Old and New: Looking at Jazz Through Opera Glasses

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird will take audiences into the life, the loss, the love, and most importantly, the music of the infamous jazz musician Charlie Parker. Presented by Seattle Opera, the production celebrates the influence of jazz on American music by exploring the life of Parker, also known as “Yardbird.” Just in time for Black History Month, the production honors Parker’s legacy, but has themes that are still relevant today.

As a young person who is fairly new to the world of opera, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview conductor Kelly Kuo and tenor Joshua Stewart (who plays Charlie Parker) on what it is like to be part of such a fresh piece. From my discussion with them, it is clear that Yardbird will be a memorable show for audiences and the cast alike. Until recently, Parker’s story hasn’t been told in its entirety; Kuo and Stewart’s passion for this opera and their devotion to Parker prove that it’s a story well worth telling.

“A smack I had a heart attack!” is the opening line of the song“Chan meets Charlie” in Yardbird. Though it’s a rather somber opening for a song about a flirty romance and the beginning of a marriage, the contrast in moods perfectly encapsulates what this show is: a beautiful mix of joy, jazz, pain, beauty and struggle. In the song, Charlie goes through the ups and downs of meeting and revisiting his wife Chan, played by Shelly Traverse. The scene is swift-paced—the couple expresses a tumult of emotions, from joy, to lust, to sorrow. They end the scene holding onto each other and, in a bittersweet moment, the couple sings this intimate phrase together: “I am your starlight, you are my starlight.”

In rehearsal Stewart and Traverse worked for almost 45 minutes with director Ron Daniels to refine the details that will immerse audiences in Charlie’s world. It’s no small feat to make sure their singing carries and compliments the mood of the scene just right.  

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird premiered in 2015 at Philadelphia’s Perelman Theater. Since its beginning Stewart has had a part in the show, working his way from an understudy to a lead role. In our interview he explained that he connects with Charlie because of their similar experiences. “I take all of it with me—the entire Black experience, the entire jazz experience, the entire classical experience.”

Joshua Stewart and Shelly Traverse in Seattle Opera's 'Charlie Parker's Yardbird.'
Joshua Stewart and Shelly Traverse in Seattle Opera’s ‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.’ PHOTO BY SUNNY MARTINI

Stewart’s own father’s battle with a heart condition has also given him a deeper connection to Charlie’s struggle. “Even though [Parker] had a drug problem, he had a heart attack, so it was like, it was so, so, so close to home. There were certain moments that you have to actively, during a show, try to distance yourself to make sure that you don’t totally lose it.” 

Stewart’s passion for classical and jazz music also makes him perfect for this role. Stewart attributed his interest in music to jazz, which he said was his first love. “[Jazz] draws you in with this thing that it has, where it creeps into your soul and then you’re like cooked, like what just happened? Whoa!”

And like Charlie Parker, Stewart is a hard worker, putting in hours of time to portray Charlie just right and capture the essence of his jazz background. 

“Getting a chance to work on a piece that is influenced so much by jazz, it’s a lot of fun,” said conductor and maestro Kelly Kuo. Though Yardbird does not directly incorporate jazz music into the score, both Stewart and Kuo assured me that this is a very jazzy opera.

Kuo described Yardbird as “a creative production that explores someone who represents American music-making and an idiom that pretty much is associated with America [but]…is much more intimate.” Like Parker himself, this show has a whole lot of soul, a characteristic that is shared by the many people who are part of its creation. 

The fact that composer Daniel Schnyder is still alive and involved in the production also adds to the fun. Kuo stated that working with Schnyder is one of the most exciting things about being involved with this opera. “It’s wonderful to be able to work on a piece with a living composer. Obviously in opera there are so many works that are famous, but those composers have long since passed away, even though their masterpieces have continued on.” 

Kelly Kuo, conductor of 'Yardbird,' in rehearsal.
Kelly Kuo, conductor of ‘Yardbird,’ in rehearsal. PHOTO BY PHILIP NEWTON

February 22 will be Kuo’s first time conducting this production, but he is in no way inexperienced; Kuo has already conducted over 50 operas. However, he looks forward to opening night and believes that being in charge of the orchestra is, in many ways, another form of dialogue with the audience. “I often think of, in opera, that the music is the underpinning,” said Kuo. “When you’re playing underneath the singers, you’re their thought bubble. Everything that they are not saying, we try to communicate. When they are speaking, we continue to support that.”  

Through upbeat jazz-influenced songs, deep slow-paced melodies, and heart-racing tracks, Charlie Parker’s Yardbird connects audiences to the man behind the musician, whose story is still important today. Kuo also wants to assure viewers that the production will make them want to learn more. He stated, “We want to bring audiences who have never thought they would like opera.”

Stewart firmly believes that Yardbird is important in 2020 due to the many unresolved issues of racism and inequality that are heavily present today. “I think that it’s more relevant than ever,” he said. “We have kids in cages still, we have a mass incarceration system of which he [Charlie] would have been a part of. There are certain moments that are so touching and so poignant that…it hits you, it hits me.”

Those moments are prevalent in every scene, down to the very syllable of each word. While the scene I saw in rehearsal was more playful, other scenes are heartbreaking. Much of this can be attributed to the battle Parker fought against opioid addiction which developed when he was prescribed Oxycontin after a severe injury. Stewart refers to the role as “playing a drug addict superhero,” a reflection on how there was so much good and so much pain in Parker’s life at the same time.

Joshua Stewart in 'Yardbird.'
Joshua Stewart in ‘Yardbird.’ PHOTO BY SUNNY MARTINI

The power of opera comes from telling stories of humanity, of capturing the past as well as the present, and creating stories that reflect people and time periods across history. Even though Charlie Parker’s Yardbird is set in the jazz scene of the 40s, the issues of racism, addiction and inequality presented are still seen today.

Stewart noted that “it is one of—if not the most important thing—to capture our time period. Because we have the stories, whether that is cool or not, it isn’t for us to decide. Our job is to offer.” 

So what does Stewart want audiences to take away from the performance? “That feeling where you’re totally engrossed in this world no matter how bad it is, no matter what, you just can’t stop thinking about it. I would love that to happen…I hope it haunts them as it has me.”

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird is an opera made for everyone because as Stewart told me, anyone can relate to being human, and that’s what Charlie Parker is, he’s human.

Seattle Opera presents Charlie Parker’s Yardbird February 22–March 7 at McCaw Hall. Tickets are available online or at 206.389.7676.

Joshua Stewart will perform the role of Charlie Parker on February 22 and 28, and March 1 and 8.

Sumeya is a passionate writer, lover of creative expression, a TeenTix Press Corps writer, and a TeenTix New Guard member. She is currently in her sophomore year at The Downtown School and looking forward to the future. She spends most of her time ice skating and exploring the city. She has had her writing published in The Evergrey, the TeenTix blog, and Code Magazine. When Sumeya is taking a break from her busy schedule, she enjoys watching Netflix, reading books, and attending all kinds of social events. 

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. 

SF Ballet’s ‘Classical (Re)Vision’ Combines Cheeky Fun and Joyous Comradery

When the curtain rises on Classical (Re)Vision at the San Francisco Ballet this week, the evening might feel a little familiar. The program is made up of pieces of contemporary dance—the ballet is playfully describing it as a “tasting flight”—all originally choreographed for and premiered at SF Ballet. Some of the dances are recent creations, like Bespoke, which Stanton Welch choreographed for the 2018 Unbound Festival, while others premiered decades ago, like Sandpaper Ballet, choreographed by Mark Morris in 1999. No matter their history, one thing is certain: these performances are beloved.

For soloist Lonnie Weeks, Classical (Re)Vision is a homecoming of sorts. Weeks is dancing in two of the program’s pieces: Sandpaper Ballet and a reprisal of Bespoke in a role he originated.

“I am the O.G.,” Weeks said. “I guess if it goes to different places or is performed in the future, maybe my role will always be known as the Lonnie role.”

Weeks originated the role at the Unbound Festival in 2018. And because there’s no expectation to be better than the person before him, his performance has felt freer somehow.

“There’s less nerves,” Weeks said. “You’ve already kind of worked out the tips and tricks and the musicality of things and where you need to conserve energy—where you need to push through and when you can breathe. You’ve already navigated the mine field before, so this time around you can enjoy yourself a little bit more. You’ve already baked the cake, now you can add some cool toppings—the frosting and the candied flowers. Now you can play with it.”

As part of his greater ballet practice, in his world outside of Classical (Re)Vision, Weeks is studying how other artists deal with the pressure of performance.

“I go through phases where things seem to make me more nervous,” Weeks said. “And these phases can be like year-long phases. I’ve been doing some reading to try and help me with nerves and stage fright. And it turns out the most famous performers in the world, like [Luciano] Pavarotti and Renée Fleming—you know, these superstars—they get terrified as well. So, I’m learning that the nerves aren’t going to go anywhere. But what a smart, experienced performer does is he uses these nerves for his benefit. Because they can be detrimental, but they can also give you the edge that you need to stand out.”

Because Bespoke relies on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach—specifically his Violin Concerto in E Major and Violin Concerto in A Minor, the two surviving violin concertos in Bach’s canon—I was curious to know how this music affected Weeks’s performance.

Lonnie Weeks and Sasha De Sola in Welch's 'Bespoke.'
Lonnie Weeks and Sasha De Sola in Welch’s ‘Bespoke.’ PHOTO BY ERIK TOMASSON

“His music makes me feel like I should be wearing a powdered wig,” Weeks said, “and some sort of fabulous Baroque outfit in Versailles. And that I should be eating petit fours. I feel very prim and proper. And self-indulgent.”

For Weeks, one of the joys of Bespoke is the balance of tender and cheeky moments in the choreography.

“There’s this moment where we all come on stage and we’re going through our port de bras with our arms,” Weeks said. “We’re going through first and second—but we’re doing it mechanically. We call it the ticking section. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick. We kind of look like music box dancers. And we kind of bobble our head from side to side, like something you would see in Indian dancing. It’s almost a lesson on how to do ballet port de bras positions.”

And from the sound of it, it’s also a lesson in how to not take yourself too seriously.

“You still have to devote just as much intention as you would with more serious parts,” Weeks said. “Otherwise, it’ll look like you’re just messing around. So, you commit to the cheeky moments just as much as the serious moments.”

For corps de ballet dancer Gabriela Gonzalez, Classical (Re)Vision is an opportunity to dance a piece of choreography she’s never performed before: Sandpaper Ballet.

“It’s just fun,” Gonzalez said, describing her relationship to the choreography. “You’re not stressing about the steps. It’s just pure fun. And really, the whole piece is about joy and comradery. We’re dancing all together and then we break into small groups and then we do silly stuff that makes us laugh. Sometimes in rehearsal, we’re doing this seriously silly stuff and I’m just laughing with the dancer beside me. It’s a fun piece.”

Ulrik Birkkjaer and Gabriela Gonzalez in Peck's 'Hurry Up We're Dreaming.'
Ulrik Birkkjaer and Gabriela Gonzalez in Peck’s ‘Hurry Up We’re Dreaming.’ PHOTO BY ERIK TOMASSON

But just like in Bespoke, there is discipline and form in the lightness. Sandpaper Ballet relies heavily on a formation that the dancers call “the grid,” a precise, almost militaristic square that serves as tension before the silly release.

“You have to be very cautious of the formations and the details of the steps because it’s important for the choreographer to say what he wants to say,” Gonzalez said. “Perfection doesn’t exist, so there’s always something that the ballet master will catch that can make it better, that we weren’t aware we were doing wrong. He’s trying to make us all look like one. We’re trying to look the same, even though we are all individuals. And in ballet, that practice is never ending. There is always something to correct.”

Gonzalez says that she’s looking forward to Mark Morris seeing Sandpaper Ballet in performance, and that she’s hoping his visit comes with an opportunity to improve her performance.

“When someone else teaches you the choreography, we try as best as possible to keep the original idea from the choreographer,” Gonzalez said. “But when the choreographer gets to come, it’s the best because he created it, he’s the source, and he’s telling you exactly what he wants. It’s easier to stay true to the work. He gives you all the details and that’s how you stay true to the work: the details.”

Gonzalez says that she is enjoying this opportunity to dance a piece of choreography that was created specifically for SF Ballet.

“A creative process involves everybody,” Gonzalez said. “Some choreographers come and they know exactly what they want. They have their idea and that’s what they’ll do. Some choreographers come in and it’s like a conversation. There’s that energy from the dancers and what he feels from the music. I like to imagine that Sandpaper Ballet is so joyful and about comradery because of the San Francisco Ballet, because of the company of dancers.”

San Francisco Ballet in Morris' 'Sandpaper Ballet' in 2010.
San Francisco Ballet in Morris’ ‘Sandpaper Ballet’ in 2010. PHOTO BY ERIK TOMASSON

I asked Gonzalez if that joy she imagines in the 1999 rehearsal room carries through to her experience today. Her answer was a resounding yes.

“Sometimes we’re joking around with each other and just having fun,” Gonzalez said. “And that is exactly what these rehearsals have been like, just fun and joyful. And I like to think that’s the way this company has always been.”

Weeks and Gonzalez were both slated to dance in Hummingbird, a role Weeks was eagerly anticipating revisiting after a 2014 injury barred him from dancing in the premiere as planned. But in light of choreographer Liam Scarlett’s suspension from The Royal Ballet in London and a current investigation underway over allegations of sexual misconduct, SF Ballet made the decision to pull Hummingbird from the Classical (Re)Vision program. Executive Director Kelly Tweeddale made the programming decision “out of respect for the ongoing inquiry in London, the dance community at large, patrons of SF Ballet, families of the SF Ballet School, and artists of the Company.”

Queensland Ballet in Australia, where Scarlett is artistic associate, has also suspended their relationship with the choreographer. This action, a conscious effort on the part of SF Ballet, The Royal Ballet, and Queensland Ballet to distance themselves from Scarlett, comes on the heels of another high-profile case of sexual assault in ballet. In New York, court proceedings for ballet dancer Alexandra Waterbury’s lawsuit against New York City Ballet, current NYCB principal dancer Amar Ramasar, former NYCB principal dancers Chase Finlay and Zachary Catazaro, NYCB donor Jared Longhitano, and the School of American Ballet are currently underway.

Last week, protestors gathered outside the Broadway Theatre, where Ramasar is currently playing Bernardo in Ivo Van Hove’s production of West Side Story. One sign read “Talent cannot justify abuse.”

By pulling Hummingbird from Classical (Re)Vision, it looks like SF Ballet agrees.

Classical (Re)Vision runs February 11 to 22 at the San Francisco Ballet. Tickets are available online or by calling 415.865.2000.

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

The Joy and Value of a Student Matinee

There’s nothing more honest than a teenage audience. They will laugh, but only if you’re funny. They will gasp, but only if you move them. And they will engage, but only if you drop all pretense and meet them on their level.

I was lucky enough to witness this firsthand at Seattle Rep’s first student matinee of the 2019-20 season. The cast of Indecent wasn’t accustomed to a 10:30 a.m. curtain, but they matched the audience’s energy with their own. After the performance, many students stayed for a post-show discussion with the cast and musicians, where the audience engaged in what felt more like a conversation than a Q&A—covering everything from Jewish identity to intimacy choreography.

“At Seattle Rep, we don’t necessarily target our shows to a young audience—or even to a family audience,” said Alex Lee Reed, Seattle Rep’s youth engagement manager. But even so, there’s always an incredible amount of interest from the schools Reed works with. This season, the only play that doesn’t have a student matinee is True West. “I’m probably not supposed to say, but these kids get enough plays about middle-aged white guys. School groups and young people are interested in POC stories. They’re interested in plays with music. They’re interested in things that are challenging in new and exciting ways.”

At the time of our interview, Reed had a wait list of 600 students for the student matinees of Jitney by August Wilson. A wait list for Shout Sister Shout! was also forming. And while cultivating sold-out performances is an exciting part of Reed’s job, he’s always thinking about the educational component. Each student matinee is programmed around Washington’s Common Core State Standards Initiative, complete with a play guide that can be taught in the classroom and additional support from Seattle Rep teaching artists.

“As an artist, director and educator, that’s my jam,” Reed said. “Theatre is for everyone, you know?”

And while Seattle Rep doesn’t program their season with young audiences in mind, Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) certainly does. It’s not uncommon for SCT to program four to six student matinees into each week of the performance schedule. “That’s the bare minimum that we’ll do,” said Darioush Mansourzadeh, SCT’s school shows associate.

Mansourzadeh added that he’s become a bit of an expert on the Seattle Public Schools bus system, scheduling student matinees around the transportation needs of the district. “Bus drivers have a very important job, and I don’t think a lot of people respect that community.”

Students at a performance of 'Vietgone' at Seattle Rep.
Students at a performance of ‘Vietgone’ at Seattle Rep. Photo by Angela Nickerson

Despite being a member of the marketing department, education is top of mind for Mansourzadeh. Like Reed, Mansourzadeh is always thinking about how SCT’s season ties into the national and state education standards. Black Beauty, which opened SCT’s 2019-20 season, centers on empathy toward animals, so the theatre began thinking about how to tie empathy into the classroom curriculum.

“What does it mean to be kind to someone who may never know your kindness?” Mansourzadeh asked.

But the student matinee experience doesn’t end at curtain call. Each performance has a post-show element that’s individually suited to the show and the age of the audience. For Balloonacy, a one-man play written for 3- to 6-year-olds, the post-show element was learning a song.

For The Diary of Anne Frank, which was geared toward a middle school audience, things went a little differently. “The middle schoolers were a little more rambunctious during the show, and it really affected the cast,” Mansourzadeh said. “One of the cast members went out and spoke about empathy and sympathy and how this play relates to society today. We actually had one middle school where every single student wrote an apology letter to the cast, which was really nice for the cast to see. Sometimes learning in theatre isn’t what we expect it to be, but that was a learning moment for them.”

Letters from young audience members at Seattle Children’s Theatre.
Letters from young audience members at Seattle Children’s Theatre. Courtesy of SCT

At the Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), filling the nearly 3,000 seats in McCaw Hall with students is a logistical feat in itself. In addition to an annual student matinee of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® and a field trip-friendly excerpt of one of PNB’s story ballets each February, Shannon Barnes, director of community education, partners with eleven schools to provide Discover Dance, their in-school residency. It’s a residency that goes beyond what’s happening on stage, giving students a full view of what it takes to produce a ballet at PNB.

“Part of our philosophy with all of our programming is looking at all the ways people make ballet and dance happen,” Barnes said. “We’re talking about stage crew; we’re talking about the people whose job it is to answer the phones here—and create posters and do the marketing. The arts can be the person on stage, but do you like to draw? You can be a costume designer. We’re really peeling back the layers and being transparent about what it takes to put on a performance.”

It’s also about demystifying the experience of attending a ballet. Barnes knows that the work she does extends far beyond the classroom or even that field trip to McCaw Hall. She’s interested in meeting students and their families where they are. And one way she’s done that is by translating The Nutcracker study guide that students receive into five languages—thinking ahead to what the primary language of the child’s household might be.

“That family engagement, even if it’s as simple as, ‘We see you, we want you to share in this with your student,’ is important,” Barnes said. “The ideal would be for every student coming to the matinee to have a pre-performance workshop and a study guide in their home language. And that’s the goal.”

And PNB is working towards that goal in whatever way they can. This year’s student matinee of Cinderella will include live captioning for the show’s host. “And that just feels really good to be able to have that available,” Barnes said. “Just like, no question. We don’t need someone to ask for that accommodation. Here it is. And it’s available because we recognize that in a theatre of that size, someone’s going to benefit from it.”

Barnes added that this live-captioning technology will bleed into the repertory season, with some pre- and post-show conversations captioned.

When I asked if Barnes had a favorite memory from the student matinees she’s facilitated, her answer was strikingly similar to Mansourzadeh’s. “That line of buses is pretty impressive,” Barnes said. “I have 100 percent respect for bus drivers that navigate this area. It is not an easy area to access and we’re just grateful that people value us enough.”

Audience members at a Pacific Northwest Ballet student matinee.
Audience members at a Pacific Northwest Ballet student matinee. Photo by Alan Alabastro

We tend to forget that all great education programs have to start somewhere. So, imagine my excitement when I learned that the Seattle Opera would be hosting its first ever student matinee later this season. When I spoke with Courtney Clark, Seattle Opera’s school programs manager, she was hard at work preparing for the May 19 student matinee of La Bohème.

“We want to make sure that the students have an opportunity to come in and make McCaw Hall a place of comfort,” Clark said, adding that her plan includes a pre-performance lecture, room to move around, and concessions during intermission. “We want them to have a full experience. And everyone in this building has a hand in that. It’s a wonderful field trip. It’s something that every school should have the opportunity to do.”

Clark is both a K–12 certified educator and a classically trained opera singer, a combination that couldn’t be better suited to this role. She credits her own student matinee experience for putting her on this path. “It changed my life,” Clark said. “And I’m pretty sure it has changed others’ lives too.”

Clark shared that La Bohème is her favorite opera—and that, as a Black woman, this will be the first time she’s been able to see herself reflected in the role of Mimì, the lead soprano. “It’s the most diverse cast I’ve ever seen,” Clark said. “And all I can think about is that every student out there will be able to see themselves in some way. How powerful is that? When you can see yourself and say, ‘Oh, well I can do that.’ This can’t be an elitist art form when I see everybody represented on that stage. And that is why I do the work I do.”

And that’s the power of arts education: to be able to see yourself reflected back in the performance and know that you belong.  

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

Start a New Holiday Tradition With Help From Bay Area Theatres

Spending time together with friends and family is at the center of so many holiday traditions. Whether you’re singing along with Andy Williams about the most wonderful time of the year or marveling at the twinkling lights woven through neighborhood branches—lights that seem to have gone up overnight—the region is full of loved ones creating new traditions and maintaining old ones.

Theatres across the Bay Area are inviting families to create new traditions and share in the gift of theatre this year. I spoke with theatre makers at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), Berkeley Repertory Theatre and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley about how they celebrate holiday traditions and why hope speaks volumes, especially on stage.  

For Peter J. Kuo, A.C.T.’s associate conservatory director and co-director of this year’s production of A Christmas Carol, the art of bringing this classic story to life is deeply rooted in tradition. The adaptation was created by former Artistic Director Carey Perloff, who not only adapted the play 15 years ago, but also directed it for the first few seasons before bestowing the direction to Domenique Lozano. Kuo is the third director to tackle this particular adaptation.

“So it’s this really interesting way to see how tradition is getting passed from generation to generation,” Kuo said. “One of the great traditions of this story has been one about the spirit of generosity, and that very much sits in this production.”

Kuo added that his inheritance of the production is part of that generous tradition, but that this intergenerational motif extends far beyond direction. Three core companies make up the cast of A Christmas Carol: the professional acting company of Equity actors, the Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) students who are in their final year of their degree, and the young actors who are part of the Young Conservatory, ranging in age from 8 to 19 years old.

“I see the production itself as one of generation and how we pass down generosity,” Kuo said. “One of the traditions of the piece, aside from this intergenerational mix of students and professional actors, is the mentorship that happens within the company. Each principal actor mentors one M.F.A. actor. And each M.F.A. actor mentors two Young [Conservatory] actors.”

The company is comprised of a staggering 46 actors, a fact Kuo quickly follows by acknowledging his “lovely assistant director” Andrea van den Boogaard and his “amazing stage management team.”

Jomar Tagatac and cast members from A.C.T.'s Young Conservatory in the 2018 production of 'A Christmas Carol' at A.C.T.
Jomar Tagatac and cast members from A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory in the 2018 production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at A.C.T. Photo by Kevin Berne

“We’re still massively outnumbered by the cast,” Kuo said. “Especially by the Young Conservatory.” But it’s an out numbering that clearly brings Kuo a lot of joy.

Our conversation was at a pivotal point in the process. Kuo had just moved from the play’s more intimate small cast scenes to the final scene of the play. It’s a scene that includes the entire cast, and all the chaotic energy that comes with that.

“There’s a buzz going on,” Kuo said, recalling that particular rehearsal. “We’re back in the village, we’re mapping the town. So, there’s a lot of people who are crossing back and forth—who are running Christmas day errands. And I’m encouraging everyone to think: What is your story? You’re carrying this crate. Where are you carrying this crate to? And there’s all this buzz of trying to figure out and trying to learn, which is great. I love a learning space. And having these mentors helps disperse some of the learning and the teaching in the moment, which is really nice. It kind of takes the burden off me from having to create every single moment and empowers them to create something for themselves.”

And while the text of the play remains the same from year to year, Kuo is letting his own lens shine through. “It’s been a conversation with the actors about what depths of humanity haven’t been explored yet,” Kuo said. “We’re really looking at who Scrooge is and his relationship to all these different people around him—how he relates to money and poverty. And to me that conversation has richly opened up to what is going on in our own society, especially in the Bay Area where we’re seeing a strong wealth gap between the tech boom and those who are living on the street. Having everyone dissect that and discuss that helps us find a richer purpose to the story.”

Ken Ruta and James Carpenter in the 2018 production of 'A Christmas Carol' at A.C.T.
Ken Ruta and James Carpenter in the 2018 production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ at A.C.T. Photo by Kevin Berne

The Tale of Despereaux might not seem on its surface like a holiday show, but it’s the universal themes of courage, community and bravery that attracted PigPen Theatre Co., currently in residence at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, to the source material in the first place—themes that they see as perfect for the entire family.

“The stories that we perform on stage have always resonated with a very wide range of age groups,” said Arya Shahi, one of the seven members of PigPen Theatre Co. “We deal with folk, we deal with fairytale. But we also started writing our shows when we were in our early 20s and really wanted to entertain our friends. So we started to write in a tone of voice that was insightful, but also comic and witty and charming in a way.”

And it’s a tone of voice that’s stuck with them for the last 12 years. Shahi, who serves as the company’s percussionist among other roles, said that PigPen has always been big fans of family-friendly storytelling, modeling their structure off Disney, Pixar and Universal Studios. When Universal approached the company about adapting The Tale of Despereaux into a stage musical, it felt like the perfect fit.

“Despereaux is this incredible mouse obsessed with this honey sound,” Shahi shared, by way of explanation. “The way he hears the world is very different from other people. And that helped open up our music in certain ways. And then Chiaroscuro, the rat, is called to the light from a place of darkness and shadow, so all the shadow puppetry that we like to work with found a home in the story quite naturally.”

Cast of 'The Tale of Despereaux' at Berkeley Rep.
Cast of ‘The Tale of Despereaux’ at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne

Dan Weschler, PigPen’s accordionist, was initially attracted to The Tale of Despereaux because it depicts a classic hero’s journey, with a twist. The musical takes the familiar fairytale structure of a knight rescuing a princess from a dragon and interrogates the tropes within that form.

“It shows the various boons and pitfalls that come from modeling your behavior off a story like that,” Weschler said. “But it also has a plurality of heroes. And we really appreciated the spirit of people working hard to see past the architypes they’re given.”

Because The Tale of Despereaux runs from Thanksgiving until New Year’s, I asked the guys (as they affectionately call themselves on the PigPen website) if they had any holiday traditions they were looking forward to celebrating as a company. Ben Ferguson, who plays resonator guitar, shared that he’s looking forward to spending time with his fellow company members and their families.

“Our family’s grown seven-fold over the last 10 years or so,” Ferguson said. “We’ve been able to spend Thanksgiving with a fair number of each other’s families. And it kind of feels like a weird tradition to be gone from home but still with your family—even though you’re not related to them. So that’s something that I’m extremely excited to do again.”

And then there was a lovely silence before Weschler and Shahi jostled to tell Ferguson how beautiful that statement was. Some theatre companies are quick to say that they’re one big happy family, but for PigPen Theatre Co., nothing could be closer to the truth.

Dorcas Leung and John Rapson in 'The Tale of Despereaux' at Berkeley Rep.
Dorcas Leung and John Rapson in ‘The Tale of Despereaux’ at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne

For TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Artistic Director Robert Kelley, directing a world premiere musical adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, with book, music and lyrics by longtime collaborator Paul Gordon, is not only a holiday celebration, it’s a farewell to this theatre.

“I love this show,” Kelley said. “I love directing it. And this is my last world premiere as the artistic director. At the moment, this is the last thing for me in the context of my 50 years at TheatreWorks. So I really am pouring my heart and soul into it—and I’m loving every minute of it.”

And it truly sounds like he is. He described one moment in the musical where the three-room home where the Bennets live is transformed into the lavish estate of Netherfield. “The way the show flows, it never stops,” Kelley said, reveling in the puzzle that is 15 distinct locations on a single stage. “Making that happen visually, with style and beauty and the requisite excitement has been one of the biggest challenges.”

Kelley’s aware that many of his audience members will be fans of the original novel by Jane Austen, and that he’ll have to convince them that this is “the ultimate Mr. Darcy and the ultimate Elizabeth Bennet.”

Justin Mortelliti, Mary Mattison and Monique Hafen Adams in 'Pride and Prejudice' at TheatreWorks.
Justin Mortelliti, Mary Mattison and Monique Hafen Adams in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ at TheatreWorks.

“This is possibly a spoiler alert,” Kelley said, aware that for some audience members, this will be their first encounter with the 1813 novel, “but I’ve had the most fun working on the Darcy and Elizabeth scenes. There’s the incredible scene where he proposes to her so horribly—badly and awkwardly—that there’s really no hope at all. And there’s another scene where he hands her a letter and tries to explain himself, and you have to see Elizabeth completely torn. She realizes that her preconceptions—or her prejudices, if you would—are not entirely true. And Darcy has to realize that his prejudices are not entirely true. There’s a lot of rejection, and yet the two of them are so attracted to each other. It’s a lovely acting challenge and it’s amazing fun for a director.”

After Kelley opens his holiday show each year, he takes some time off to go to the beach, a ritual he finds very calming and beautiful. “It’s a big family time,” Kelley said, alluding to Christmas day celebrations with his Bay Area relatives. “But the personal part of me likes to just watch the waves on the rocks for a few days.”

What a wonderful way to welcome in the new year.

A Christmas Carol runs now through December 24 at American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.). Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 415.749.2228.

The Tale of Despereaux runs now through January 5 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 510.647.2949.

Pride and Prejudice runs now through January 4 at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 650.463.1960.

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

Magic Unfurls From Book-It’s ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’

I have always loved travelling to Ingary. Howl’s Moving Castle, the Hayao Miyazaki film set in this magical land has been a favorite since I was four years old, and the book it was based on is pure magic. So when I had the chance to watch a rehearsal of Book-It Repertory Theatre’s production of Howl’s Moving Castle, I had some pretty unattainable standards. Book-It surpassed all of them.

Originally a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle tells a tale of transformation and female strength. After being cursed by an evil witch into old age, Sophie leaves home for a life-altering adventure, discovering—and then demanding—what she truly wants. First published in 1986, it was a landmark book. At the time, fantasy writing was a man’s job, and Jones took a huge risk by writing a fantasy centered on one outspoken old woman’s journey.

Adapted by Myra Platt, founding co-artistic director of Book-It, into a musical whose 2017 run stole as many hearts as Howl, this fantasy casts an enchanting spell. It’s gloriously energetic and bewitching for all ages—and very relevant for today.

Back by popular demand, Platt’s version (with music and lyrics by Justin Huertas) celebrates Sophie’s transformation—and everyone else’s! As the characters discover their true selves, Platt says, “[they] all transform and the transformation never really stops. I think hopefully, by the end of the play, you feel that it’s beginning again. It’s constant.”

Rachel Guyer-Mafune and Adam Fontana in ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ at Book-It. Photo by Aaron Wheetman

Book-It has transformed Jones’ words on a page into an exquisite woven tapestry of music and magic and emotion, but this has been an ongoing process. The evolution continues, Platt notes, with “a new concept, new music, [and new] approach,” from 2017 to now. “It’s that kind of a story—it begs to be interpreted again and again. It begs to move and to be explored. I don’t think it can ever be set into one concept.”

Jones’ childhood, against the background of WWII, colors Howl’s world with fear—an aspect that is highlighted in Platt’s current version and is easily relatable in 2019. All of Ingary lives under the evil shadow of the Witch of the Waste. Rachel Guyer-Mafune, who plays Sofie (and was part of the 2017 production), notes that with the current version, “we’re finding this awesome balance of the comedy from this story and the spooky nature and vibe of it. And really what the book is about to everyone—living in fear.”

Elisa Money, the musical director of the show, has more to say about that. “If you think about the last time this show was developed to now, large political things have happened since then. I would say the world as we know it has greatly shifted into living with more fear on a daily basis, especially if you’re a minority or multiple minorities…injecting that fear into the show really helps me see why this story really belongs in 2019.”

Andi Alhadeff and Adam Fontana in ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ at Book-It. Photo by Aaron Wheetman

The source of that fear, the Witch of the Waste, played by Andi Alhadeff, also contributes to the show’s relevance. Jones chose to make an evil character, indeed the evil character, a woman. Howl, a male wizard, is scared of her. And so is everyone else. The Witch demands respect from all others, something female characters don’t always attain. Alhadeff’s interpretation infuses the role with the perfect amount of power. Her magnetic performance demands attention, and her potent singing fills every nook and cranny of Ingary.

Guyer-Mafune’s Sophie is also fantabulous for a wide array of reasons. She’s a crotchety old woman from time to time, but she also fights expectations, choosing to be energetic, vibrant and assertive. She’s stubborn and tough, and adds even more strong female energy to the show.

Nicholas Japaul Bernard in ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ at Book-It. Photo by Aaron Wheetman

Nicholas Japaul Bernard is another superlative actor, giving us a delightfully dramatic Howl. He owns every moment of splendid self-absorption and emotion-filled anguish. He blithely foregoes cleaning and many other generally accepted forms of self-care yet calls for hot showers every other scene. He’s both childish and capable, masculine and feminine.

Watching these adept performers play with gender norms is a joy to behold. Money has thoughts on this, too. “I think that Howl is very flamboyant and so is Michael [played by Randall Scott Carpenter]…and the Witch is very, very masculine, so there are a lot of anti-gender mechanisms for all the characters.”

Book-It’s style is perfect for this modern story. Choosing a musical often resigns a production to a predictable prescription. “The American musical theatre canon is just lacking…a variation in storytelling,” says Bernard. “Before we even get to talking about who is telling what types of stories, the medium itself is kinda in a rut.”

Cast of ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ at Book-It. Photo by Aaron Wheetman

Book-It’s distinct flavor of performance—involving fluid character portrayals, tasteful third person, and simplistic set design—is refreshingly unique in the musical theatre world. This streamlined ensemble style focuses on the story itself. Each actor plays an important role (or two or three) in the creation of the story, cascading through a narrative waterfall of first and third person.

Book-It’s production makes Jones’ book enthrallingly relevant today. It’s a story about change and finding oneself. It’s about strong women but plays with gender norms; it’s about living in fear but bursts with authentic fun. It’s perfect for Book-It and 2019, and for an all-too-short afternoon, I got to travel to Ingary again and experience its magic. If you head to Book-It this December, you can too!

Howl’s Moving Castle runs at Book-It Repertory Theatre in the Center Theatre now through December 29. Tickets are available online.

Rosemary Sissel is a senior at Foss High School. She has written reviews with TeenTix and the Tacoma Art Museum, poetry for Tacoma’s Ocean Fest, and policy through the Mayor’s Youth Commission of Tacoma. She loves running around with children, climbing trees and roofing.

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 non-profit. 

A Flurry of Holiday Delights Take the Stage

As we settle into shorter days, performing arts organizations across Seattle are finding ways to bring joy to the region’s lengthening nights. And, much like the twinkling lights that decorate the downtown retail district, these arts organizations are doing this by bringing holiday cheer to audiences all month long.

When I sat down to speak with A Christmas Carol Director Kelly Kitchens in September, she was already in the holiday mood. After directing Christmastown at Seattle Public Theater for the last four years and The Santaland Diaries before that, prepping for a Christmas show before fall officially starts, feels natural. “For me, this is when you actually start thinking about the holidays,” Kitchens said. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

Kitchens stepped away from her co-artistic director role at Seattle Public Theater just after Labor Day in order to pursue a full slate of freelance directing opportunities, both in Seattle and nationally. Directing A Christmas Carol at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) is the first directing opportunity in this new phase of her career.

“I’m excited about not just joining the Christmas Carol family of the humans in the room and the production team and all of this, but the family at ACT has been so—” Kitchens corrected herself, “the staff. I call them family because it feels so warm and open. They’ve just thrown their doors and arms open to me and have been generous with their time and with their expertise around the story. Because it is such a tradition.”

Keiko Green and Brandon O’Neill in ACT’s 2017 production of 'A Christmas Carol.'
Keiko Green and Brandon O’Neill in ACT’s 2017 production of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Photo by Dawn Schaefer

After directing at nearly every theatre in town, A Christmas Carol marks Kitchens’ first time directing at ACT. So it’s great to hear that the experience has been a wonderful one thus far. “I can’t describe how welcoming that place is,” Kitchens said. “And when I have an idea, the way we walk through what that means and how to make it work. I’m excited about that level of collaboration. I’m having the time of my life.”

Midway through our conversation, Kitchens pulled out a facsimile of the original A Christmas Carol manuscript from 1843, bound, fittingly, in a holly red cover. “I’m fascinated with the source material,” Kitchens said.

And then she showed me the dedication: “My own, and only, MS of the Book. Charles Dickens.”

Title page of the first edition of 'A Christmas Carol' (1843).
Title page of the first edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When Charles Dickens set out to write A Christmas Carol, he was an artist in desperate need of a paycheck. And yet, as Kitchens read sections of the preface out loud, haunting phrases kept jumping out. “This ghostly little book.” “This ghost of an idea.” And yet that “little” ghost story went on to become one of the most well-known Christmas stories of the western world, one whose social commentary continues to resonate.

“I totally understand Mrs. Cratchit’s point of view,” Kitchens said. “When you see your sweet child failing. And I also think about how many children Mrs. Cratchit buried already. They have no health care. They’re struggling. And it’s not because they’re not working hard. And I think about whatever the Christmas goose is for people right next door to me. There are people who are going to be hungry and cold. And some of them will be working hard and working long hours. And that’s because of systems that are in place.”

Kitchens reflected on what a wonderful tradition A Christmas Carol is for so many Seattle families—especially for those who choose to make this show their Christmas gift to each other. “I’m delighted to be part of that tradition,” Kitchens said. “It’s an honor and a responsibility to tell this story, and to do it justice.” 

The Seattle Men’s Chorus performing.
The Seattle Men’s Chorus performing. Photo by John Pai

As Seattle Men’s Chorus Conductor and Artistic Director Paul Caldwell gears up for his fourth holiday concert with the chorus, what he’s most looking forward to is the audience. “Seattle audiences are kind of rabid fans,” Caldwell said. “They bring a level of excitement to the concert hall that most cities reserve for the sports arena.”

One of his favorite memories comes from last year’s holiday concert. The Village People had released a Christmas album earlier that year, and the Seattle Men’s Chorus (SMC) was excited to perform holiday music that intersected with their LGBTQAI+ mission.

“They rewrote all of their big hits with Christmas words,” Caldwell explained. “So, ‘YMCA’ became ‘NOEL.’ And I got the audience on their feet and they were dancing in the aisle the whole time. There was just no way to not be absolutely thrilled with what was happening because the audience was just so energetic and so excited.”

‘Tis the Season is being billed as a “naughty and nice” holiday tradition and Caldwell is thrilled that the Seattle Men’s Chorus has the opportunity to do both in the same concert. “It’s ravishing and heart melting and everything you would expect from a men’s chorus of 250 people singing together,” Caldwell said. “It’s just gorgeous. And that’s the nice part. The naughty part is there’s always a lot of fun and frivolity. There’s this Ella Fitzgerald song we’re doing called ‘Santa Claus Got Stuck in my Chimney.’ It’s nothing but absolute fun.”

The Seattle Men’s Chorus performing.
The Seattle Men’s Chorus performing. Photo by John Pai

Caldwell also hinted at all 250 members of the chorus dressing up as fruitcake. “We don’t take ourselves completely seriously,” he said.

And as we talked through the music that SMC is performing this year, Caldwell drew special attention to their Hanukkah selections. This year, the chorus will be performing songs that Woody Guthrie wrote in collaboration with his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, in order to teach his children about their Jewish heritage and culture. Despite the festive Hanukkah subject matter, the songs are very much rooted in the folk music tradition.

“It almost slaps you in the face, the juxtaposition of the style and the content of the text,” Caldwell said. “It’s a real treasure and I’m really proud to put it on the stage. It is a Jewish didactic work and it is also in the style of clogging and square dancing. It ends up being not one or the other, but both. I don’t know if everyone will particularly get it, but the performers know it’s there and we treasure it because it’s rich in its history.”

And it’s intersectional, which is part of what makes SMC such a wonderful part of our arts community.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in the snow scene from George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker in 2018.
Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in the snow scene from ‘George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker’ in 2018. Photo by Angela Sterling

When I sat down to speak with Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal about George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, the first memory that popped into his mind was running into a family in the Seattle Center garage at 7:15 p.m. before a 7:30 p.m. curtain. They stopped him to tell him how much they loved The Nutcracker. Boal was confused; the show hadn’t yet begun. “And they said, ‘Oh no, we went to the matinee,’” Boal remembers. “‘We’ve just been in the lobby the whole time.’ They were done at four o’clock and they spent three hours in the lobby. But I think people just love it.”

For Boal, watching his audiences get swept up in the experience of attending the ballet, taking Christmas card photos in the lobby and reveling in the decorations, is a beautiful form of entertainment in itself.

In a way, The Nutcracker is Boal’s way of bringing a personal holiday tradition to the city of Seattle. Boal’s first professional role was dancing in The Nutcracker party scene as a young boy, alongside the dancer responsible for restaging George Balanchine’s choreography for Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), Judith Fugate.

Leah Merchant and Dammiel Cruz in 'George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker' in 2018.
Leah Merchant and Dammiel Cruz in ‘George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker’ in 2018. Photo by Lindsay Thomas

“We did the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier together for many years at the New York City Ballet,” Boal said. “It’s funny. When we started staging the pas de deux [for PNB], there were little places where I would nudge her forward and pull up on a hand and she was like ‘Oh, I forgot that. I forgot how much that helps me with my next step.’ And it was really fun. We were two more than middle-aged people standing in the rehearsal room, remembering how we used to dance.”

Fugate lives in Las Vegas now, but as we talked on the phone, I felt like I’d been transported to that same rehearsal room. “Peter and I have been good friends for a very long time, so any time he invites me to Seattle to work with the company, I always say yes,” Fugate said. “You know, at the time, many of the young boys in The Nutcracker were played by young girls. So I distinctly remember the fact that there happened to be an actual young boy playing my son. And I remember the man who took care of the men’s wardrobe—his name was Ducky—bringing Peter Boal to the stage before the performance and saying ‘Here’s yours, Judy. She’ll take care of you the rest of the way.’ And sure enough, many years later, here we are.”

Fugate was 17 years old, in her first year dancing as a company member of the New York City Ballet. Boal was nine years old.

Elise Hueffed, with Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in 'George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker' in 2018.
Elise Hueffed, with Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in ‘George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker’ in 2018. Photo by Lindsay Thomas

It’s a ballet that’s lived with Fugate for most of her life, starting with her first performance as Clara at eight years old. And while The Nutcracker, and her time dancing with George Balanchine, who she affectionately calls “Mr. B,” continues to be a large part of her life, Fugate is always thinking about her audience, “It can be a child’s first introduction to live theatre—or even the ballet itself. And many adults choose to go to The Nutcracker to see if they even like ballet. The energy of the auditorium is very unique. It’s maybe one chance in the year that a family actually has an outing together. It’s a very special occasion. Not to mention, it’s also the holiday season, which already adds to the excitement.”

And with so many entertainment options out there—live music, theatre and streaming services at home, just to name a few—the fact that so many audience members actively make the decision to see The Nutcracker each year is something that Boal never takes for granted.

“The process starts long before they get to the theatre,” Boal said. “Whatever they choose to wear, what time they’re leaving the house, where they’re eating—the whole thing. And at the end of the day, we’re asking people to pay an amount you can’t ignore, for tickets. It’s a high ticket price for many people. But that person I met in the garage at 7:15 p.m. after a matinee—they didn’t question what they had invested. They got a whole day, and it was going to stick with them for a long, long time.”

And it’s those audience experiences that make it all worthwhile.

A Christmas Carol runs November 29 to December 28 at ACT Theatre. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 206.292.7676.

The Seattle Men’s Chorus’ concert ‘Tis the Season runs November 30 to December 22 at Benaroya Hall, the Rialto Theater in Tacoma and the Everett Civic Auditorium. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 206.388.1400.

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® runs November 29 to December 28 at the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 206.441.2424.

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

Being There: The World of Nassim Soleimanpour

Ross Manson, artistic director of Volcano, recounts how his trip to judge a theatre competition in Iran turned into a discovery of much more.

I traveled to Tehran in February 2011 to adjudicate the Fadjr International Theater Festival. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president. The Green Movement had been violently suppressed months earlier.

It was an interesting time to be in Iran. While there, I got to know a young writer named Nassim Soleimanpour. He and I went all over Tehran together, and through him, I developed a more nuanced picture of Iran than I had ever gleaned from the western press: two armies, opposing secret police forces, government censors, artists everywhere circumventing the censors. People would come up to me on the street and apologize for their government.

It was a complicated place.

On February 14—or Bahman 25 in the Persian calendar—Nassim and I witnessed a massive but strangely quiet demonstration: no signs, no slogans, just thousands of people walking calmly towards Tehran’s famous Azadi Tower. The silence was a technique to avoid police violence. What I didn’t realize was that the theater jury I was a part of was scheduled to travel directly through this demonstration. When we were told to get in the minivan, it was a shock.

The theater jury in their minivan going through an anti-government demonstration.
The theater jury in their minivan going through an anti-government demonstration. Courtesy of Ross Manson

We were about to drive through an antigovernment demonstration in Iran to go to a play! I sat in the back with my camera. Nassim had warned us about photos. If you take any, he said, do not get caught.

I got caught.

In the middle of the demonstration, the van was swarmed—young men screaming through the windows, pounding on the van for it to stop. The sliding door opened and plainclothes Revolutionary Guards reached in to drag me out.

But they couldn’t reach, and this gave Nassim time to talk. It was dusk, slipping into night. A surreal blur of electric light illuminated the minivan and the masses of men. Nassim talked to a series of increasingly higher-ranking officers, and somehow engineered my freedom through the cleverness of his words. Nassim is good with words.

A page from the script of 'NASSIM.'
A page from the script of ‘NASSIM.’ Courtesy of Studio Doug

I brought Nassim’s play, White Rabbit Red Rabbit, out of Iran. This allegorical examination of control and violence is designed to be read cold by a new actor every night. My company, Volcano, and our partners, premiered it simultaneously in Edinburgh and Toronto. Every night, I’d email notes to Nassim—trapped in Iran—and he’d email me back a new draft for the next night. It became a global hit.

Nassim is part of a generation born during the horrors of the Iran–Iraq War; a generation that has known no Iran other than the Islamic Republic. They are smart, well-informed, fearless. A theater artist, Nassim uses reality as a dramatic technique. As I learned in the minivan in Tehran, experiencing something for real is a very different experience than watching it on the news. For humans, nothing is like being there. Nassim understands this. He puts you, as audience, into a living connection with something you may not have realized about the world: the thing happening is really happening.

This feature was written by Ross Manson and was originally published in Stanford Live’s September/October program. Used with the permission of Stanford Live.

Ross Manson is the founding artistic director of Volcano in Toronto, the company producing Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha at Stanford Live in April 2020. For more information about his trip to the Fadjr festival in Iran, you can visit his blog.

NASSIM by Nassim Soleimanpour will be performed November 7–10 in Stanford Live’s Bing Studio. Tickets are available online.

Chucho Valdés, Jazz Batá, and the Evolution of Afro-Cuban Jazz

A look at the emergence of Afro-Cuban jazz and its spread to the US and Canada.

By the 1940s, the stage was set for the birth of a new kind of jazz. In the United States, big band orchestras had been including Latin rhythms in their jazz tunes, as well as rumbas and congas in their repertoires, and many Cuban musicians were traveling regularly to play in cities like New York and New Orleans. Others immigrated, especially to New York. Meanwhile, Cuba had become well-known as a playground for U.S. tourists. Travel to the island was easy, alcohol flowed freely (it was prohibited at home), and casinos and live entertainment were in abundance.

Mario Bauzá, who emigrated from Cuba to the US in 1930, is usually held up as the pioneer of Afro-Cuban jazz. In 1943, as director of the New York big band Machito and the Afro-Cubans, he composed “Tanga,” considered by many musical historians to be the genre’s first single. This new style consisted of jazz with Afro-Cuban rhythms including the clave, which is the basis for almost all Cuban music. Latin elements and African percussion instruments such as timbales, bongos, and congas were part of the mix. Bauzá had a further key role in Afro-Cuban jazz: introducing fellow Cuban émigré Chano Pozo to Dizzy Gillespie in 1947. As the popularity of swing and big bands faded, Gillespie, a leader in the new bebop jazz style that fused nicely with Afro-Cuban rhythms, hired Pozo, making him the first regular conga player in an American jazz big band. Soon after, they recorded the standard “Manteca.”

“Soon after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the United States cut diplomatic relations with Cuba, putting an end to the back-and-forth of musicians for about 20 years. With the 1961 United States–backed Bay of Pigs invasion fresh in its mind, the government of Fidel Castro labeled jazz and rock as dangerous foreign influences.”

The mambo craze of the 1950s heightened interest in rhythms from Latin America, and the evolution of Afro-Cuban jazz continued, mostly in the United States. For example, in New York, Havana-born Chico O’Farrill, an important arranger, composer, and bandleader, worked with many artists, including Benny Goodman.

Soon after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the United States cut diplomatic relations with Cuba, putting an end to the back-and-forth of musicians for about 20 years. With the 1961 United States–backed Bay of Pigs invasion fresh in its mind, the government of Fidel Castro labeled jazz and rock as dangerous foreign influences. Nonetheless, they recruited Jesús “Chucho” Valdés, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, and other outstanding musicians for the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, created in 1967. The group was allowed to perform jazz, but in a manner that could be tolerated by the government.

Seeking greater creativity, Valdés, Sandoval, and D’Rivera became key members of Irakere, founded in 1973 and directed by Valdés, during what was known as the “five grey years” (1971–76). During this period of increased cultural orthodoxy, Cuba became more integrated into the Soviet bloc and African culture was considered backward by many apparatchiks. Irakere pushed ahead nontheless, incorporating popular Cuban dance, Afro-Cuban folkloric, and even classical music. With a heavy horn section, it also included funk influences from American and Canadian-American groups like Earth, Wind & Fire and Blood, Sweat & Tears. When Gillespie, Stan Getz, and a few other American jazz musicians visited Cuba in 1977, they found the band at the forefront of a rich music scene. Invited to the United States the following year, the band won a 1979 Grammy award for its first album, recorded live in part at Carnegie Hall. Arguably, Irakere remains Cuba’s most important jazz band to date.

Afro-Cuban jazz musician Chucho Valdés.
Afro-Cuban jazz musician Chucho Valdés. Photo by Carol Friedman

The ability of artists to travel between the United States and Cuba has continued to wax and wane according to the politics of the day. D’Rivera and Sandoval defected to the United States in the 1980s, where they have had tremendous success. A plethora of American-born artists have taken up the genre, many of whom have performed at the annual Havana Jazz festival that began in 1978.

Given the difficulties inherent in getting visas both to leave Cuba and to enter the United States, a good number of Cuban artists have ended up in Toronto after collaborating and touring with Jane Bunnett, the renowned Canadian sax player and flautist. Bunnett has been traveling to Cuba to perform and record with Cuban musicians since the 1990s. One of her latest projects, the Afro-Cuban jazz band Maqueque, is comprised of young Cuban women.Some of these artists have already left Maqueque to start their own groups, only to be replaced by Bunnett with musicians from what seems to be a never-ending talent pool from the island.

“Valdés is firmly rooted in Cuba, but there now exists a considerable diaspora of Cuban musicians not only in the United States and Canada, but in Europe and other Caribbean countries as well.”

In order to concentrate more on piano playing, Valdés started his own band in 1998, while continuing with Irakere until 2005. Chucho Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Messengers emphasizes African percussion instruments and often includes vocals. Similarly, his latest project, the trio Jazz Batá, focuses on Yoruba music and Batá drumming. Both groups exemplify the current trend of small ensembles and soloists. Valdés has said that he was discouraged from taking up the Batá project in the 1970s, but Jazz Batá has him looking once again toward the roots of Afro-Cuban music and a “deeper Cubanization of jazz and the classic piano jazz trio.”

Valdés is firmly rooted in Cuba, but there now exists a considerable diaspora of Cuban musicians not only in the United States and Canada, but in Europe and other Caribbean countries as well. Non-Cuban musicians have also embraced the music, with the result that Afro-Cuban jazz can be enjoyed live year-round in a number of countries, as well as during the festival season. The genre has slowly evolved over the decades and has seen a rise in the technical talents of its musicians, but continues to hold to its Afro-Cuban roots.

This feature was written by Celeste Mackenzie and was originally published in Stanford Live’s September/October program. Used with the permission of Stanford Live.

Chucho Valdés will perform at Stanford Live’s Bing Concert Hall on October 18. Tickets are available online.

‘Indecent,’ or What it Means to Create Queer Jewish Theatre in Seattle

When Indecent opened at Seattle Rep on September 20, it marked a pretty significant first: the first time this theatre has produced a play by Paula Vogel. Vogel, who’s arguably one of the most prolific and produced contemporary playwrights of our time, has been seen in recent years at Taproot Theatre Company (A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration, December 2017) and Strawberry Theatre Workshop (How I Learned to Drive, June 2018). But as I combed through Seattle Rep’s production history, it became more and more clear that Paula Vogel’s Seattle Rep debut is long overdue.

Indecent, which was the seventh-most produced play in the country during the 2018-19 season, according to the Theatre Communications Group—and is likely to remain in the top ten this season as well—explores the storied production history of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance. Vengeance, which was first read at a salon in Poland in 1906, was met with fear and animosity from the start. The Jewish patrons of the arts in Poland refused to support a play that showed Jews behaving immorally—communing with prostitutes and desecrating the Torah, to start.

In an imagined meeting between stage manager Lemml and playwright Eugene O’Neill, one that alludes to O’Neill’s actual defense of God of Vengeance in an obscenity case, Vogel writes, “They’re gonna claim they’re closing it because of Homosexualis. That’s bunk. They’re closing it because the play shows that every religion—even Jews—sell God for a price.” Because, you see, God of Vengeance was the first Broadway play to feature a romantic scene between two women.

Rabbi Dana A. Benson, director of youth and family learning at Temple Beth Am and an avid theatre fan, was kind enough to speak with me about the themes of Indecent and what it means to have queer Jewish representation onstage at Seattle Rep. Because so much of the play is about identity, we began with hers.

‘Indecent’ cast in rehearsal.
‘Indecent’ cast in rehearsal. Photo by Angela Nickerson

“Ultimately, if we wanted to go along the Game of Thrones lines of naming ones identities as part of a title,” Rabbi Benson said, “mine might read: Rabbi Dana Benson, Hufflepuff, soft Butch, partner of roller derby playing librarian, daughter of Jewish-Hungarian lineage, child of compassionate and kind parents, singer of Broadway, creator of spiritually accessible learning opportunities, hoper for a better world, and willing mentor and guide for all learners—especially those who feel wayward—as they grow into their best self.”

Temple Beth Am is considered a Welcoming Synagogue, meaning they’re not only actively creating inclusive space for LGBTQIA+ folks, they’re also striving for a truly diverse leadership—from the synagogue’s staff and board to their student leaders. Rabbi Benson admitted that there’s still work to do, but that Temple Beth Am is committed to putting in that work every day.

One of the central plot points of Indecent is that the Jewish gatekeepers in early 1900s theatre refused to support Sholem Asch on God of Vengeance’s production. Not only did they disapprove of the female love interests—a moment played for laughs in Vogel’s script as the men in the initial 1906 salon reading keep refusing to read the female roles—they were scandalized by the final moment of the play: a desecration of the Torah. And while Asch’s contemporaries are certainly pleased that he’s writing Jewish plays—and in Yiddish!—they cannot bring themselves to support theatre where Jews are portrayed as anything less than perfect. “Why must every Jew onstage be a paragon?!!” Asch exclaims, angry at the very suggestion.  

“…I still think there is still this sense of pressure, with none of us wanting to do something that would reflect badly on the Jewish people. That’s very much true of our tradition.”

Rabbi Benson

Rabbi Benson shared that this conversation surrounding “immoral” Jewish characters being considered anti-Semitic is still very much alive today. “I think it’s less about anti-Semitism as it is about portraying other Jews badly,” Rabbi Benson said. “There is this concern about how we are portraying ourselves because it may not be understood outside our own community. I think this goes back to, you know the reference in Wet Hot American Summer, and jokes that are missed and jokes that are in-group and the way that they’re coded for us to see or hear. Or Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm—or Seinfeld. At what point is it humorous? Is it fun? Is it a laugh that’s both in-group as well as transcendent?”

Rabbi Benson thinks that the modern concern of any one Jewish character’s portrayal is more about it being “bad for Judaism.” “I shouldn’t speak on behalf of the Jewish community,” Rabbi Benson said, “but I still think there is still this sense of pressure, with none of us wanting to do something that would reflect badly on the Jewish people. That’s very much true of our tradition.”

Andi Alhadeff, who plays Chana, and Cheyenne Casebier, who plays Halina, were at the very beginning of their rehearsal process when we spoke about the central themes of Indecent. But it was clear that the play had hit a visceral chord for both actors.

‘Indecent’ cast in rehearsal.
‘Indecent’ cast in rehearsal. Photo by Angela Nickerson

“I love that this play celebrates community, love and risk,” Casebier said. “It speaks to different forms of persecution and loss—and being the other. We couldn’t be more ready, as both a culture and society, to share and listen to this story.”

When Alhadeff first encountered the play, it felt like the stories these characters were telling already lived deep inside her bones. “On top of being one of the most hauntingly stunning plays I have ever seen or read, there was something about this show that simply felt as though it was a part of me,” Alhadeff said. “As a Jewish woman, I can certainly speak to the importance of representation of Jewish stories, particularly ones that move away from creating caricatures of obtuse archetypes or solely hold up our scars and our history of tragedy. There is so much joy in what it is to move through different layers of love in Indecent,which is a complex and beautiful lens that honors any community you view it through.”

Alhadeff shared that exploring the emotional center of the play—the relationship between Chana and Halina and the many forms it takes—has been the easiest part of the entire process. She credits the safe rehearsal room and the respect of her fellow cast members. “I feel seen and cared for by my colleagues,” Alhadeff said, “and that is a formula for the precious and ordinary kind of magic that is human connection.”

“This play now because of our current administration’s abhorrent human rights policies. This play now because it is full of love. This play now because we need to remember.”

Sheila Daniels

Director Sheila Daniels was initially drawn to Indecent because of the inherent theatricality of Paula Vogel’s world. Daniels loved the way Vogel played with epic scope and deeply intimate moments. When I asked her why we need this play now, she was ready with an answer: “This play now because of our current administration’s abhorrent human rights policies. This play now because it is full of love. This play now because we need to remember.”

When I asked her what it meant to create queer Jewish theatre in Seattle, Daniels responded that it means everything. “I teach,” Daniels said, “and to know students of mine who inhabit one or both of those identities will get to see themselves onstage makes me proud to be a part of it.”

In preparation to direct this play, Daniels went to Poland on a research trip. A significant amount of Indecent takes place in the Bałuty district of Łódź and Daniels was fortunate enough to spend a day with two locals there.

“We ended that day at Radegast station where they have a replica of a train car the exact size they shipped people in,” Daniels said. “They were tiny. The scope of what all of humanity lost when we lost so many souls in the Holocaust.”

‘Indecent’ cast in rehearsal.
‘Indecent’ cast in rehearsal. Photo by Angela Nickerson

But Daniels brings intangible and unexplainable moments into the Indecent rehearsal room too, like her walk through Auschwitz. “I can feel the ashes beneath my feet just sitting here,” Daniels said.

The play begins with ash spilling out of the actors’ sleeves, a moment that Daniels sees as a reawakening. When she read that stage direction for the first time, she was transported back to a moment thirty years ago, feeling the ash of her grandparents—feeling life sift through her hands.

When I brought up this moment in the play with Rabbi Benson, she turned to a quote from the Talmud, the body of Jewish law.

“Rabbi Simcha Bunim said to one of his students ‘You should always keep two pieces of paper, one in each pocket,’” Rabbi Benson paraphrased. “‘The first should say The world was created for my sake and the other should say I am but dust and ashes.’ And that’s to always remind us to live somewhere between humility and divinity. If we live in that balance, perhaps we can offer a little more kindness to the world.”

Indecent runs September 20 to October 26 at Seattle Rep. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at (206) 443-2222.

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

The State of Deaf Theatre in Seattle

According to the 2010 United States Census, an estimated 2.4% of the Washington population identifies as Deaf. And while estimations surrounding the size of Seattle’s own population vary widely, it’s clear that the Deaf community here is vibrant and engaged. So how are the region’s theatres providing accessible performing arts experiences for the community?

According to Deaf Spotlight’s accessibility index, The Paramount Theatre (as part of Seattle Theatre Group and Broadway at The Paramount), The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre all offer long-term commitments to providing captioning, American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation and other accessibility services to their Deaf and hard of hearing audiences. And while these three theatres seem to be leading the way in Deaf accessibility, Seattle Rep and Sound Theatre Company also provide captioning and ASL interpretation during select performances.

Over the last couple of years, both The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre have embraced the talents of actor Joshua M. Castille. In 2017, Castille made his Seattle debut playing Billy in ACT’s production of Tribes by Nina Raine. He returned in 2018 to play Quasimodo in 5th Avenue’s production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a role traditionally played by a hearing actor. His performance in the titular role of this new Disney musical was augmented by actor E.J. Cardona, who sang on Castille’s behalf. Earlier this year, Castille returned to Seattle to portray yet another titular role: Romeo in ACT’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

“Deaf theatre rarely happens, because it’s rare that we get to direct or produce a show from our lens,” Castille explained. He clarified, saying that all of the roles he’s performed in Seattle lean more toward what he calls “theatre including the Deaf.”

E.J. Cardona as the Voice of Quasimodo, Joshua Castille as Quasimodo, and ensemble in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame.'
E.J. Cardona as the Voice of Quasimodo, Joshua Castille as Quasimodo, and ensemble in ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at 5th Avenue. Photo by Tracy Martin

“I wouldn’t consider Romeo and Juliet ‘Deaf theatre’ because its primary audience isn’t Deaf, it’s hearing,” Castille said. “It’s all about the intended audience.” Deaf West Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening, the show that gave Castille his Broadway debut, was a blend of the two.

Castille identifies as an artivist, an identifier that he picked up from Andrea Moore, executive director of The Wayfaring Band. Castille was struck by the way Moore uses art to mobilize her Denver community to create change in the world.

“Artists make observations on life,” Castille said. “We explore and encourage ideas. It’s so powerful that it would be silly not to be conscious about the sociological effects of our work.”

Reflecting back on Romeo and Juliet, which closed in March 2019, Castille said that the decision to cast two Deaf actors in the production—Howie Seago played Friar Lawrence—was intentional. Director John Langs had noticed that this young tough guy, Romeo, was visiting the priest a lot. “Why?” Castille asked. “What motivates Romeo to go to the priest? Because they are the only two people who speak that language and share that experience. This is similar to real life. We often find Deaf families to participate in or find a Deaf role model to latch onto.”

Howie Seago, Lindsay W. Evans, Joshua Castille and Gabriella O’ Fallon in 'Romeo & Juliet' at ACT.
Howie Seago, Lindsay W. Evans, Joshua Castille and Gabriella O’ Fallon in ‘Romeo & Juliet’ at ACT. Photo by Chris Bennion

It’s a casting choice that sent ripples through the rest of the text, including the second half of the play when Romeo is left out of a major communication loop regarding Juliet.

When asked what keeps him coming back to Seattle, Castille was quick to bring up the Deaf community and the strength he witnesses every time he comes back to work. “I love how Deaf Spotlight fosters Deaf artists,” Castille said. “I’m so blown away by their mindset and the events they produce. They are supportive and loving.”

Actor Howie Seago, who played the aforementioned Friar Lawrence role, said that he identifies as a Deaf person first and a Deaf actor second. “Most any role can be adapted to be performed by a Deaf actor, but I believe I cannot exclude my deafness as part of the makeup of the character,” Seago said. “It is always there.”

Seago has worked all over the world—with Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Edinburgh Festival, Amsterdam Opera, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Intiman and most recently at ACT. Seago grew up in Tacoma and it was important to raise his two sons in the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by family. He and his wife decided to call Seattle home because it’s a theatre town full of innovative artists.

Howie Seago and Joshua Castille in 'Romeo & Juliet.'
Howie Seago and Joshua Castille in ‘Romeo & Juliet.’ Photo by Chris Bennion

After ACT’s production of Tribes, it was clear to Seago that the theatre was inspired to include Deaf talent and ASL in future productions. It was clear they were willing to put in the work.

“Other theatres in town can start to consider how they might adapt roles for Deaf talent,” Seago said. “Having a Deaf actor portraying a role and utilizing some aspects of the Deaf experience might add another layer of depth to the message of the play.” In Romeo and Juliet, a flashing light signaled the end of the school day in Friar Lawrence’s class. Friar John, the often forgotten second friar in William Shakespeare’s classic, was given a much larger role as Lawrence’s interpreter. And, as Castille pointed out, the shared deafness of Romeo and Friar Lawrence strengthened the bond between these two characters.

Seago encourages Seattle theatres to broaden their Deaf talent to include those behind the scenes as well. “The next step after offering more performance opportunities to the Deaf talent community would be to sponsor playwriting workshops for the Deaf and hire Deaf directors—either as the main director or an assistant director,” Seago said. “Having a ‘Deaf eye’ will ensure Deaf culture accuracy, proper ASL translations and clear sightlines for Deaf audiences.”

“The next step after offering more performance opportunities to the Deaf talent community would be to sponsor playwriting workshops for the Deaf and hire Deaf directors…Having a ‘Deaf eye’ will ensure Deaf culture accuracy, proper ASL translations and clear sightlines for Deaf audiences.”

Howie Seago

Patty Liang, the executive director of Deaf Spotlight, is grateful for the mentorship she received as a Ceramics student at the University of Washington. It was her ASL interpreters who suggested she seek out Deaf non-profits in town.

“There are not many Deaf POC arts administrators,” said Liang, who identifies as Chinese American. “I hope my efforts encourage other Deaf female and POC artists and arts administrators in my field. There isn’t enough visibility and representation right now.”

Liang’s artistic background is in visual art, but her advocacy work through Deaf Spotlight extends to theatre and other performing arts. Liang said that she’d love to see a more inclusive effort from Seattle’s theatres, hiring Deaf talent on all levels of production. “Right now, theatres only offer opportunities for Deaf talent as actors, performance interpreters or directors of ASL,” Liang said. “I especially want to see more works by Deaf directors. They will certainly bring different perspectives and resources, reframing each play in a different light.”

Part of Deaf Spotlight’s programming is a biannual Short Play Festival. Earlier this year, Deaf Spotlight partnered with ACT Theatre, producing the festival during the 2019 ACTLab season. Deaf Spotlight hired six playwrights, three directors, eleven actors—all Deaf. “That’s Deaf theatre right there,” Liang said. “We don’t often get the opportunity to have a Deaf- and ASL-centric space, especially a creative space. I treasured these moments of banter and collaboration. It’s what made the festival such a success.”

Joshua Castille and E.J. Cardona in 5th Avenue’s ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Rob Roth, who identifies primarily as an audience member despite being a founding member of Deaf Spotlight, shared that he and his husband used to be subscribers to Seattle Rep. They’re both retired now and enjoy traveling, so it’s been difficult to fit captioned and ASL-interpreted shows into their schedules. “Our ability to attend captioned and ASL-interpreted shows is limited, as they are on specific nights and cannot easily be exchanged for another performance unless it is also captioned or ASL-interpreted,” Roth said. “ACT now has captions available for any performance, so this has expanded our options considerably.”

Thinking back on the shows he’s seen recently, Roth cited The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5th Avenue as his most joyful experience as an audience member. “The production threaded deafness and ASL into the production wonderfully, and Joshua Castille in the title role was wonderful to watch,” Roth said. Roth also enjoyed seeing The Music Man at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2009, starring Howie Seago as Professor Harold Hill’s friend Marcellus.

When I asked what Seattle theatres can do to be more accessible to Deaf audiences, Roth had a list at the ready. “Accessibility excellence would be obtained when all performances are captioned, like they are at ACT, and when at least two performances—or more!—are ASL-interpreted, so that Deaf audiences have more choices,” Roth said. “It’s important to note that ASL-interpreted performances should not be dropped in favor of captioning. For many Deaf persons, English may not be their first language.”

Roth enjoys seeing performances at ACT, Seattle Rep, The Paramount and 5th Avenue. He says that Sound Theatre has also captured his attention.

“I may be Deaf, but that does not mean I cannot live a full, varied and interesting life, even though most people depend so much on audio clues.”

Ian Aranha

Audience member Ian Aranha identified himself as a human being first and foremost. “I may be Deaf, but that does not mean I cannot live a full, varied and interesting life,” Aranha said, “even though most people depend so much on audio clues.”

When we started talking about the kind of shows he gravitates toward, Aranha said that he enjoys musicals much more than plays. The combination of choreography and the visually interesting set pieces that come with seeing a Broadway-style musical make for an incredibly joyful experience. His favorite musical is Les Misérables. “I come from a musically inclined family,” Aranha said. “I usually know the lyrics and storyline of a musical already. Or I’ll learn it beforehand.”

Looking back on this last year, Aranha’s experience of seeing Hamilton at The Paramount Theatre is a particular favorite. “I love how Lin-Manuel Miranda combined history, music and modern storytelling, all into one,” Aranha said. “It was all braided together so wonderfully.”

Before seeing Hamilton, Aranha read the script and did some research on YouTube. “But when I went to see it live, with captioning provided, it was even so much better than I expected,” Aranha said.

In the middle of his story about seeing this performance, Aranha stopped to acknowledge the theatre that made this all happen. “The Paramount [via programming by STG and Broadway at The Paramount] has been incredible in providing access to shows for Deaf and hard of hearing people,” Aranha said. “Shout out to them!”

Frank Corrado and Joshua Castille in ‘Tribes’ at ACT. Photo by Chris Bennion

As a hearing audience member, I shared with Aranha that my only experience with captioning was at the opera, where all performances are captioned and interpreted for the entire audience.

“That segues into my argument that all shows should have captions,” Aranha said. “People go to the opera and need captions. But the argument theatres make is that hearing people complain about captions, so they’ll never turn them on for all shows.”

And it can be frustrating when the dates and times for captioned and ASL-interpreted shows are so few and far between. “Have you noticed that the ASL performance is always on Saturday at 2 p.m.?” Aranha asked. “It’s like we’re sheep. Go see the afternoon show and then go home. I want to have dinner and drinks before and then take in a show.”

Aranha echoed what so many of the Deaf actors and audience members I spoke with did. There is always room to do more to welcome Deaf audiences in. Provide more captioned performances, more ASL-interpreted performances and more opportunities to grow and learn from Seattle’s vibrant Deaf community.

“I hope your article makes waves,” Aranha said.

I hope it does too. 

More information about captioned and ASL-interpreted performances at Seattle Rep, Sound Theatre, Seattle Theatre Group, Broadway at The Paramount, ACT Theatre and The 5th Avenue Theatre, as well as other accessibility services they provide, can be found on each theatre’s website.

Submissions for Deaf Spotlight’s 2020 Seattle Deaf Film Festival are now open. Visit www.deafspotlight.org for more information.

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