Every Single Body

The magic of theatre is a privilege. It has the power to provide a sense of unity, whether between audience members and performers, musicians and directors, or prop hands and sound techs. For one show, everyone plays a part in creating a piece of art. Historically, theatre has been exclusionary, but when the climate in the theatres expanded to more people of color, genders, and bodies, shows touched more people and told more stories. 

Several local theatres are working to expand the type of accessibility they offer. Elevators, ramps, audio descriptions, and ASL are crucial to an inclusive environment, but Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT), and the Seattle Theatre Group (STG) are going beyond that to include those with invisible disabilities. These organizations thrive by acknowledging that simply because a disability is well masked and invisible, does not make it less real. 

There are various unwritten rules audience members are expected to follow when attending a play: clap at appropriate times, laugh on cue, and remain still and silent for hours at a time, for example. Though this is difficult for most children to do, it’s also not comfortable for all adults. Seattle Rep and SCT understand those expectations should be viewed as boundaries that need to be dismantled so an accessible environment can be cultivated. Shifts towards accessibility have the potential to be inconvenient and expensive, but it is a responsibility artists and organizations have to their audience to allow their work to be showcased to anyone who wants to see it. 

The heart of it for me is helping invisible people feel recognized and accepted—people who usually shy away and don’t go to the theatre and don’t feel welcome.

Tiffany Sparks-Keeney

One of the people leading the charge at Seattle Children’s Theatre is Tiffany Sparks-Keeney, a consultant to their Sensory Friendly Program. Her work creates a judgment-free environment where everyone is allowed their authentic reactions. “The heart of it for me is helping invisible people feel recognized and accepted—people who usually shy away and don’t go to the theatre and don’t feel welcome,” she stated. She does this by creating a sensory guide that includes a scene by scene breakdown of the performance with insight to its possible disturbing aspects. Each scene breakdown includes things that may be emotionally stressful, visually off putting, and/or audibly alarming. This allows audience members to feel they have control over their theatre going experience. Sparks-Keeney has also helped SCT designate seating in the theatre to allow space for people to move around in the middle-back rows and use their devices in the final row, to avoid disturbing others in the audience. Sparks-Keeny believes allowing people the space to have their needs met, along with her sensory guides, may truly be the next obtainable step towards making all shows more sensory friendly. 

A woman with brown hair smiles in front of a foliage background.
Tiffany Sparks-Keeney, consultant to SCT’s Sensory Friendly Program. COURTESY OF KEENEY

Having a guide available for audiences is a reasonable, inexpensive tactic to diversify who feels comfortable attending shows. Though Sparks-Keeney primarily works with Seattle Children’s Theatre, ideally she would like to expand to larger theatres. After all, neurodivergent children grow up to be neurodivergent adults. Hopefully when children see they are welcomed in the theatre space, they are inspired to not only attend in the future but play a larger role in the creation. 

The work being done at Seattle Rep is just as groundbreaking. Nabra Nelson is Seattle Rep’s point person for increasing accessibility for the neurodivergent. She said, “At Seattle Rep, you can ask for what you need.” It feels simple enough, but to know an individual’s necessities will be accommodated without judgment is uncommon, especially for those who are expected to mask for societal acceptance. It is clear that Seattle Rep thoughtfully prioritizes people’s needs and knows that is a crucial aspect of accessibility. The organization also anticipates audience members’ needs through providing mentions of intense possible triggers, displayed on Seattle Rep’s website alongside a list of resources for the triggers. This is an optional guide to ensure unwanted spoilers are not given. Additionally,  Seattle Rep has a wellness room available to those during the performance and a “tune out” space for those who need complete isolation. They also provide the option to watch the show from the lobby. Having the show projected in the lobby is an easy solution if someone feels the need to move around yet doesn’t want to miss things. 

The lower half of a person is shown holding headphones.
A Hearing Loop headset provided by Seattle Rep. Hearing Loops transmit sound directly to t-coil enabled hearing devices. COURTESY SEATTLE REP

Seattle Theatre Group has many lateral accommodation options. According to Adriana Wright​, STG’s Education Partnership Manager, through their partnership with Sensory Access, STG offers Sensory Guides after each opening night of all Broadway performances, and sensory areas are provided at all student and community matinees. STG also offers sensory-friendly shows where the house lights are kept dim and there’s a lower sound decibel output. While STG remains aware that accessibility for touring productions “is a continuous education point [where it] can be trickier to pre-build accommodations for, we always find a way upon request.” Seattle theatres’ commitment to increasing accessibility is seminal to a larger movement that requires the entire arts community’s support. Everybody who participates in any part of theatre should be asking if each show is accessible. If larger companies see that accessibility is highly valued by the arts community, they will prioritize accessibility to avoid being antiquated. 

Nelson also mentioned that all of Seattle Rep’s ushers are trained with sensory access, meaning they know where best to point someone in distress. All of these resources make a world of a difference for those who may not uphold theatre’s onerous etiquette standards and potentially benefit those who might just need to stretch their legs or have a moment alone. 

A sign sits on a desk with a blue symbol of an ear with a line through it.
A Hearing Loop sign at Seattle Rep. COURTESY SEATTLE REP

Everybody deserves to feel welcome in the theatre—every single body. It is crucial to ensure all audience members have access to attending shows and feel it is a safe space for them. The next step is encouraging people to move from the audience to the stage (or backstage). When people with disabilities feel comfortable enough to create theatre, the art is not only enriched but educated. There are many renowned performances that are known to use able-bodied actors to play roles meant for disabled bodies, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Richard III, Miracle Worker, Wicked, to name a few. This is referred to as “crip-face.” This pattern has continued when roles are written for the neurodivergent. This trend is harmful because it disregards any attempt to include people with disabilities in productions. It also gives the inevitable chance for them to be misrepresented. 

Society is exclusionary, why should theatre be too?

Nabra Nelson

Accessibility opens the gate for people to have their needs met, even when they feel reluctant to make the request. Additionally, a crucial part of accessible theatre is making audiences aware of the resources available to them during performances. This shows people that they will be entering a safe space where their needs matter. Nelson said, “Society is exclusionary, why should theatre be too?” If there is the chance to make things even a little bit better for a lot of people, it is worth it. As Wright said, art “brings joy, it creates opportunity for dialogue, it opens up your creativity and imagination. Everyone deserves a piece of the magic.”  And everyone who has felt that magic agrees. This is why I have no doubt that theatre will only change for the better. 

Elle Vonada is an artist aspiring to get a Journalism degree. The TeenTix Newsroom allows those two worlds to collide. Local theatre will continue to thrive with the assistance of Seattle’s arts community and they’re lucky to witness its journey.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Stages through the TeenTix Press Corps, a teen arts journalism program sponsored by TeenTix, a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit organization.

Building a Stronger Community Through the Arts

We are in a pivotal moment. We are emerging from three years of pandemic-related impacts, many of the major employers of the region have announced layoffs, and everybody is feeling the impact of inflation on their wallets. At the same time, art persists.

Audiences are returning to theatres and gallery spaces, artists continue to explore topical themes and challenging narratives, and the cultural sector works to understand what it looks like to move our craft forward in 2023. More than ever before, ArtsFund believes that art and cultural practice must play a major role in how our cities and communities recover. The arts are a tool for building a better quality of life and a strong arts sector is a sign of a healthy community. As we strategize around how to shape healthy communities, support young people, and neighborhood recovery, we believe that the arts can help frame these conversations in ways that center the most impacted individuals and boost overall outcomes.   

At the core of ArtsFund’s mission is the belief that arts strengthen community. With this in mind, we are revisiting the findings of ArtsFund’s last Cultural Impact Study*, and the three focus areas of Youth Development and Education, Health and Wellness, and Neighborhood Vitality. For specific study citations, please visit the complete report at www.artsfund.org.

Youth Development and Education

Involvement in arts can improve academic and social outcomes for youth across socioeconomic status. Research shows that through arts education, youth learn critical thinking skills and build technical capacity to express themselves and engage with the world around them. Students with arts backgrounds are also more likely to access economic mobility via employment in high-demand creative class fields. This suggests that to cultivate a creative workforce and supply a knowledge economy, business leaders and elected officials should support and promote arts education and access to the arts, especially in the K-12 years.

Additionally, arts education may play a key role in the development of local talent and a 21st century workforce. Arts education can help supply local talent to fill the workforce pipeline and serves as a ‘field-leveling’ intervention. While research suggests all students benefit from arts education, studies show that its effect on academic achievement is strongest for lowest-income students. Integrating art especially benefits low-income students, demonstrating out-size gains in English and math scores, behavioral challenges, college attendance, voting, and volunteering in their community. For example, 43% of eighth graders of low socio-economic status and low arts engagement plan to earn a bachelor’s degree. This number is thirty points higher (73%) for students with similar backgrounds who also have arts engagement. This evidence suggests art is a useful tool to advance equity goals.

A group of adults stand in a dance studio in a circle with their hands raised above their heads, joining in the middle.
Path with Art dance class. COURTESY OF ARTIST
Health and Wellness

Studies show that the arts impact health and wellness, particularly in aging adults and people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other disorders that cause dementia and recovering patients. The presence of arts and opportunities for arts engagement also contribute to community-level health and wellness.

In both primary care and behavioral health, music and art therapy are widely recognized strategies to reduce stress and anxiety, as well as cope with symptoms of disease. Nationwide, 45% of medical institutions offer some sort of arts program. Of those 80% stated a main reason for having arts in healthcare is to benefit patient recovery, and locally, many hospitals and health providers integrate arts into their resources. In King County, more than 600 patients participate in the Swedish Cancer Institute Art Therapy program every year, with many more patients requesting access to the program. Kaiser Permanente Washington collaborates with Seattle Children’s Theatre to promote community health through plays and workshops that address health topics from HIV to healthy eating to bullying.

Medical schools and hospitals, including Virginia Mason Medical Center, integrate art in curricula and partner with local museums like Seattle Art Museum to help physicians build skills in empathy and observation.

Older adults with high and sustained levels of involvement with participatory art forms like music and dance experience positive cognitive and quality of life outcomes including self-motivation, mental stimulation, and productivity, along with the intrinsic pleasure of participation. In addition, older adults involved in the arts have fewer visits to the doctor, require less medication, and experience less depression than older adults not involved in participatory arts programming.

Neighborhood Vitality

The presence of arts in a community is linked to increased neighborhood livability, community identity, and social wellbeing. Research ties the benefits of arts and cultural participation to a sense of pride and community ownership. While many aspects of wellbeing are linked most closely to economic status and racial identity, in neighborhoods with limited economic resources, engagement with arts and culture can create social capital (the value and resources inherent in social relationships and networks) that exerts a strong, positive effect on wellbeing.

This evidence suggests arts and cultural assets can play an important role in equitable outcomes. There are many examples of “creative placemaking,”—the process by which arts-based interventions animate under-used, vacant, or utilitarian parts of neighborhoods, increasing the appeal of a place and catalyzing community revitalization and economic development. It is worth noting that in some cases, creative placemaking can have unintended consequences such as gentrification, when the growing appeal of a place increases rents and costs for housing and small businesses.

In addition to creating new places, art may be utilized for “place-keeping” or the ongoing upkeep of existing cultures or populations within a geographic boundary. Artistic and cultural resources, such as public art, can increase the appeal of existing public spaces and support place-keeping. In addition to the maintenance of the physical environment, arts can foster community partnerships, and connections between residents. Place-keeping can be especially valuable in neighborhoods that have been historically underinvested in, thereby addressing historic and structural inequities.

People intrinsically value the arts in their lives—arts entertain, inspire, inform, and provoke us. If Washington is to meet our most pressing challenges, we will need to find a way to leverage and expand the powerful impacts of the arts so more people and communities can benefit. Arts are not the only strategy to affect positive social outcomes, but they are a viable and proven—yet often underutilized and unacknowledged—strategy.

What can you do?

Research demonstrates that the arts are a powerful partner for positively influencing the social determinants of health and well-being at both the individual and community level. And the time is ripe for cross-disciplinary approaches to addressing some of our most pressing challenges. In order to continue to support a strong quality of life for Washingtonians, the state’s arts organizations need all of us.

How can you be part of this movement? You are doing it right now. By showing up for arts programming and bringing your friends and family to experience what our artists and cultural organizations are offering, you are investing in their ability to continue to offer these benefits and strengthen our community fabric.

Invest in arts organizations that matter to you through direct funding. In addition to direct funding, investments can be in the form of time, space, professional services, board leadership, and marketing support.

The arts have always been a reflection of the world around us. We rely on the arts to tell stories that unlock unfamiliar narratives to help us understand one another; to bring people together in shared experiences for a sense of belonging; and to act as a healer and agent of joy. Join us in supporting the creative workers, artists and cultural organizations that help support a healthy and vibrant Washington state.

* The Social Impact Study was first published in 2018 under the leadership of Mari Horita and Sarah Sidman. The report, with primary focus on youth development and education, health and wellness, and neighborhood vitality, analyses the potential for arts to influence more equitable outcomes via a county-wide public poll; a landscape scan of King County arts, cultural, and heritage nonprofits; a substantive review of 150+ national research resources; and case studies of ten regional arts organizations. To read the report in full, please visit www.artsfund.org.  

Talking About It Plainly With Debra Ann Byrd

Debra Ann Byrd deserves your attention—don’t worry, she’ll get it. A prolific writer, performer, and artistic director, Byrd is a theatre artist with a wardrobe of many hats and stories to share.

Seattle Shakespeare Company is kicking off 2023 with Byrd’s solo show The World’s a Stage: Becoming Othello, A Black Girl’s Journey, directed by Shakespeare & Company founder Tina Packer. The play follows Byrd’s life as she performs as the titular character of Othello, a play by William Shakespeare known for its underlying racism. “As I was discovering Othello, the character, I started discovering things about myself as well,” Byrd said. “I kept telling myself, ‘I have to write about this.’ I always wanted to perform a solo show, so I thought this was a good opportunity to create one.”

Since this is Byrd’s first solo show, her first step was seeking education. “I went about the process of finding a coach to help me understand what it means to write a solo show,” Byrd said. “Then, I got another coach to help me make what I wrote into a more serious production for theatre audiences.”

After working with the coaches, she was unsure how to continue developing the play. “I’m a praying girl, so I thought about it, I prayed about it,” Byrd said. “Who is supposed to help me with this thing? What came to mind was a colleague and friend of mine, [Dr.] Paul Edmondson, the [Head] of Research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.”

Edmondson and his team at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust loved Byrd’s concept and wanted to support the play. “They said, ‘Maybe we could bring her out to Stratford-upon-Avon to become the writer-in-residence here for a month and we can help develop the play,’” Byrd said. “We recorded like nine sessions of interviews, 45 minutes to an hour and 15 [minutes] each, to go over what I was thinking, why it was so personal, and why it was also so public. Why would audiences care? Why would it matter to the world?”

Performer Debra Ann Byrd stands on stage in a black dress with her arms raised above her head with a dagger in one hand.
Debra Ann Byrd in “The World’s a Stage: Becoming Othello, A Black Girl’s Journey.” PHOTO BY LIA CHANG

Byrd continued to attain opportunities to develop the play through residencies at esteemed institutions such as Columbia University and the Folger Library in Washington D.C. “Then, I wrote a proposal so I could put some dramaturgical elements into the show, the history of Othello,” Byrd said. Eventually, Byrd brought in Tina Packer to mold and direct the production. “I reached out to Tina Packer, who was one of my teachers and mentors, and I thought she would be a great fit for the play,” Byrd said.

Packer’s prior experience gave Byrd a stronger understanding of the needs of solo work. “Tina Packer has worked on other solo shows, including ones that she wrote for herself, so she had a lot of knowledge,” Byrd said. “I went up and worked with her for weeks on end until it was time to go into rehearsal.”

Packer helped Byrd shape the play for regional theatre audiences, which are frequently not diverse in age or race. “I know that a lot of audiences are old and white and as the years go by, the young ones are getting old too,” Byrd said. Packer focused on what the audience takes away from the production. “Tina Packer would help me fine-tune those areas that needed to reach a little bit further to get an audience member to understand,” Byrd said.

“Even before we got to Shakespeare & Company, we knew that this show would first be seen by audiences in Stratford-upon-Avon, so we knew that they would be not only old and white, but old, white, and British. We thought about how we could break it down a little more so that audiences could understand from a cultural point of view what it is I’m trying to say.”

However, Byrd and Packer were confident that audiences would appreciate the production for its Shakespearean references if nothing else. “Because there are over 200 Shakespearean lines in it, we knew that people who like Shakespeare would love it,” Byrd said. “We took into consideration all of the audiences who might come and tried to make sure we had something in there for everyone.”

Performer Debra Ann Byrd sits on the ground with a woman's head in her lap wearing a red and gold robe.
Debra Ann Byrd as Othello and Natalie Andrews as Desdemona in “The World’s a Stage: Becoming Othello, A Black Girl’s Journey.” PHOTO BY YASMIN LAWLER

Throughout the process, Byrd learned the importance of balancing authenticity with tools for audience engagement. “At first, I was telling the story to get it out of my body and into the world,” Byrd said. “How do we take all of these things, mix it in with Shakespeare, and tell the stories? What is it that we can do together to create something that is meaningful in the world?”

The play analyzes Othello from a fresh perspective “to encourage, to challenge, [and] to inspire. Is he a mad man or is he a hurt man?” Byrd said. “When I broke it down, I saw that Othello was hurt. I say it in the play: if we tell ourselves the truth, we have a better chance of making the world a better place. We need to talk about it plainly.”

The World’s a Stage: Becoming Othello, A Black Girl’s Journey, presented by Seattle Shakespeare Company, is playing January 3–29, 2023. 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 the TeenTix Newsroom 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 poetry, rewatching Promising Young Woman or obsessing over Bo Burnham.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Stages through the TeenTix Press Corps, a teen arts journalism program sponsored by TeenTix, a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit organization.

Finding New Delight in Familiar Holiday Performances

If it is fair to say that audiences return to the performing arts for meaningful connection, perhaps there is no richer time of year for doing just that than during the holiday season. As days grow shorter, darker, and colder as the end of each year approaches, Seattle stages and performance halls are warm, well-lit, and busy, offering top-tier productions to replenish one’s inner sanctum through the arts of music, dance, and drama.

Particular to every holiday season are the returning shows; those performances and stories that audiences come back to year after year. These are often part of a tradition that began in earliest childhood, and after so many years are still rekindling the holiday spirit. Holiday shows are often family affairs as the tradition is passed on to children and grandchildren.

How do arts organizations in the Seattle area keep their holiday shows fresh and relevant for audiences year after year?

“It’s all in the mindset of the creative team and the artists who approach the show,” said John Langs, Artistic Director at ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) and director of this year’s production of A Christmas Carol. “The theatre is different every night and we as humans are different with each new event we experience. I think the key is to not deny who we are or the events in the world outside as you speak the words of the play but let whatever is moving in you be part of the story you are telling. Use it.” Langs said that the business of bringing the real world and circumstances to bear in serving story in fresh and relevant ways required something of a “spiritual rigor.”

On a stage, two actors stand together talking. One is dressed all in white as the ghost of Christmas Past and the other in a dressing gown as Scrooge.
Chip Sherman and Amy Thone in “A Christmas Carol” at ACT Theatre. PHOTO BY HOWARD SHACK

He pointed out that A Christmas Carol, a 47-year tradition at the ACT Theatre in downtown Seattle, is a story of redemption and renewal that takes place at the very end of the calendar year—already a built-in time of reflection. “The power of tradition is strong,” he added. “Many audience members come to A Christmas Carol as their first professional theatre experience. Many of them were brought as children and they are now bringing their grandkids to ‘share the magic.’”

“No two shows are alike, and every cast is different,” said Peter Boal, Artistic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), the company responsible for bringing George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker to audiences every holiday season. “Even the orchestra plays Tchaikovsky’s score slightly differently under the baton of different conductors, or with a new violin soloist. This is the beauty of seeing (and hearing) art in person.” Boal confirmed that PNB, in fact, restages Nutcracker each and every year, teaching each step and interaction from scratch to company dancers and PNB School students. Many dancers and most student dancers are in roles for the very first time, some even experiencing live performance for the first time.

A ballerina dressed as the sugar plum fairy leaps across the stage with her arms outstretched in "The Nutcracker."
Leta Biasucci in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” at PNB. PHOTO BY ANGELA STERLING

Boal also referenced the role of tradition, and the fact that for many in the audience, this is their first experience seeing a live ballet performance, something he called a “perfect portal for discovery of the world of classical ballet.”

PNB’s isn’t the only long-running Nutcracker in town. Former professional dancers John and Helen Wilkins founded Olympic Ballet Theatre in Edmonds in 1981, and The Nutcracker has been an annual mainstay at Edmonds Centre for the Arts ever since. In 2011, Oleg Gorboulev and Mara Vinson took over the show, teaming up as artistic directors.

The Nutcracker is a holiday tradition,” said Gorboulev. “We occasionally make choreography changes, or adjust technical aspects, or update the costumes, but [otherwise] not much changes. But on the artistic side we have new dancers each year, and with new dancers, you get fresh energy. I don’t know if the audience notices, but we notice.” He pointed to the working relationship between himself and Vinson as a necessary component of bringing the show back each year. “We work very well together,” he said. “We found our responsibilities, we found us. We found our stride and it has become natural.”

A stage production of "The Nutcracker." Toy soldiers fight the rat king.
Olympic Ballet Theatre presents “The Nutcracker.” PHOTO BY INTO DUST PHOTOGRAPHY

The celebrated Seattle Symphony has proved to be another natural local fixture each season. The Symphony offers a range of returning holiday shows. This year’s Holiday Pops is being led by conductor Stuart Chafetz. “Handel’s Messiah,” features the Seattle Symphony, Chorale and a cast of soloists to honor Handel’s most famous work.

“When it comes to keeping a returning show fresh and relevant,” said Taproot Communications Manager Daytona Danielsen, “part of it comes down to the audience’s delight and a sense of nostalgia.” Taproot Theatre Company, founded in 1976 is Seattle’s largest mid-size theatre company, serving the Pacific Northwest with two performance venues, regular touring programs and Acting Studio. They have regularly returned A Charlie Brown Christmas to the stage at holiday time. “A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of those plays that the audience likes to see repeatedly; children, who make up a significant part of the audience, delight in experiencing a familiar story again and again. And then, children grow up, and new audiences come, experiencing the production for the first time.”

But just as no two pieces of performance art are ever exactly the same twice, no two seasonal calendars in Seattle are exactly the same. Taproot is not presenting A Charlie Brown Christmas this year, but is planning to remount the production in 2023. Instead, the company’s holiday offering this year includes both tradition and newness all at once. The theatre company is staging the Jane Austen-inspired The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, which is a new production, but also a sequel to the play they presented to success in 2018, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. The sequel takes place on the same day in a different part of the very same house, promising familiarity, but also freshness, and as the production is recommended for ages 10-plus, plenty of opportunity for shared family experience. Danielsen described Taproot’s fingerprint, whether at Christmas or any other time of the year, as “theatre of hope.”

Four actors stand on stage in regency era clothing in a drawing room talking. Stage image of Christmas at Pemberley at Taproot Theatre.
Cast of “Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley. PHOTO BY ERIK STUHAUG

Whether it is childhood discovery, shared family experiences, or reconnecting to aspects of faith and hope, certainly the holiday season seems to offer what audiences are looking for, and producers and performers in the Seattle area seem to be doing something right.

“There are so many debuts in different roles during the run of The Nutcracker,” said PNB’s Boal, “and the wings are packed with peers who are pulling for their friends as they dance the Soldier, Candy Cane, or Sugar Plum for the first time. Students often dance the company roles, unseen offstage. Honestly, the dancers love Balanchine’s choreography and see each performance as a fresh inspiration. Audiences too feel this sense of excitement and discovery.”

“We understand there are traditions baked into the way we stage A Christmas Carol that are very important to people,” said ACT’s Langs. “There is a beautiful story I was told about a family who lost a family member during the Christmas season. One of their fondest memories was watching their loved one experience a very specific moment of the show when the Ghost of Christmas Present sprinkles the Christmas spirit into the audience via glitter from their golden cup. It was related to me that the joy of this moment was one of the fondest and last memories of being together as a family they shared, and that this family now comes each year to A Christmas Carol to commemorate the loved one who is no longer with them. Whenever I approach that moment in the rehearsal room, I think of them. I often tell this story to the cast. It brings home the power of tradition. There are dozens of different ways to perfume that moment that allows for creativity and breath, but it’s moments like these that make it clear that we are a part of a bigger story that has connected the community for 47 years.”

Where company’s and producers are committed to nurturing the art and performances they shape and re-gift each holiday season, it seems that the “bigger story” will be bringing audiences back for years to come.

A Christmas Carol will play at ACT Theatre November 25–December 24, 2022. The Nutcracker will play at Pacific Northwest Ballet November 25–December 27, 2022. Olympic Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker will be presented December 9–20, 2022. Taproot Theatre will show The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley November 23–December 30, 2022. Seattle Symphony will present Holiday Pops December 9–11, 2022 and “Handel’s Messiah” December 16–18, 2022.

David Drury is a Seattle-based writer, journalist, and Best American fiction author whose creative work can be found at daviddruryauthor.com.

The Journey of Courage to “Choir Boy”

This fall, The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre are collaborating on their 10th co-production, Choir Boy, a play with music about sexuality, intersectional identities, and acceptance. The co-production process allows each theatre to access the other’s unique resources and provide Seattle with a more diverse range of musical theatre experiences.

“We have some really delicious, intimate theatres at ACT and The 5th Avenue is a very big space,” ACT Theatre Artistic Director John Langs said. “As Broadway and the rest of the world started to explore smaller, more intimate musicals, there was a feeling that they were getting lost in the big space.”

Bill Berry, the artistic director of The 5th Avenue Theatre, added that co-productions have longer runs than shows produced by The 5th and ACT independently, so they benefit artists as well. “We also talked about the value [of] producing shows with longer runs to the arts ecosystem and the folks working in our community, particularly the performers,” Berry said.

Thus, a partnership began. Since the co-production program’s inception in 2011, the theatres have produced a variety of small-scale contemporary musicals including the two-hander whodunnit comedy Murder for Two and Sondheim’s acclaimed concept musical Assassins.

Rather than dividing responsibilities evenly, each theatre contributes what they have the capacity to offer. “We are a theatre that is smaller than The 5th Avenue, so they have a much larger annual budget,” Langs noted. “We find a mutual understanding about percentages that makes sense to each theatre, and it’s roughly 70/30 split cost, but the productions are made for the most part at ACT.” 

Then, the theatres collaborate on curating the material, selecting directors, and casting. “The decisions sometimes take longer to make,” Berry admitted, but he stressed that the organizations “work together on all aspects” of the productions.

a gorup of five singers stand onstage in cosutme with their hands raised crouched down singing
The cast of “Ride the Cyclone,” a co-production of The 5th and ACT. PHOTO OF TRACY MARTIN

When Langs and Berry accepted their positions, they felt that the curation model in place did not serve the greater community of artists and audience members. “We needed to flatten the hierarchy about decision-making, about whose voices were represented onstage,” Langs said. They started having conversations “both internally and externally with a lot more stakeholders about what shows go on the mainstage.”

Recently, someone who has helped cultivate these conversations is Jay Woods, The 5th’s associate artistic director of artist engagement. “I always say that a leader at best is a master weaver of the skills and choices in the room,” Woods said. “From an organizational perspective, that means the artistic leadership [team] must be vigilant in avoiding homogeneity in its staff, in its season, [and] in how it communicates with the world.”

The theatres did not initially realize the impacts of increasing the length of a run. “Each theatre really did not have a lot of experience running shows upwards of 10 weeks of performances, so our first few co-productions involved a lot of learning about taking care of the company,” Berry confessed. “Mistakes were made, and we have integrated better and more mindful practices over the years.”

three singers stand in the background on stage while a man dances with one hand and one leg in the air in the foreground
Rich Gray as Charles Guiteau in “Assassins.” PHOTO OF TRACY MARTIN

Choir Boy is a coming-of-age story about Pharus Young, a talented, queer gospel singer at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. Before ACT and The 5th chose to co-produce the show as a part of their 2022-2023 seasons, ACT had planned to produce it in association with Denver Center Theatre Company in 2020. After that fell through because of the COVID-19 pandemic, ACT considered presenting the play on their own, but the theatre is delighted to be collaborating with The 5th in order to deliver as strong of a production as possible. “The production that we could have done would have been a little more modest, but we loved the play,” Langs stated.

This production of Choir Boy is particularly exciting since it will feature a completely unique version of the text. “The director Jamil Jude has been on a long journey with this play; he was a part of it before it went to Broadway and the script got sort of locked, so he has seen many iterations of it,” Langs said. Jude wanted to include some of the moments that were cut on the show’s road to Broadway, so he received “permission from the playwright to take the pieces that he felt were really powerful and told the story that he wants to tell.”

As the partnership continues, the theatres hope to focus on cultivating new works. “Our real dream is to commission and develop musicals from the ground up as we move forward with the co-production slot in our season,” Berry stated. However, their mission is not exclusively based on producing premieres. “We also want to be sure that we are bringing pieces like Choir Boy to have new productions in Seattle.”

a large group of actors stand on stage surrounding one actor who is on a higher platform singing
The company of “Urinetown,” a co-production of The 5th and ACT. PHOTO BY JEFF CARPENTER

Pharus’ arc in Choir Boy represents the values both theatres wish to emphasize this season. “This season [at ACT] is really about journeys of courage,” Langs said. “The characters in the season really stand up for who they are.” In order to cultivate an environment in which artists and audience members can fully appreciate shows with sensitive subjects like Choir Boy, Langs and the teams at ACT and The 5th make sure all of the theatres’ programs are as inclusive and equitable as possible.

“Remaining open and vulnerable to new ways of thinking is crucial to structurally changing a system that never wanted to invite the ‘skills and choices’ outside of the white-approved tool box,” Woods said. “We need to be brave for one another or we might as well hang it up.”

“I think about equity in terms of making sure that everybody who comes into our space feels like their personhood was thought about before they got here,” Langs explained. “We want to create a safe space to do dangerous work, and that takes a lot of diligence.”

Choir Boy, presented by ACT Theatre and The 5th Avenue Theatre, is playing at ACT’s Allen Theatre from September 9–October 23, 2022. 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 the TeenTix Newsroom 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 poetry, rewatching Promising Young Woman or obsessing over Bo Burnham.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Stages through the TeenTix Press Corps, a teen arts journalism program sponsored by TeenTix, a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit organization.

Untold Stories Told: Matt Kizer and Native Writers’ Theater

Matt Kizer was just a normal kid growing up in Carson City, Nevada. It was the 1980s and he was a high schooler with an interest in the arts. His school had a good music program. He participated in it as much as he could. He joined the school choir. He was good at it. The choir was good, too. The choir traveled overseas. They got to tour Europe on several occasions. “No one really seemed interested in my heritage,” Kizer said of those teenage years in Nevada. “But, in Europe, I found that people were quite interested in my background. It felt great.” Kizer is a member of the Washoe Tribe. “That was a transformational experience for me.”

Kizer is now 50 years old and living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s also the artistic director at Native Writers’ Theater (NWT), a new 501(c)3 nonprofit under the umbrella of PlayGround, a playwright incubator. “After many years as a performer, working as an actor, dancer, and singer in multiple genres, I decided I wanted to focus specifically on stories, songs, myths, and legends from my tribe, as well as relate my own personal experiences.” Kizer wants that for himself. He wants that for others, too. That’s why he started the Native Writers’ Theater. It debuted last November as part of PlayGround’s third annual Innovators Showcase. “An Evening of New Native Plays” included one of Kizer’s own works, Starlings. The play centered on an Urban Indian having a crisis after hours at a museum. The evening also included works done by Beth Piatote (Nez Perce), Shannon R. Davis (Sami, Potawatomi, Ojibwe), Steven Flores (Comanche, Azteca, Mexica), and others. As Kizer said, “Seen many Native American plays lately? Neither have we. But we know that can change.”

And things are changing thanks, in part, to Kizer. Voices of Indigenous creatives are now being heard and amplified. Kizer has taken note of a plethora of playwrights making those voices heard including Linda Amayo-Hassan (Spirit Lake Dakota, Chicana), Ishmael Angaluuk Hope (Iñupiaq, Tlingit), and Moses Goods (Native Hawaiian), among many others. “A highlight of starting this,” Kizer said, “is making connections with other Native artists. I look forward to future collaborations.”

Native American isn’t monolithic. It’s as varied as America’s landscapes. Everyone’s story is different. There is not one “Indian Story.” Native life isn’t something of the past, a relic; something near forgotten; or found in a museum. “I want to continue to educate the world about who each of us are,” Kizer said. “That we’re still here and we have something to say about ourselves.”

Kizer has been performing in predominantly white institutions his entire life. In high school choir, he did. In the world of classical music that he found himself in. At the University of Nevada, Reno studying voice. His entire career after leaving school. “I have been lucky to have incredible mentors, teachers, directors, and choreographers—mostly white—who have helped me get to where I am today.” But, at the same time, “if it weren’t for the experiences of me being the only Native in the room almost every time, I wouldn’t have had the drive to create opportunities for Native creatives to be seen and heard.”

His new organization is in its infancy. Funding is on Kizer’s mind. Getting the word out to Native communities about the work he and his colleagues are doing is on his mind. He’s eager to start a Native writers retreat somewhere in the Bay Area. He’s currently trying to find a physical space for it. He’s at work creating a series of readings, also. It will happen this coming fall as part of the PlayGround Innovator Incubator Showcase.

Meanwhile, even with all that, he’s writing, eager to tell his stories and the stories of the Washoe people. “We are humans,” he said, “and have the exact same challenges that everyone else has on Earth. We all have to work, pay the bills, feed our families, and keep the lights on.” His light is on his desk, aglow, as he writes, exploring who he is. He says he’s interested in retelling the Washoe Tribe’s legends and contemporizing the tribe’s songs. “Every time I hear a new story, I’m gaining knowledge of what it is to be Washoe.”

Further, every story told tells us a little bit more about who we all are. We all gain knowledge by hearing the stories of others. Native voices are rising. As Kizer stated, “We want to take back our stories and tell them our way.”

Kizer is showing us all the way forward.

“An Evening of New Native Plays” is now available to watch on demand through June 30, 2022. The video is free, but donations are accepted and appreciated.

Innovation and Connections: Summer 2022 Arts Camps for the Greater Seattle Area

Many parents and students are looking to get back in the summer camp game in 2022. Two excellent organizations which provide a variety of summer courses are Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) and Seattle Shakespeare Company, both near synonymous with arts education. 

“Sometimes theatres start up and then they add an education program later,” said Seattle Shakespeare Education Director Michelle Burce. “Seattle Shakespeare has had one the whole time.” One side of this education is Seattle Shakespeare’s Camp Bill, a series of workshops including a full theatre production intensive for middle and high school aged students. During these three week camps, students rehearse and perform shows, while also designing costumes and building sets. This summer, it’s Macbeth

“Students get to play with love, hate, ambition, mistaken identity and comedy. That’s a great outlet.” Burce pointed out that this relatively short time frame for a full production allows students to think on their feet and take control of the situation. In a professional production, there’s not just more time to rehearse—when actors begin such a rehearsal, there are fully formed costume designs and built sets. In a Camp Bill production intensive, however, it all happens at once. For Burce, this pace connects to the ephemeral, imaginative, and problem-solving aspects of theatre. 

a group of teenagers do a movement exercise

It was the COVID-19 pandemic that made this understanding really sink in for Burce. In the Summer of 2020, Camp Bill happened fully remotely. That year, campers participated in productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Students rehearsed over Zoom, filmed themselves individually, and then were edited together. Boundless creativity sprung from this unideal situation. In The Tempest, there’s a scene where a wandering Trinculo comes across a blanket-covered Caliban. “What have we here? A man or a fish?” asks Trinculo incredulously. This scene, ripe with interesting visuals, is one that should be challenging to execute in a virtual setting. However, two campers had a trick up their sleeve. “They found out that they had matching towels at home that were close enough,” Burce said. A camper stowed his sister away under his towel with her feet sticking out, while another camper filmed themselves beneath their own towel. In the complete and edited scene, it seemed just as if the two campers were in the same room.

In the Summer of 2021, Camp Bill returned to in-person programming. Traditional Shakespeare plays tend to necessitate close physical contact, so to ensure that the transition back to in-person camp was safe, Seattle Shakespeare took multiple mitigating steps. 2021 was entirely outdoors, and, instead of a full production, students worked on individual scenes. This meant the wondrous sets and costumes that often accompany Camp Bill production intensives weren’t there. Once again, students and teachers rose to the challenge, incorporating elements of the natural scenery that surrounded them. “In theatre you try to bring audiences into a magical world, but in 2020 and 2021 there weren’t traditional means to do that,” Burce stated. Making a magical world with the tools available, no matter what they are, encapsulates Camp Bill’s ethos.

Like Seattle Shakespeare, Seattle Children’s Theatre’s department of education and engagement has stayed very active during the pandemic. In the Summer of 2020, all camps and classes were virtual. I spoke with Johamy Morales, the director of the education and engagement department, and Caitlyn Davis, who, among other things, is the drama school camp czar. For Morales and Davis, this pandemic period did have benefits. There are expansive things that you can do remotely, “You can get teens in Florida, teens in Philly, and teens in Seattle in a space together to create and share ideas,” said Davis. Not only did teens connect with the programs remotely, educators and professionals from far and wide were able to bring their expertise to SCT virtually. Additionally, courses that had not been previously offered, such as creating through social media and the art of drag, became available during this remote period. 

two children rehearse a sword fight on stage. they stand facing each other with swords raised

When SCT returned to in person in 2021, safety was prioritized. SCT’s programs operated at just 25% capacity. This way, if county restrictions changed or a variant came, campers would not be left in the lurch. This, combined with still requiring masks and implementing innovative social distancing tactics, resulted in a very successful summer. Just over 950 students participated in summer programs, and there was not a single COVID case. SCT continued to provide a virtual option, too. “We’ve been very thoughtful about the way we’re scaling in and scaling back into in person,” said Davis. “We feel really confident that this coming summer we have a very strong structure to maintain everybody in a safe environment with the challenges of COVID while also continuing to provide a unique experience for young people to come in and learn and play with us.”

This commitment to access guides the department’s actions. Morales shared with me her personal story, how she had not had an opportunity to engage with theatre early on. She eventually began a program in San Diego where she and others perused various topics and then developed a piece with a director, taking these performances from school to school. “For the first time, I felt like my voice had power and my actions had meaning,” Morales said. “If I had the opportunity to experience theatre at a young age, and the power of storytelling, I can only imagine where I would be right now.” Morales and SCT in its entirety are committed to giving back. Both SCT and Seattle Shakespeare offer financial aid scholarships and make their availability well known. 

Arts summer camps are a potent environment for community building. “Our students come together and form a community and form relationships in a way that is really special in arts summer camp. You work really intensely with other people, but also get to go through all of these emotions and challenges and risks with an ensemble, and build friendships you might not get in the same way at school,” said Burce. “It’s not just about getting kids in the room and doing a scene,” said Morales. Indeed, it’s about the connections, sometimes lifelong, that are made. 

This summer, both SCT and Seattle Shakespeare will be fully in person. Camp Bill’s three camps, including the production intensive, will happen outdoors, at Mercer Island’s lush Luther Burbank Park. SCT offers dozens of courses, at varying locations, all providing students with excellent opportunities for exploration. Registration for this summer is open now.

Josh Caplan is a Junior at The Northwest School in Seattle. A member of the TeenTix Press Corps and a three-time participant in the TeenTix Arts Podcast, he is thrilled to have the opportunity to engage with arts journalism. Along with covering arts events, Josh is a DJ with KEXP’s 90.TEEN program. He also enjoys playing and listening to music, reading up on sustainable agricultural practices, and a good cup of coffee. 

This article was written on special assignment for The Seattle Times through the TeenTix Press Corps, a teen arts journalism program sponsored by TeenTix, a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit organization.

The Jaws-Dropping Story Behind Seattle Rep’s “Bruce”

It takes a village to scare a generation into never swimming in the ocean again. During the filming of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws, Spielberg and his team were faced with incessant challenges involving budget, the weather in Martha’s Vineyard (where they shot most of the film), and perhaps most notably, a dysfunctional mechanical shark named Bruce. Years later, Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor realized it was the perfect material for a musical.

Bruce, Taylor and Oberacker’s new musical premiering at Seattle Rep this May, follows the tumultuous filming process of Jaws as described in The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb, one of the film’s screenwriters.

“Being a film buff, I had always heard some of the crazy stories about what had gone on that summer to make the film and how insane it was,” Oberacker said. “Before I met Rob, around the 25th anniversary of the DVD, they did a documentary about [Jaws] that got released as a bonus feature [and] I started to realize that the backstory of how the film had gotten made was kind of the perfect hero story that musicals often follow.

“There’s something about our brains that finds it very delicious to find out origin stories to things we already know and love. All of the masters have to learn. We’re finding out how Spielberg became Spielberg—he wasn’t born the guy who did Schindler’s List [or] Jurassic Park. He was born with innate talent, there’s no question, but that summer, he was only 26 years old [and] he had very little film experience on this level, so he surrounded himself with people who were much more seasoned than he was. He spent that first film learning from the best and in exchange, with his own innate talent, he taught them something.”

Eventually, Oberacker got ahold of The Jaws Log and thought that if the story was to be adapted as a musical, he would use the book as a blueprint rather than trying to collect interviews independently. Eventually, he and Taylor brought their idea to Gottlieb. “Finally, we got the nerve to cold email and call Carl Gottlieb and say, ‘Hey, we have a crazy idea to pitch you,’ and Richard went out to LA and met with him at the Roosevelt Hotel,” Taylor said.

headshot of Richard Oberacker
Writer and lyricist Richard Oberacker. COURTESY OF SEATTLE REP

“We were supposed to actually go have lunch together and we never left the lobby,” Oberacker recounted. “We just talked and talked and talked for a couple hours and he got it immediately. He thought it was hilarious and just crazy enough that it might work.”

Unlike most book adaptations, the writers were able to draw from additional sources. “There are things in discussions we’ve had with Carl that are not in the book, the personalities and things people were thinking,” Oberacker noted. “We’re working from a much broader pallet of inspiration.”

Oberacker and Taylor also took inspiration from their Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Bandstand. “We worked with Andy Blankenbuehler on Bandstand and [he] taught us so much,” Taylor said. “If you can do multiple things at once, do them.” 

“By going through that process with Andy, we wrote into the original draft of Bruce that sense of layering [and] we took stronger risks,” Oberacker added.

For Bruce, the duo is thrilled to be collaborating with director/choreographer Donna Feore. “Two years before the pandemic hit, Richard and I read this rave review of a Music Man production up at [The] Stratford Festival in Toronto and it was Donna’s production of The Music Man,” Taylor said.

Set building for “Bruce”. PHOTO BY ALLISON DUNMORE

“It was just absolutely brilliant. It was functioning on so many levels that I haven’t seen productions of The Music Man function on prior to that or since then, so we kind of became superfans instantly.”

The following summer, Taylor and Oberacker were looking for a director, so Taylor emailed Feore and told her that he was returning to Stratford to see two of her upcoming productions and would love to meet her if she was available.

“By the time I arrived there, about four days after I had emailed her the script, she had been through it three or four times, she had given it to multiple friends, and it was clear that this was the perfect person to direct this show,” Taylor said.

“She’s just so creative and honestly, she’s fun to hang out with,” Oberacker attested. “There are a lot of laughs [and] she is very methodical about every word. She plans very far ahead and expects everyone she’s working with to do their homework.”

Recreating Jaws’ chaotic production process for the stage hasn’t been without its own challenges. “There’s a whole kind of incredible arc before they actually land in Martha’s Vineyard for the summer to start shooting and it’s written on the page very, very fast and it jump cuts from office to office,” Oberacker said. “Donna was very challenged by that, [but] what [she and the designers] created was so different from what we had imagined at all; it is so completely crazy what they have chosen to do and when we saw the design, we almost wept because it’s so brilliant and so simple. It’s an incredible magic trick.”

headshot of Robert Taylor
Writer and lyricist Robert Taylor. COURTESY OF SEATTLE REP

“Then, we couldn’t figure out how you are going to get from this magic trick to Martha’s Vineyard physically, and when they showed us how it happens, our jaws fell open.”

The show was set to open in 2020, but the pandemic delayed the production. However, according to Oberacker and Taylor, the pandemic has made the show more important than ever. “The show became more relevant over the past two years,” Oberacker said. “It was always fun, it was always a story about imagination and overcoming odds, but it has a resonance now that it simply didn’t have before. We were able to incorporate what was happening to us personally as artists in a very visceral way so it made it onto the page by virtue of sort of living a version of the chaos and troubles they were living that summer as well.”

“The show is an ode to how imagination and the ability to [improvise] is what will take you through almost any situation and it’s what we all have to do,” Taylor added. “This was a group of people that set out to make this film thinking they were going to have access to all of these things, in particular [a] giant mechanical shark, but the shark would just keep refusing to cooperate. Somehow, you still have to find a way to keep moving forward and being creative.”

Bruce is playing at Seattle Rep from May 27-June 26, 2022.

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 the TeenTix Newsroom 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 poetry, rewatching The Cabin in the Woods or obsessing over Bo Burnham.

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.

The Young Composers Workshop Gives Young People a Legacy in Composition

Being an aspiring artist as a teenager can be especially demotivating; the arts landscape seems like a cavernous ocean, and getting your work out into the wide-world seems impossible. Mentorship opportunities can sometimes intimidate young people with their daunting ideals, rather than nurture the creative bud ready to blossom within. In contrast, The Merriman-Ross Family Young Composers Workshop at the Seattle Symphony offers young people the safety of honing the craft of instrumental music, guiding them along to discover the trajectory of their futures in orchestra. 

The Young Composers Workshop originated under the profound legacy of lauded classical musician, David Diamond. Honorary Composer-in-Residence of the Seattle Symphony, Diamond was hailed as one of the greatest American chamber music composers of all time, and was one of the greatest forces of composition in the 1940s. His place in Seattle’s music history is inherently intertwined with the values of the Young Composers Workshop. Founded in 1992 and originally named after Diamond and his legacy, the program’s goal was to give adolescent composers the resources and support to cultivate their creative voice within their compositions, imbuing young composers with agency to fulfill their musical aspirations. 

In December 2021, applicants ages 18 and younger applied for the 2022 iteration of The Merriman-Ross Family Young Composers Workshop. With a chance to showcase their instrumentation by the end of the workshop’s 12-week run-time, young artists learn how to develop musical themes and narratives through instrumental arrangement. The experience is hands-on, with preparation workshops taught by the Seattle Symphony librarian, and with rehearsal technique lessons taught by the Seattle Symphony Conductor.  

a young girl stands on stage as three adults stand celebrating her
James Holt / Seattle Symphony

This season, students will have the chance to attend two masterclasses taught by Composer-in-Residence Reena Esmail. With expertise in Hindustani music, which she studied in India, Esmail bridges the divide between Western and Indian composition. Young artists will have the privilege of hearing from Esmail’s acclaimed perspective, learning further about the cultural significance and quintessence of orchestral instrumentation. The workshop’s mentorship ultimately culminates in a final, original arrangement with a woodwind quartet, string quartet, and Pierrot ensemble. At the end of the workshop, the Seattle Symphony plays each student’s compositions in a chamber concert at Benaroya Hall.

Before first attending the workshop in 2018, 17-year-old composer Elisa Johnson didn’t listen to very much instrumental music aside from the classical pieces she was learning on the piano. “Coming into the Young Composers Workshop with what I thought was an embarrassing lack of experience was hard for me. I felt completely out of place. For some time, I even considered dropping out. [However] by the end of the workshop, I had bonded with the other young composers and was able to look past my different background.” 

Elisa genuinely flourished through her time in her first iteration of the workshop. In that workshop in 2018, she composed her first instrumental score and built up her knowledge of orchestral music. These were significant landmarks in Elisa’s instrumental journey. 

teen musicians sit in a row taking notes, watching something off camera
James Holt / Seattle Symphony

The workshop also strengthened Elisa’s confidence in her musical abilities, though she sometimes “still feels the sense of insecurity” she felt on her first day. However, the camaraderie and bonding that Elisa experienced with her peers, has helped her fit in with the musical community. “I am amazed by the level of knowledge and talent that comes from my fellow young composers,” she said. “They consistently have incredible advice and feedback to give me when they listen to my music, which has only made me better at coming up with creative ideas to translate into music.”

Now in her fourth year at the program, Elisa has felt empowered through the workshop’s collaborative process. Having first applied in middle school, Elisa never expected to be accepted because at the time, most of her experience with composition was in pop songwriting. Before she discovered her passion for composition, she was an avid participant in musical theatre, gymnastics and science, and she was always curious about how chamber music would be technically different than pop-influenced composition. She included a single choral piece—her only choral piece—in her application all those years ago. Four years later, she is happy to say that taking that first step to apply for the workshop has definitely paid off.

Due to the pandemic, the 2021 iteration of The Merriman-Ross Family Young Composers Workshop had to take place virtually. All rehearsals and meetings with musicians were remote, lending to a very different musical environment. “I did not have the chance to practice attending rehearsal and giving feedback to the musicians like I would have in previous years,” remembered Elisa. “This year, I am looking forward to attending rehearsals in person and building my communication skills, which will serve me well in the future as I navigate the music industry and rely on my relationships with musicians.” 

The workshop firmly emphasizes the collaboration between youth artists and Seattle Symphony musicians when creating new musical pieces. It is one of the most integral and helpful aspects of the program, an element which was limited due to the virtual platform of 2021’s workshop. This year, students will have the chance to work with guest mentors and renowned musicians, including alumna and the workshop’s director, Angelique Poteat.

a young boy stands showing an older man holding a violin sheet music
James Holt / Seattle Symphony

“The Young Composers Workshop is ultimately an opportunity to learn,” Elisa summarized. The group composition lessons and preparation workshops have aided many young artists in improving their creative abilities; around 300 students have gone through the program since its inception in 1993. Some of Elisa’s favorite days in the workshop are “when Seattle Symphony musicians visit and talk about what their instruments can do and how to best write for them.” These demonstrations help with the clarity of her compositions, improving her ability “to deliver clearly notated scores that translate exactly into the music [she] envisions.”

Being a part of a cohort of passionate young peers and learning from seasoned professionals in the industry can be a significant way for up-and-coming artists to gain meaningful experiences. Through her experience at the Merriman-Ross Family Young Composers Workshop, Elisa has learned more about how she wants to continue her creative identity. “Looking back on my music journey, I wish someone had told me that I was not ‘wrong’ to have had interests outside of music or to have started my compositional journey writing pop music,” shared Elisa. 

Elisa is confident in her interest in music, and she looks forward to studying both science and music in college. Students of the workshop can thoroughly explore their passion for music, allowing them to make decisive choices with their newfound individualism.                

On June 13, at the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, the 2022 cohort of young composers will present their final musical scores to their families and the extended public. The concert is recorded, and participants exit the workshop with a high-quality recording of their pieces: an invaluable shard of the workshop’s experiences. For Elisa and others, the workshop offers a priceless experience: a safe space for teenagers to explore their identities through musicality, make mistakes, and emerge with a newfound outlook on the music industry.

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.

“Welcome to the Landfill”: Dark Comedy Meets Youth Empowerment

16-year-old playwright Valentine Wulf is partnering with Penguin Productions to bring her darkly humorous play featuring a snarky, generationally dysfunctional family to the big stage. Wulf’s work, titled Welcome to the Landfill, is the first play written by a highschooler to receive a full, feature-length production at Penguin Productions. The company hopes it will inspire more youth to bring forward their work. Shana Bestock, the producing artistic director at Penguin Productions, is adamant about the value of producing plays from diverse, young voices: “Without [them], we are lost.”

Welcome to the Landfill is laden with cynical mundanity, lies and disillusionment. The play follows a family of estranged half-siblings who are reunited following a mysterious call about their father’s death. Everyone is hiding their own secrets, which unfurl during a road trip across the Midwest to their father’s supposed funeral home. “I would say it’s a play about family and family dysfunction. It’s a play about expectation and unexpected consequences, and unexpected effects and how we deal with them. Which really resonates with us at this time, right?” said Bestock.

The ensemble starts off with Jim Janson, the grifter mastermind behind the elaborate scheme to gather his children back together. Then comes his oldest son Bernard, a tired middle school physical education teacher in his late forties (“He’s just such a dad,” joked Wulf), and his teenaged son Jeremy, onto whom Bernard projects his unfulfilled childhood hockey dreams. Jim’s second oldest, Elizabeth, is, as Wulf put it, “a micro-influencer mommy-blogger who posts Keto recipes. She calls herself an alpha female.” Her daughter Noelle is a lonely 10-year-old whose identity is consumed by the beauty pageants she competes in. She does not have much company, save for her pet, Karl Barx, who Wulf described as “one of those little crusty white dogs.”

Finally, there is the much younger sibling Vitus, who is a 19-year-old aspiring breakdancer. “He’s not very good,” Wulf sighed. “He’s stuck working at a rundown amusement park and he plays a character called Marnie the Movie Dinosaur because they didn’t want the Barney people to sue them. So he shows up in his mascot costume. He’s just terrible.” Much of the play is set in Vitus’s crammed car, in which Wulf crafts hilariously unexpected interactions that showcase copious family secrets. In doing so, she uses her play to conduct an exploration on the very human motives of her otherwise cartoonish band of characters. 

a teenage girl in a pink and white jacket
Playwright of “Welcome to the Landfill” Valentine Wulf. Photo courtesy of the artist

The idea of Welcome to the Landfill has roots in an uncanny speculation made about Wulf’s own grandfather. “My dad and his siblings haven’t talked to him or seen him in forever,” she explained. “And they just got a call from a funeral home one day that he died and that they had to send a check to pay for it. And my dad was sitting there and he goes, ‘This could be a scam. Like what if we just send them the check, and then we drive there—and it’s just an empty lot?’” Her father suggested she write a play about the strange thought. “So I did,” she said, but she also took creative license to make it “much more.” Within three weeks, Wulf had already drafted her vision into a play. 

In the fall of 2021, she was selected by Penguin Productions to participate in a cohort of youth playwrights called the Bonfire Collective. Wulf brought her play’s script to the very first meeting, and her fellow cohort members immediately jumped into a cold read of the work. “I’d never heard the script read aloud before. Actually, hearing how it would sound onstage really helped it come together and it helped me see what things I needed to change,” said Wulf. She quickly found that the community of Bonfire Collective writers propelled her story into being the best it could be. They would ask questions that pushed Wulf to rework the script. They would guide her to fleshing out her characters into nuclear personas. And most importantly, they would provide her with a support network to fall back on during her creative journey. 

Soon after Wulf completed the Bonfire Collective’s programming, Penguin Productions reached out to her about producing Welcome to the Landfill. “It’s so different from a lot of shows that youth get to perform. There’s no romance, there’s no talking about going to school,” said Artistic Associate Annika Prichard. “It’s really about a non-traditional family who gets pushed together in this set of really weird circumstances. And I think so many know what that feels like.”

Another thing that drew the company to the play was the wildly different age range of its characters. “We shouldn’t just be asking teens to play teens. We should allow them to expand themselves, and this play gives them the opportunity to do so,” said Bestock.

The Bonfire Collective is only one of the completely free theatre education programs that Penguin Productions offers. Its business model intentionally defies that of other theatre companies: “We wanted to entirely eliminate that pay barrier and remove that shame that’s associated with needing financial aid,” said Bestock. The company prioritizes paving an accessible gateway to theatre for youth who need it the most. One strategy it employs is guaranteeing registrees challenging and meaningful roles in play productions, regardless of prior experience. “Theatre is important because it centers humanity. So this question of ‘Why is making it accessible to youth voice[s] important?’ comes down to ‘Because it preserves our humanity,’” said Bestock.

While the Bonfire Collective was transformative for Wulf’s playwriting career, she “caught the theatre bug” a ways back, in the fifth grade. “I started in Youth Theater Northwest, which is all the way in Mercer Island, so I was pretty committed to having my mom drive me to shows,” Wulf chuckled. Her first role was Caliban, a prominent character from the magic-filled Shakespearian drama The Tempest. At the opening performance, Wulf said that “someone’s little grandma came up to me and told me that I was amazing at acting, and that I should never stop. It feels so cliché, but I still think of that moment every day.”

a teenage boy lies face down on stage during a play reading
Hersh Powers in “The Mediocre Beyond” at The Bonfire Festival, as part of the Bonefire Collective where Welcome to the Landfill was workshopped. Photo by Antoinette Garon

From observing her performance scripts, Wulf taught herself how to write plays and started taking on passion projects in the eighth grade. “Gifts can be squandered, gifts can be shoved into a corner, or gifts can be used,” Bestock said. “Valentine is someone who uses her gifts.”

Wulf is committed to creating togetherness with her play: “Theatre is such a collaborative medium, and I wanted to see how people come together to work on this,” Wulf said. “I’m excited about this because the director, the cast, the set designers might take it somewhere that I hadn’t imagined at all, and there’s this element of surprise to seeing what the finished product might look like.”

The show is set to inspire other teens who don’t know how to take their work to the big stage. Penguin Productions has expressed its enthusiasm for opening this opportunity to teen playwrights. “Work created by youth doesn’t come second to big plays that you’ve heard of before,” said Prichard. “They deserve to be on just as big of a stage, to have just as much attention, and just as much care as these really well-known plays.”

Welcome to the Landfill will have performances on March 19 and 20 at Taproot Theatre’s Isaac Studio Theatre. 

Esha Potharaju (she/her) is an avid arts lover based in Fremont, California. She is a firm believer in the importance of diversity in the arts. In her free time, Esha enjoys writing articles, drawing and overanalyzing comics and cartoons with her best friend.

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.