Theatre Pets: Barking with Gloucester Mitchell-Reighley

Name: Gloucester
Age: 8
Breed: Boston-ish, with accents
Human companionsMark Mitchell, a servant of middle age, and Kurt B. Reighley, their liege

What have you learned about life among the theatre and fashion folk? 

They are easy pickings for belly rubs and sad-eyed looks. Also, technical rehearsals are the best. I love a 10 out of 12. Good napping, and those people who swank around in Mark’s costumes sneak you treats.

I picture you surrounded by sumptuous fabrics in your home. What are the perks to living with a designer?

I’m not sure I’d call it a perk, but I have a bed that matches everything else in the living room, which is covered in a VERY LARGE daisy print. My dots fade into it well, so I can be camouflaged, which is nice, but it does jar the eye! My servant, Mark, gets crazy with patterns. I’d prefer a nice grass lawn inside, maybe some bacon wallpaper, and cow bones.

What’s your favorite fabric?  

Apparently, a VERY LARGE daisy print.

If Mark could design any costume for you, what would you want it to be? What would he want it to be?

I prefer my natural coverings, because frankly, I look as good as a dog can look. Mark (I may have mentioned he’s my servant) would dress me up as the guy in the top hat from the Monopoly game or a 1930’s newsboy or something. He lives in the past.

If you were to write a play, what would it be about? What style of playwright would you be?

Well, I am a product of my environment, so if I were to write a play it would be something tragic with a lot of messy eating scenes in it. With a spectacular musical number for our boss, Kurt. My style is very traditional: drunk at a typewriter in the middle of the night, smoking Luckies, and crumpling up actual paper pages. Very Lillian Hellman.

Symphonic Synesthesia: In Conversation with SSO Art Director Jessica Forsythe

Last spring the Seattle Symphony launched a new label, Seattle Symphony Media, to release their own recordings with a greater degree of creative and financial control. They’ve since put out four albums, with plenty more in the vault awaiting release–they’ve recorded every performance since Benaroya opened in 1998.

The first thing you notice about the albums is their striking cover designs. A vivid departure from the genre’s norm, they feature brightly-colored photographic details of graffiti and other painted, manmade surfaces. The effect is abstractly expressionistic, in the manner of color field paintings. On closer inspection, the planes of color reveal microcosmic texture and detail, with lines extending beyond the frame and suggesting broader movements. It’s smartly evocative packaging for a forward-thinking symphony.

I was curious about this marriage of classical music and contemporary aesthetics, so I talked to the designer responsible: Jessica Forsythe, Art Director of the Seattle Symphony’s sales and marketing department.

It’s got to be difficult to interpret classical music visually.

I found that using these paintings and photographs was the best way to interpret it. If you look at a lot of classical music, the [album] art is always nature landscapes, and I find that harder to relate to than an abstract painting.

Or else it’s a stodgy portrait of the composer—

Yeah. That doesn’t really evoke any sort of mood.

You’ve shifted the focus from nature and pastoral scenes to the manmade world.

When we were launching the label, we wanted to have our artistic statement with the music be in line with the packaging, making sure that they spoke to each other. We have the Dutilleux and the Ravel and a lot of pieces that other organizations don’t really put out there, so we wanted to make sure that we were making a bold statement on both the musical side and the artistic side.

The fonts and layouts have a contemporary feel. You don’t see any serifs, it’s streamlined.

We want it to speak to the more current audience. It’s in line with our whole approach.

Part of my process is to get early recordings from our sound engineer, and I’ll just sit and listen to them while I’m working on other projects. I listen for what mood it invokes in me. I have something called synesthesia, in which you actually see color when you hear music, so I use that to my advantage.

I’d imagine that would be a superpower for a designer!

It is kind of a superpower!

So these are the colors you perceive as you’re listening to the music?

Yes. I’ll listen and distill the music and get a real sense of what colors I feel it is. It’s gotten to the point where I’ll do one mockup and show it to our Executive Director and he’s like, “That’s it! That’s exactly that piece!”

Do you think other people with synesthesia see the same colors as you do?

I don’t know. It’d be interesting to find out. I’ve had this conversation with others and they’re like, “Yeah! Middle C is blue or orange!”

Looks like I talked to the right person about classical music album design.

It’s been pretty fun for me on a personal level. I’m looking forward to doing the upcoming ones.

Going to the Opera with Grandma: ‘Don Giovanni’

Through November 1, the Seattle Opera presents Don Giovanni, the brilliant, insanely famous opus by some guy named Mozart. It first premiered in 1787 and it’s still packing houses today. To make sure I came into this production armed with as much knowledge as possible, I attended the show with one Evelyn Troughton, an opera expert and booster who happens to be my grandmother. 

The Experience: First of all, everyone who goes to see this show should have the good fortune of eating burgers with my Grandma before curtain call. Watching this diminutive 84-year-old lady put away a burger the size of her head faster than her portly grandson is a show unto itself. With bellies full, we headed into the stately McCaw Hall, where I was treated to equal parts opulence, dignified service and jarring remarks about my relative youth. It seems that I skew a little bit younger than the typical opera patron. This is one of the many reasons I plan on going to the opera much more in the future. It feels good to be a kid again. 

The Show: The music is… well, it’s Mozart. There’s a reason his name is synonymous with “musical talent”. It’s the same as “Einstein” with “intelligence” and “Rembrandt” with “toothpaste”. The story, if you’re not already aware (I wasn’t), is about a guy named Don Giovanni, who is really rich and has, let’s say a lengthy and varied romantic history. That’s about as delicately as I can put it. He’s a bit of a scamp, going around picking up ladies and ruining people’s lives for kicks. He even kills a guy. That’s not a spoiler; it’s literally the first thing that happens. By the second half of the show, pretty much every character wants him dead, including a ghost. Will he ever face his comeuppance? Do you really have to ask?

This modern adaptation uses a striking minimalist set design that draws maximum effect out of every beam of light. There are some breath-taking technical effects employed throughout, with a genuine showstopper at the end. My favorite part about watching bona fide elegant shows like this is watching people with actual, honest-to-god talent do their thing. I’m talking about went to a fancy school for years, learned at the feet of masters, sacrificed everything, very few people in the world are able to do this kind thing TALENT. It’s a humbling thing to watch people who have truly mastered the classical arts, having never mastered anything in my own life. Well, maybe sleeping. I’m really good at that. 

I was in awe and decidedly out of my element. For some real insight, I interviewed my Grandma after the show to get her take. Oh, and if it’s possible for there to be spoilers for a 300+ year-old, legendary opera, there may be some within. 

Okay, so what did you think?

Well, what I want to know is what did you think!

I thought it was awesome! I was trying to do the thing you told me about—to close my eyes and listen to the music—

Well, you shouldn’t have done that the first time around! [Laughs]

I didn’t have my eyes closed the whole time.

Okay, good. 

But it really is transporting. You see all of these amazing artists working hard up there, but you close your eyes and it’s just the music and all the sudden it almost feels like you’re in a different place.

Well, I enjoy opera, and it’s because of the music. Before they had the supertitles [subtitles, projected above the stage] I had no idea what they were saying. Of course, you had the libretto and you could get the gist of it, but not as they were saying it. So, I didn’t care what they were saying because the music was absolutely gorgeous. 

So what’d you think of this version of Don Giovanni?

Well, um. It’s very different. 

Yeah, it’s set in modern times. 

Wouldn’t you say it’s kind of an indeterminate period?

It is! There’s a motorcycle, but then there’s the scene where they were all dressed like they would have been in the 1700s, at that party.

Well, that was a costume ball. 

Oh, right. 

Most of the time, you couldn’t tell what period it took place in. Some of the clothing was contemporary, some of it was old-fashioned, it was a mixture. Then at one point he even had a remote control, and he was changing channels! [Laughs] So what period is it? It’s fine, because the story is utter fiction. It’s just a man’s dream.

Oh, is that what you think it represents?

Well, how many men would have wanted to live a life like that? Dreamed of being a Don Giovanni or a Don Juan. A woman’s man. 

I guess so. Talk a little bit about Don Giovanni the opera, historically. 

Well, Mozart wrote it, of course, and it’s just utter fiction, I think. This is Mozart’s idea of what a Don Juan was. No man in real life was ever like that. How many was his total number of conquests? 1000 plus 600 plus 91 and so on in all those different countries, what’s the total? I think it must be a good three thousand for round numbers. 

Do you think this was shocking to people at the time?

Well, even 10–15 years ago, I don’t think they would’ve done a production as risqué as this one. The period it takes place in now dictates the content that you see on the stage. If this had been a movie, I think it would’ve been R-rated!

Definitely PG-13.

Well, there you go. Ten years ago: R rated. Today…

But what about in Mozart’s time? How would, say, the song about his list of “conquests” have played?

Well, women aren’t seen as much as possessions to be owned now as they were during those days, I think. But then again, maybe things were less restrictive those days, I really haven’t studied it very much. At any rate, much of what you see on stage was made for modern sensibilities anyways, the way the material is handled.

But what we’re hearing, the Italian, is exactly as it was written by Mozart, right?

The Italian was as it was written. It’s just maybe translated a little bit different. What you have to do to get the thing across… I can tell you of an instance from another opera I saw, where they used a word and the meaning today is entirely different than what it meant when it was first written. You don’t have to use this if you don’t want to-

No, go ahead. 

The Elixir of Love. There’s a farm girl. And the boyfriend is a peasant worker and he’s in love with her, and she says in one of her arias that she’s had lots of “lovers.” Now, “lover” in that day and age meant “sweetheart.” Someone who was courting her. But it doesn’t mean that today. Now it means-

She’s a…

Yeah. And they showed it to a class of high school students and I was concerned that they were going to get a whole different idea of what she was! She was not a sweet little farm girl if she’d had all these “lovers”, she’d have been, you know, a slut! 

But what really struck me about this opera… it’s very emotional. So many emotions expressed! I’m talking about love, jealousy, hate, young love and lust…

LOTS of lust.

Yeah! Don Giovanni is Mister Lust. And that’s what strikes me about it. That and the pure fantasy of it. There is not a man alive, I think, who could woo a woman that quickly. 

Like a lot of the literature from that era, this one ends with the big, heavy morality lesson. I feel like that’s how they got away with the naughty stuff at the beginning. 

Possible, possible! To get it past the censors at the time. Could be. Well, the full title of the opera is A Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni, of course. 

Oh, really? That seems like kind of a spoiler. 

A what? 

Strongest impressions?

I guess it was when the statue broke through the wall. I knew he was going to be coming to dinner, but when that wall broke apart, that was the most startling part of the whole thing.

It was pretty memorable. I actually said “holy crap” out loud when it happened. 

I heard that! (laughs) And he looks so real! He looks like a real statue! 

That was cool. Try to persuade a person who wouldn’t ordinarily be inclined to go to the opera to go see Don Giovanni.

I’d say if you wanted to see a good opera with great music with a story that’s entertaining and sets that are—although minimal—fascinating, and an ending that’s unbelievable… would that describe how you felt?

Absolutely. Say, can I have a ride home?

Seattle Opera’s Don Giovanni runs from October 18th through November 1st at McCaw Hall. 

Playwright Cheryl L. West on ‘BasketCases’

This week the Seattle Rep presents a workshop staging of Cheryl L. West’s BasketCases as part of their New Play Festival. West is a celebrated playwright who’s been making theatre in Seattle since the 1990s. Most recently, her play Pullman Porter Bluespremiered at the Rep in 2012. She’s also written for movies and television, from BET to Showtime to Robert Townsend’s award-winning web series Diary of a Single Mom. I caught up with West in between rehearsals to talk about the new play.  

I don’t think I’ve ever seen young women’s basketball portrayed in any medium. What drew you to the subject?

Both my kids and my brother’s kids play sports, so I was thrust into the world of AAU and competitive basketball. I knew nothing about it—it was a world that seemed very foreign to me. I started interviewing people all over the country, and everybody has a story of some kid’s parent that threatened somebody or started a fight. All these horror stories, and yet there’s a lot of great things that come out of sports as well.

This play looks at mothers who come to a tryout and end up playing bigger games with each other than the girls do. These are over-the-top parents, and the stakes are very high when you’re at a tryout. Everybody wants their child to make it.

What seems so inherently comical about children’s sports is that the adults, who should know better, are taking it so seriously.

It becomes a metaphor for how we are in this country about winning. Everybody wants to be a winner and anyone who’s a loser gets shunned or shamed. We carry it on through our kids to be winners, to come out on top, by any means necessary. Sometimes we lose sight of what that is doing to the child, and we also lose sight of what it’s doing to us as parents.

Your children leave you inch by inch, but if your child discovers sports, music, acting, dance—whatever that passion is—they leave you quicker. Parents want to stay relevant to be a part of that, and in trying to stay involved and connected, that’s when some of the zaniness happens.

That passion the child develops, for whatever they’re interested in, becomes larger and they need parents less, or at least the parents perceive that. You want to hold on a little bit longer, so you’re doing all the driving, taking the kid to the gym, doing a lot of stuff to stay involved, particularly when your child is going to the elite status. It can get very costly and time-consuming and it affects the entire family.

You’ve also worked in TV and movies. Does that process look different than writing for the stage?

It’s a very different process. TV and film tend to be a director’s medium, and things get changed more frequently. Onstage you have much more control; your vision gets up there. In theatre you’re much more involved as the playwright.

The playwright is queen and there’s no suits jumping in-

I didn’t want to say that, but yes. [Laughs] Oftentimes in film it’s not that way. But I’ve done a couple projects with Robert Townsend and he involves me to the end. We just did a film that now is on BET, and I was involved all the way up to casting and promotion.

What can we expect to see from BasketCases in the workshop format?

You’re going to see people with scripts in hand. However, I will say there are bleachers in the theater, and there are two basketball hoops and they will get used at some point.

At the heart of it, it’s about the relationship of parent to child and how we negotiate that. And on the other side, what games do we play when we walk into an arena? What games are we playing on the sidelines?

Drag Queens Cassie O’Hara and Anita Goodmann on ‘Kinky Boots’

This month the 5thh Avenue Theatre mounts the touring Broadway production of Kinky Boots, the Tony-winning musical with songs by Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein. In the show, the owner of a beleaguered shoe factory enlists the help of a drag queen to save his business by producing a line of fabulous (and sturdy) footwear for larger-footed divas.

Recent local contestants of RuPaul’s Drag Race have put Seattle on the map; Jinkx Monsoon won season five and BenDeLaCreme won Miss Congeniality last season. I’d imagine we’ve got as discerning an audience as you’ll find for cross-dressing spectacles, so in the interest of providing Encore readers with the most cultivated possible perspective on the show, we sent a pair of drag queens en femme to opening night.

Cassie O’Hara and Anita Goodmann have been blending drag, burlesque, fashion, and comedy in Seattle for years, and they collaborate on the quarterly sketch/improv show The Anita Goodmann Experience. They’re delightful. I talked to them the day after the show.

O’Hara and Goodman

I hope your hair didn’t block anyone’s view.

O’Hara: I was a little worried about that with the hair I was wearing, so I puffed it down a little bit.

Were people tripped out to see a pair of draq queens in the audience?

Goodmann: Several people came up and recognized me. We were waiting in line for drinks and these two girls, Ashley and Ashley, were like, “Ooh, Anita Goodmann, we know you! We love Ben de la Crème and Jinkx Monsoon.” [Cattily] Ok, great.

O’Hara: I saw my old boss. She didn’t know who I was and I didn’t tell her. I was standing about two feet from her. Her husband bumped into me and they had no clue. I was debating whether or not to tell her who I was and get a reaction, but it could spread like wildfire around the office.

Goodmann: These things we’re talking about really tied into the themes of the show. Something meta was going on.

As far as the play, do you feel like drag was presented in a positive, real light?

O’Hara: I think so. The whole theme of it was self acceptance and accepting people for who they are. There was this factory worker, Don, a big typical macho alpha-male type. When Lola came in there was some resistance from Don because it was threatening his masculinity, seeing this drag queen in the factory. They had to do a little work to learn how to accept each other. Both people were not who they necessarily seemed to be from the outside. Everyone wears a mask.

Goodmann: There’s also a really strong theme of parenting in the movie, with Charlie and Lola. Neither of the characters was the child they thought their dad wanted them to be.

O’Hara: There’s a powerful scene with Lola performing at an old folks home. There’s a guy in the corner slumped over, and as she does her thing he can’t really lift his head up. She goes over and puts her arm around him, and you see that it’s her father. As she walks away he kind of lifts his head a little. You have this sense they she had closure.

There’s also a number, “Not My Father’s Son,” a duet with Lola and Charlie that played into the the struggles they had living up to what their fathers expected of them. The singing was amazing.

Goodmann: The play’s obviously oriented toward a broader audience, so they work their way through a lot. 

O’Hara: I thought they did a really good job of walking the line. They had it geared so the general population will like it and not be offended. People who are familiar with drag shows will appreciate the production values. All the backup dancers were incredible! This one was doing backwards somersaults in six-inch heels. The finale, I bet they spent half their budget just on this one number. It was insane. The lighting and the tech were just amazing. It’s as good as anything I’ve ever seen.

Goodmann: The art direction, the stage direction, the breakneck pace of that show—it never lets up.

O’Hara and Goodman

The central conceit of the show is something I’m sure both of you have dealt with: finding sexy drag queen shoes in men’s sizes.

O’Hara: Well, I’m lucky because I wear a size 8 and I only weigh 125 pounds, so I’ve never had the problem that Anita has—she wears a size 13—

Goodmann: Size 12.

O’Hara: In our show I say Anita wears size “gunboat-and-a-half.”

Goodmann: It’s true. I’m lucky that I’m just on the inside edge of shoe sizes that are still made for women. I wear a women’s size 12, so I can order shoes online. But I weigh 190 pounds and I’ve broken heels off, clear off the block.

When you’re tall and heavy, the physics of wearing high heeled showsmen don’t really understand. I’ve had people who wanted to be in our show say, “Oh yeah, I’ll do a drag part in the show,” and I’m like, “Have you worn heels ever?”

They’re like, “How hard could it be?” And they put ‘em on: “I can’t walk in these things and they hurt like hell!” And I say, “Well, there’s 101 for you: we try to make it look easy.”

O’Hara: The first time it’s a little tough, but after 20 years it’s like anything; if you do it all the time you get good at it. After a certain point it becomes second nature. The shoes I wore last night were a 4-inch heel, simple pump. I can wear those all night and my feet don’t hurt.

Goodmann: I’m wearing flip flops today around the house, having worn boots. I needed a pedicure so my nails were a little long. They were crammed into the toe of the boot, so now I’m like, “Uhhh.”

Is that a “drag queen hangover?”
Goodmann: Sometimes you really do have a hangover in the morning, because you block out all the pain while you’re in the moment but in the morning your body’s like, “You rocked me, dude.”

We took Uber from my house. On the way home I was talking to the driver and he referred to me as “sir.”

O’Hara: He seemed like, “What did I just pick up?”

So you did get to experience a frisson of awkwardness.
O’Hara: If that’s the only intolerance I have to put up with, a guy doing his job and not wanting to engage, that’s fine.

Goodmann: I’ve been in a cab where the guy didn’t let me out, he drove around the block and said, “I’m gonna stop running the meter but I wanna talk to you just a little more, lady.” And, “You should really give me your phone number, lady.”

Are they making a pass on someone they think is a woman?

O’Hara: No, they just wanna be freaky.

Goodmann: They’re not fooled. They know what’s going on, but they also haven’t thought it all the way through, like the guy who wanted my phone number. I had this vision of him showing up at my door unannounced with a handful of flowers looking for Anita. “Uh yeah, Anita’s not home right now.”

Director Stephanie Shine on ‘I Am of Ireland’

Book-It circles back to one of their first critical and audience successes from two decades ago with I Am of Ireland, running through October 12. It’s a selection of Irish short stories and songs adapted in their unique page-to-stage manner.

Director Stephanie Shine, who helmed the original production, returns to Seattle from her new home in Tennessee to revisit the work of an earlier self. I asked her a few questions about the show.

What’s it like to revisit a play from twenty years ago?

It’s a very emotionally-wrought experience for a variety of reasons. I keep getting these “hits” from the past—somebody’ll say something and I’ll remember how another actor said it twenty years ago. It triggers me into this whole atmospheric experience. It was a very exciting time in my life artistically, and it’s responsible for many of the paths that I took subsequently.

One thing we all found was that the stories are even more meaningful to us as we’ve matured, both artistically and as human beings. We’re able to see even greater depth within the stories. They’re speaking to us like all great literature does, from where we meet it at this age in our lives.

It’s had so long to steep in your subconscious.

Right. Our own life experiences now color the material. We’ve lost parents and marriages, we’ve had children–so many things have changed.

I left Seattle three years ago to join my husband and help his fledgling Shakespeare company grow, and I haven’t really been back since, except for quick stops to see my family. I hadn’t even been to Seattle Center for three years after spending a decade there daily. It’s so different! Whoa! What happened to Mercer! Where’d the lake go?

It’s very interesting to see yourself as a young artist. I was just beginning my directorial career and many of the choices within the material and things that are inherent within the adaptation spoke to what was important to me twenty years ago. It’s a chance to look at yourself, in a way.

A snapshot.

Frozen in time, but living.

Book-It is now known for taking on sprawling novels, but this play is composed of shorter pieces. What’s the adaptation process look like?

Well, short stories were the format we started Book-It on, and then novellas, then novels.

You gotta work your way up.

Exactly, because we were learning the form. In the very early days it was a company policy that we would not edit a single word a writer wrote. By the time we got to Irelandwe were still doing that. The adaptation dealt with who says what, which changes the point of view for the audience and the importance of any given line.

By the time it was remounted in ‘97 we realized we did not have to say every single word a writer wrote, so some arbitrary “he saids” and “she saids” left. Now we’re seeing that we actually can take liberties and excise full chunks of narrative if we want.

What’s important about the short story format is that by its very nature it’s short so you really can’t cut too much or you don’t have anything. It’s learning how to activate this in the style we used to have down beautifully twenty years ago that we are now revisiting. It’s like, “Wow, we used to say all that? How did we do that? Let’s discover that again.” If you were to look at the script you’d see almost every word the writer wrote, and if I’m choosing not to say it, I make it a stage direction for the actor. But it’d look almost verbatim like the story itself off the page.

We don’t update any of the language. One of them was written in a very heavy Northern Irish dialect that we’re not adopting for the story, but I wanted my actors to see it so they’d understand the nature of the people who were speaking. We’re gentling it up a little, because if we spoke that way nobody would understand us!

People say, “What kind of Irish are you doing?” Well, it’s modified southern general Irish so we can understand it. I have a good chunk of my family who live in the south of Ireland, in Kerry County, which is famous for an accent you can’t understand. Honest to god, when I go home it’s like, “What did you say?” They all think I’m deaf.

You have some pretty immediate roots in Ireland so I’d imagine you might have an instinctive feel for the famed Irish storytelling style.

I’d like to think it’s coursing through my DNA. I definitely have a passion for it. It’s curious, because even though I have an Irish parent and dual citizenship and I go to Ireland frequently, I was still born and raised here so I have an American aesthetic. I’ve had to learn my Irishness artistically. I would hope it’s a little easier for me than someone who doesn’t have that ready familiarity and lifestyle I’ve had.

I’d imagine there’s got be some deeply ingrained cultural similarities just from the similar climates.

When my dad immigrated to America, this is where he came. It makes me laugh. “This feels like home, I’ll stay here!” Except we have much bigger mountains, and more trees. But there’s a huge Irish community here. Off-the-boaters, they like it here quite a bit.

John Markus and ‘The Fabulous Lipitones’

John Markus has written for some of the most popular and memorable sitcoms in television history: TaxiGimme a Break!The Facts of LifeThe Larry Sanders Show.  He was head writer of The Cosby Show for six years during its reign as a genre-reviving pop-cultural lodestar. Most recently, he’s made the transition to theatre with The Fabulous Lipitones, a comedy about a barbershop quartet he co-wrote with Mark St. Germain. It premiered last year and now runs at Taproot Theatre through October 18.

I asked Markus some questions about writing for television and theatre and learning about the art of storytelling from an undisputed master. 

How do you make the transition from episodic sitcoms to theatre?

It’s actually less of a transition than you’d think, because when you write shows done in front of live audience it’s like the first cousin of live theatre. All the TV shows I’ve worked on (except for The Larry Sanders Show) I’ve been writing for the people coming to see the [live] tapings. In terms of what unites an audience in understanding your story and feeling compelled by it, as far as the mechanics of writing, they’re very similar. 

I was very fortunate to know [Lipitones co-writer] Mark St. Germain, who has a very impressive resume in writing for the theatre. Mark has always been amused by my desire to be in theatre, because he knows firsthand the struggles. Compared to the pay scale of TV, it can be quite daunting. He used to teasingly refer to me as “theatre-boy.”

What does your collaborative process look like?

On Lipitones, Mark initially had the basic idea of setting a comedy in the world of barbershop harmony. He knew it’d be a group that had sung together since high school and that a member dies. He asked me to be a collaborator partly because he couldn’t figure out the story, which is unusual for Mark because he’s a writer’s writer. We sat at his picnic table in his back yard and I figured out an element that Mark embraced and the play wrote itself very quickly.

Cast of The Fabulous Lipitones
Cast of The Fabulous Lipitones

Which was the addition of the new [Sikh] member.

Yes, and the cultural differences he brought, and the challenge at self-awareness he’d bring to these men. So there’s a generational as well as cultural contrast.

Barbershop quartets seem perpetually unhip. What’s inherently funny about barbershop?

The word “earnest” comes to mind, and also “corny” and “white middle-aged.” Sometimes those are basically just synonyms.

Why theater? What’s the specific thing that attracted you?

The most attractive element is the control the writer has. The words are untouchable unless the writer agrees they need to be changed.

There are no “suits” getting involved.

You don’t get notes. You can have a director tell you what they’d want for the script, you can have actors struggle with the lines and ask for revisions, but you don’t have to do anything. If you want to protect your vision, you don’t have to alter it. They have to work with what you’ve done. 

Because I was raised in the collaborative atmosphere of TV, what’s great about the theatre for me is the back and forth between actors and writer and director. I sit in the audience every night I can with The Fabulous Lipitones and I enjoy hearing what the audience does, because it informs the rewrites I’d like to do on the play. 

When you were a writer for The Cosby Show it was a pop culture phenomenon. What’s it like to be at the helm of this massive ratings juggernaut?

I was 27 yrs old and had never worked full time on a show, and never lived in New York City. Even though it quickly became the number one show on TV, we were working in a remote part of Brooklyn where having a hit show did not elevate your life in any way. It was isolated, so we couldn’t know our impact working on the show. All we knew was that we wanted to deliver a script every week that Bill liked enough to not fire us.

That’s the gig: how long can you dodge getting fired? And the truth is, I was the only original writer who stayed with the show. I started as a story editor, the junior level, then my mentor Earl Pomerantz quit after six episodes because New York wore him down and he wanted to be home with his family. So they basically made me the head writer, and Bill hadn’t fired me.

He’s a towering figure in comedy. What did you learn about performance and comedic instincts from watching him on set?

You could learn from Cosby not just as a performer and standup comedian. I learned in listening to how his mind worked. Our sessions on the show every Wednesday afternoon would be Bill exploring stories and working out in his mind a funny build and surprising progression to a storyline. It was like being at the knee of a master storyteller. I was young enough to still absorb things, and I drank in his brilliance. Now, how much of it I kept I’ll never know, but I was with the show for six years as head writer.

Would he just work through it out loud and “spitball?”

These writing sessions varied. Sometimes I’d bring stories from my youth and family, and sometimes Bill would have an idea based on something he’d seen during the week and spin it out. Sometimes he would embrace our ideas from the writers’ side. It was a collaboration that happened every Wednesday; that session would be to plot out a show that would be in script form that Monday morning. There are very few shows that do it that way, but when you have someone like Bill as your captain, you can do it.

There were Mondays where the script would be read aloud and Bill would look at us like, “Why didn’t you guys do the job correctly?” Needless to say, it was a very complicated relationship.

Are you working on anything now?

I’m working on a new TV show idea with Tom Fontana, the man who created Oz and The Borgias. He comes to me when he wants to try his hand at something funny.

Are you saying Oz wasn’t a comedy?

Maybe I missed some of those episodes…

You also worked on The Larry Sanders Show, which is credited as being one of the best shows about showbiz.

I’d even revise that and tell you I believe The Larry Sanders Show is one of the best written comedies ever on TV. That’s not egotistical because I didn’t create it–I came in year five. The memorable thing about Larry Sanders for me is the character comedy that Garry [Shandling] employed in the show. The TV business was the seasoning for these highly dysfunctional, flawed characters. It had a wisdom to it that was informed by the sordidness of showbiz. 

Of course, any time you’ve spent more than a few years in TV, you get to know firsthand the lying, the backstabbing, the manipulation, and the paranoid behavior. The television business is a magnet for the dysfunctional.

So you decided to get into a field where everyone’s completely normal.

Believe me, nothing in TV prepared me for what I’ve been experiencing in the theater, let’s put it that way. [Laughs]

In Conversation with Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot

Fearless. That’s what Ludovic Morlot, Music Director of the Seattle Symphony wants to be. He wants to stretch what a symphony can do. He’s conducted composers like Boulez, Dvorak, Mahler, and Verdi while also producing programming that interfaces with the local community—last year’s collaboration with rapper Sir-Mix-a-Lot is a perfect example.

He chatted with us about the upcoming season, ferry rides and the Seattle Mariners.

What are you most excited about with this year’s opening night gala?

To present to Seattle French music that’s less well known. This will be the first performance of Ibert’s Suite symphonique, “Paris,” for instance. That’s very exciting for me, bringing these French composers who were important to the landscape of classical music in the first half of the 20th century to audiences.

And you get to work with violinist Gil Shaham.

He is a great violinist and a great friend. We’ve performed many times together, starting in New York City. 

You play violin. Is there a difference when you conduct a violinist over some other musician?

You know the repertoire better, having played it yourself. I can read their body language. It’s easier for me to connect with them.

Are there any particular highlights for you personally in the coming season?

When you design the whole thing you love the whole thing! But: Dvorak’s final three symphonies, the Sibelius symphonies, Mahler’s Third Symphony, and our other programming, too: co-commissions with Mason Bates and Sebastian Currier, working with [Seattle-based sound sculptor] Trimpin.

What composers do you never tire of conducting?

Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn. I feel like I know about 1% of what they were trying to say. Each time I conduct I learn something else.

You mentioned your other programming. Innovating the symphony seems to be important to you. How do you find that balance between challenging symphony-goers and giving them what they’re used to with the Beethoven and Mozart and Haydn?

Art is about how we allow ourselves to get out of the box. To move forward as an organization you have to be open-minded. You can’t fear bringing different types of music to audiences—by doing that you might bring in new audiences. Everyone’s starting point to classical music is different, and I’m trying to hit all those starting points. Regardless of the repertoire, you have to be open to tolerate it. It just might trigger creativity. Sir-Mix-A-Lot, I had to get out of my comfort zone for that performance and Sir-Mix-A-Lot had to get out of his. We have to be open and great things can happen.

What do you like to do in Seattle? 

I love to go on the ferry, to be out on the water. You get a different perspective on the city. You see that dichotomy between nature and city. The Olympics and downtown, the water; that duality is very striking to me.

There’s no limit to what one can do here. I haven’t found 1/10 of what the city has to offer. 

When people come to visit you here—where do you like to take them?

I take my French visitors to a Mariners game. Baseball isn’t anything in Europe. They’re fascinated by it like I am!

What’s the future for the symphony? Have you started planning for next season?

Oh, yes. The 2015–16 season is nearly done. The 2016–17 season we’re well into. The designing of the season programming—I lose sleep over it, I find it so fascinating. I love it.

In Conversation with ‘Jane Eyre’ Actor Art Anderson

First published in 1847, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is the story of Jane, an orphaned girl living with a family that dislikes her. She grows in strength, excels at school, becomes a gonverness and falls in love with the mysterious Edward Rochester. Deceived by him, Jane Eyre soon discovers something within her self—an inner-strength—and becomes a strong, independent woman. Taproot Theatre brings that story to the stage, as a musical, with Jessica Spencer playing Jane Eyre and Art Anderson playing the role of Rochester. 

Encore recently sat down with Anderson to discuss the complexity of his character, what music brings to the story, and the genius of Charlotte Brontë.

What do you like most about your character? 

The character of Rochester is complex and loaded with contradictions. His goals and intensions are clear and focused to get the girl, though his methods of achieving them are less than thoughtful. As an actor, the challenges here are intoxicating which says nothing of the pure joy of singing this incredible score.

How did you get involved in this particular show?

When I heard Taproot was going to produce Jane Eyre, the Musical, I felt drawn to the possibility of auditioning. I was not very much aware of the staged musical but the character of Rochester is iconic in English literature and I knew it would be a role worth pursuing. The open call for the role was at a time when I was out of town and I was crushed that I could not be considered. After jumping through some hoops and shameless, pleading correspondence, I was able to persuade the Production Stage Manager and Director for consideration after the fact. I was later notified that they would hold up casting the role until I was back in town to audition in person. I was and am still very grateful for the risk that the production staff took in holding off and casting me.

Jane Eyre is a classic. Why add singing? What does it add to the story?

I say, why not? Composer Paul Gordon has written this sweeping and incredible score to this timeless tale. It should be heard and appreciated. The significant story themes continue to resonate long after the production is over… To add musical nuance and emotion only enriches the experience of the book, especially if done well, as I feel we have achieved.

What will be surprising about your production to those who have read the book?

For those that know the Bronte novel and the journey of literature’s first real female heroine, will appreciate that the play keeps, for the most part, the descriptive and passionate first-person voice of Jane Eyre throughout the play. Through the use of a most excellent and diverse ensemble cast, the playwright and director are able to keep the essence of this storytelling through a Greek chorus, if you will, as well as Jane’s own narrative. The one thing that struck me most of Charlotte Bronte’s novel is her mastery of an amazingly descriptive and beautiful narrative. This is not lost in the writing of this play. It’s very loyal to the novel within the limited time constraints.

What’s your favorite role you’ve played thus far in your career?

As the old adage dictates, the role you are in at present is always your favorite. The role of Rochester has opened my eyes, with the help of some careful direction from Karen Lund, to an array of choices and risks worth taking. I look at favorite roles from which I grow as an actor and the personal relationships I experience during the rehearsal process and performance. My experience here with this production has easily risen to ‘favorite’ status, also because it’s just so much fun.

What actor would you like to work with?

Seattle is a hub of amazing talent and the list of actors with whom I’d like to work is long. One local actor, in particular comes to mind, my husband, Nick DeSantis. He is an amazing actor and I’m sure I’d get a kick out of the experience if we could ever arrange the same working schedule. It is how we met, after all, eleven years ago. 

Favorite place to see live theater in Seattle?

There is no specific venue I enjoy more than any other. I love how each venue succeeds in transporting me to different worlds in their own unique way.

Terri Weagant Talks ‘Julius Caesar’

Seattle Shakespeare Company is bringing an all-female version of William Shakespeare’s epic political thriller Julius Caesar to Seattle parks this summer, in a production directed by Vanessa Miller. Seattle theatre veteran Terri Weagant, who has performed on the stages of Book-It Repertory Theatre, ACT’s Central Heating Lab, Theater Schmeater and others, takes on the formidable role of charismatic Roman politician Mark Antony. We caught up with her to discuss the play, how (and if) having an all-female cast affects the production and the mosquito-related challenges of performing outdoors. 

What do you like best about your character?

Antony is fiercely loyal to Caesar. In his youth, he spent much of his time gambling, drinking and seducing women and men. He was basically run out of Rome. Caesar became a surrogate father to him; teaching him about military strategy, political prowess and personal forgiveness. When Caesar is killed, Antony vows to avenge his death. Antony is an incredible orator and a master manipulator. Those are two great traits that can help you take over a country. 

What do you bring to the character that males might not be able to bring to it?

I have worked on numerous shows that have played with non-traditional casting, where races and sexes differ from the original. The thing that changes is the perception of the audience. Antony is proud, conniving, dedicated, passionate and a bit of a hot-head. That’s the character that I want to play. The audience can read into “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” being spoken by a woman in any way they please. Meaning can be attached to anything. That’s for them to decide.   

What does an all-female cast bring to Julius Caesar that another cast potentially couldn’t?

We’ve had many discussions during the process about masculine vs. feminine traits. What makes something inherently masculine? Or feminine? Gender lines blur together. Are men guided by reason and action, and women by intuition and emotion? The characters change tactics throughout the play, employing traits that are characteristically male or female. It becomes less about gender and more about interpersonal relationships.

The central conflict in the play is political power. Our director, Vanessa Miller, said on day one that she thought a great deal about her 9-year-old daughter when she decided to go with an all-female cast. She wanted the young girls and boys who come to the show to see women in political power and not be fazed by it. Wooden O goes into communities all over the Puget Sound and for many young people this is their first exposure to Shakespeare. If they can accept that these people talk this way, then they can accept that women are the ones ruling Rome.  

Why is Julius Caesar still important in this day and age? 

Most of the themes from the play we see popping up in the news daily: political strife, betrayal, manipulation of information, power struggles and sacrificing personal morals for the good of the cause. History repeats itself.

What are the plusses and minuses of doing Shakespeare outdoors?

You have a lot of things against you when you work outdoors: planes, weather, fights, mosquitoes, etc. This is what makes the work fun. You’re always on your toes. You can look the audience directly in the eye. I love that the shows are free so whole families can come out. Shakespeare in the Park was my first introduction to his work. It took me a while to figure out what the heck they were saying, but once I did I was hooked.