfeld and what many people find funny, which is a very different medium than opera. But when you nail it, like with Flight, people laugh.

director of Flight, Brian Staufenbiel headshot
Brian Staufenbiel, director of “Flight” at Seattle Opera. COURTESY OF ARTIST

What was your favorite part of crafting this opera?

One of the most amazing things was that Seattle Opera was able to secure the location as the Museum of Flight as our main place to film. They have hundreds of beautiful vintage planes; everyone should go see this place! So we’re in this place that feels exactly like an airport, just like a high-budget film. Being in that location was extraordinary. I love the location, and that’ll make all the difference—you feel like you’re transported into the reality of the film.

I also really enjoyed figuring out how to rehearse this thing not on location. We had to lay out everything and use our imagination with COVID precautions to make this work as a film. I love the challenge of that, and it felt like I was almost dealing with a kind of psychological matrix.

Another thing was getting to know the Seattle Opera. I’ve always been told that this was a special place, so it was so great to be able to have this be my first project with them because it is such an unusual thing.

This is your first time working with Seattle Opera. What was your experience like working with the company?

Originally, we were supposed to do the staged version, but this was a wonderful pivot. I’m very impressed with Seattle Opera’s boldness in slowly building towards doing real films of operas. It’s literally like doing a musical, and the singers and everyone involved had never done this. But we all had an amazing time, and I’ve gotten more valuable and positive feedback from the cast than I ever have before. It was really an interesting and great experience. And with some of the editing done, the film is looking amazing.

I’m so glad to hear that none of the magic was lost from stage to screen. What was it like directing a filmed opera?

I definitely didn’t feel inhibited by the format, and we had a great time. In fact, I’m doing two more opera films between now and the summer, and am consulting on another one. I’m convinced that this could be a new genre of opera born out of this terrible thing called COVID-19 and the circumstances it’s put us in. We’re able to apply real film techniques and work with these amazing singers, who now are world class actors. The talent is unbelievable. On stage, the singers need to sing out into a two thousand-seat hall, which is such a different kind of acting than acting for the screen. In a film, everything needs to come down and be more focused—you need to project smaller because you’re not projecting into a giant hall. But with all of these people, it really seems like they’ve done it before. It was amazing, and we all had a wonderful time doing it.

Opera singers Karin Mushegain and Aubrey Allicock filming a scene in “Flight”.
Karin Mushegain and Aubrey Allicock filming a scene in “Flight”. PHOTO BY PHILIP NEWTON

Filmed opera is a very different type of magic. Live opera is a very different experience for both the audience and the performer because everything can go wrong. When you start a live opera, it goes until it’s done, come Hell or high water. But that’s just not how a film works, because you can stop and just film it again. I think that we’re going to see a lot more digital content that will be building a way for people to see opera all over the world.

I’m so excited to hear that you think that filmed opera will have a more permanent place in the arts world. I love going to the opera, but I know that when I try to bring a friend they’re often intimidated by opera culture—getting dressed up, clapping at the right times, all of that.

Exactly! Yes, there’s this reputation around operathat it’s snobby or elitist. And everyone who is making opera is trying so hard right now to dispel that myth because it’s really not the case. Opera, especially contemporary opera, speaks to today and today’s circumstances. Now, we’re working on expanding diversity and making it relevant.

And, as you know, there’s nothing more addictive than hearing the voice singing like that. Once you get opera under your skin, you want to hear it all the time! Opera singers are like the vocal athletes of theatre. To do what they do, they need to work so hardthey need years of training and acting, they need to be great musicians. They should be celebrated, so we’re working really hard to get young people or people who are new to opera to realize what a special art form it is. And a lot of that is making sure that we’re telling the right stories, and populating the stage and the team with diversity.

Cast and crew sitting down and taking a break from filming Flight with the airplanes in background..
Cast and crew taking a break from filming. PHOTO BY PHILIP NEWTON

I completely agree with you, opera is such an amazing art form. What’s your message to young people who are interested in experiencing opera for the first time, be it at home watching Flight or in-person when it is safe to do so?

I think that opera is an acquired taste. It’s too easy to go to an opera and say “Oh, that was weird. I’m done.” You need to think about why so many people are interested in this genreyou need to go to different kinds of opera, see some modern, some classic. And then listen to the singers, and make sure that you experience their emotions. And keep trying it a few times.

Opera doesn’t feed you like a computer screen does, you need to work at it. With performing arts you have to put the energy into the performance, but you get back ten times what you put in. After a while, you never want to give it up! Instead of opera being thought of as weird, why can’t it be the cool thing on the block?

I know that Seattle Opera has plenty of youth programs too, so it is so great to see that they’re finding ways to make opera interesting and accessible to younger folks. And Flight seems like a great way for people to get involved in the opera scene for the first time!

Exactly. If someone is introduced to opera young, they have no idea that it’s “not cool.” It becomes normal to them. I’ve done a ton of projects with young people, who are so excited about opera.

And Flight is such a great introductory opera for people, and it will be accessible to young people. There’s a deep exploration in this opera that allows us to explore the human condition, and it’s a very powerful thing. But at the same time, you’re laughing.

Seattle Opera’s Flight can be streamed online from April 23–25. Tickets are available for $35.

Lily Williamson is a second-year student at the University of Washington, where she is the managing editor of the undergraduate history journal. This is her third year as a member of TeenTix’s Teen Editorial Staff, where she writes and edits articles for the TeenTix blog. Lily is passionate about arts accessibility and art that highlights intersectionality, and she hopes to use her position as a teen editor to foster greater youth involvement in the Seattle art world.

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.