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.

Fantastic Embers: The Art of Live Storytelling

In the beginning, there was story. Humans would gather around the fire to tell stories: how they came to be and why. The embers would rise into the star-dazzled night.

There are Marvel movies now. They seem to be released every other week or so. Bejeweled with cinema’s finest actors, these stories are now told on screens, some as big as buildings. Others, so small as to be placed into a child’s wayward pocket. The special effects of these movies are tsunamis—a flood of action, light, movement, color. They delight.

In March, Book-It Repertory Theatre is presenting Mrs. Caliban, a play that features a character: Aquarius the Monsterman. A story written by playwright Rachel Ingalls, the show is being directed by award-winning Kelly Kitchens. Adapted by Frances Limoncelli, it tells the tale of Dorothy Caliban and her husband, Fred, two pleasant people living pleasant lives, just so long as you don’t mention the children they’ve lost, and as long as she doesn’t yearn for excitement and passion. What’s exciting is a monsterman appearing at your door.

Mrs. Caliban (running March 23–April 17) is a story fantastic—like the ones told by our ancestors on cave walls and by Hollywood’s latest trendy team—but told on one singular stage in front of one singular audience for one singular moment. “Storytelling,” Torrie McDonald, Book-It’s director of marketing and communication said, “is ancient and primeval. So, the immediacy and impermanence of that shared experience of watching theatre—with no filters, buffers, rewinding or rewatching—pulls at the thread within us that runs straight through the ages.”

That thread of magic—one glittery with fantasy, suspense, and the suspension of disbelief—is being seen in theatre scenes all around Seattle these coming weeks. Book-It’s Mrs. Caliban is a stinging blend of fantasy and domestic politics, showing us the joy of finding ourselves within ourselves. ACT Theatre’s The Thin Place (running March 18–April 10), by Lucas Hnath, and directed by Brandon J. Simmons, cofounder of The Seagull Project, asks: Can we talk to the dead? Can we communicate with loved ones that we have lost? The show is having its West Coast premiere. Meany Center for the Performing Arts will showcase MOMIX’s Alice, a surreal take on Lewis Carroll’s beloved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a surreal children’s book if there ever was one. The production is choreographed by MOMIX’s founder Moses Pendleton.

These shows show how audiences, who have seemingly been entertained by most everything (we are inundated with movies, TV shows, web series, and much more), can still be bewitched, bemused, and bedazzled by the simple act of telling a good story well.

headshot of director of the thin place Brandon J Simmons
Director of ACT’s “The Thin Place” Brandon J. Simmons. Image courtesy of artist

Obie Award-winner Lucas Hnath’s play, The Thin Place, explores a realm not far from any of us: death. But, still, far, indeed. As we slowly march through another season of COVID-19, death is all around us, and yet, we ourselves know nothing of death and what lies beyond our living. In the show, a woman says you can communicate with the dead in that boundary between the here and the hereafter. Is she pulling the wool over our eyes? Or are our eyes finally seeing the truth? Haunting and compelling, Hnath’s ghost story packs a punch, a twisty yarn that won’t easily unravel. “The play, of course, is about that hard to grasp space,” said Simmons, who is directing the production. “But it’s also about the invisible, electric space between the actor and the audience, because she is our storyteller.” Stories: old as time and as fresh as now.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was first published in 1865. The children’s book is literary nonsense with Alice falling through a rabbit hole and into a fantasy world of oddities and odd characters. Fans of the work have been falling for it ever since. There’s an entire industry based on the work with blockbuster movies, TV shows, games and more. MOMIX’s Alice (running May 12–14) is one such work eager to showcase its particular point of view on a piece we all know well.

a woman on stilts wears a long white dress while two other woman look up at her from below
MOMIX’s “Alice.” Photo by Andrea Chemelli

MOMIX is a dance company based in Connecticut, founded in 1981 by Moses Pendleton. The company presents works that combine acrobatics, dance, gymnastics, props, mime and film in a theatrical setting. “You can see why I think Alice is a natural fit for MOMIX,” Pendleton has stated. It premiered in 2019. “An opportunity to extend our reach. I want to take this show places we haven’t seen in terms of the fusion of dancing, lighting, music, costumes and projected imagery.” Pendleton is a storyteller of movement.

COVID-19 has relegated us all to isolation and our screens for entertainment. Wonderful, to be able to celebrate art still. No matter how isolated we feel, or how long a quarantine may be, there’s still the opportunity to explore art with one another, and find our common humanity in that way. But something has been missing. “Screens don’t give us access to that thin place that lies between two living bodies in space. Theatre does that!” noted Simmons, enthusiastically. “It’s thrilling to present a play that wants to explore that power.”

Whether it’s talking to ghosts, sitting on a mushroom with a hookah-smoking caterpillar, or inviting Aquarius, a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature into one’s home, the power of story is certainly stronger than the power of COVID-19. The power of story is being showcased with great aplomb on stage, curtains drawn back so that audiences can marvel like they’ve marveled for eons, much longer than any Marvel movie franchise. “Theatre,” McDonald said, “Is a un-replicable experience in magic.” Un-replicable—much like each fire from which the first stories were told by. The embers rising in their particular ways to the dark velvet of our dreams.

Mrs. Caliban will play at Book-It Repertory Theatre March 23–April 17; The Thin Place will play at ACT Theatre running March 18–April 10; MOMIX’s Alice will play at Meany Center for the Performing Arts May 12–14.

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

Book-It Repertory Theatre: What It Was Then, What It Is Now, and Preparations for the Future

For over 30 years, Book-It Repertory Theatre—located in The Armory building at Seattle Center, just underneath the iconic Space Needle—has been transforming “great literature into great theatre, through simple and sensitive production.” This process serves another part of their mission: “To inspire our audiences to read.”

With about 150 adaptations to its credit, Book-It Repertory Theatre is clearly dedicated to its mission. The nonprofit organization educates youth on literature and theatre through this process. Not only do they provide students the resources to produce plays, they also introduce children to famous authors like YuYi Morales, Mem Fox, Derrick Barnes, Jon Scieszka, Patricia Polacco, and many others. Book-It partners with schools and libraries throughout the greater Seattle area offering live performances, workshops, and giving children the opportunity to produce plays. While Book-It has primarily produced and performed plays in local Seattle venues, they have appeared in Hartford, CT, Portland, OR, Baltimore, MD, and more.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought disruption and change to almost every aspect of our lives, and without a doubt, the arts have been impacted as well. To learn more about Book-It, and how it has been impacted by the pandemic, I met with Gillian Jorgensen, Book-It Repertory Theatre’s education director and long-time arts educator, and Jordi Montes, who has held different positions at Book-It, including tour manager and artistic producer.

They talked with me about their careers, being involved in arts education, and their experiences with today’s youth during the pandemic. Jorgensen and Montes reflect on what has changed for the organization, what has remained the same, and what they are looking forward to in the future.

“Since the pandemic, a lot has had to change…and we have had to shift. There was stuff that was hard and we were hesitant. We tour shows, we take books and turn them into plays and perform at schools and libraries around Washington—that’s what we did prior to the pandemic. When the pandemic happened, obviously, there was no more of that for the year, so we had to shift immensely,” described Montes.

A small set piece that looks like a lemonade stand with a sign that says "Bush Olympics" with a cut out off a kangaroo behind it
A set piece for “Koala Lou,” an interactive show Book-It will take to classrooms and community spaces. Courtesy of Book-It

She continued to tell me how Book-It had to restructure its programming to fit pandemic needs. Jorgensen and Montes, along with the rest of the team, put together a few different activities via Zoom, like workshops that were creative drama adventures, which are “essentially long-form improv guided by a teaching artist,” Jorgensen explained in an email. “We created acting, writing, visual art, and movement challenges throughout the pandemic,” added Montes. They kept the kids busy.

As Book-It slowly brings back in-person programming, they wanted to preserve the accessibility that the pandemic produced, so they turned the physical kits into digital ones. Jorgensen admitted in a confidential tone that their programs, in the past, were “inaccessible.” She then went on to explain how, historically, the main barriers for Book-It’s educational programs were distance and cost. For students further out from cities, the costs of bringing Book-It into their classroom were significantly higher than for districts within cities. Actors traveling out into suburbs creates a heavier cost that ends up being piled onto the school budget, that doesn’t have much to spare. It turns out that this option has been really popular, and many school districts are expected to continue using digital offerings for the sake of convenience and preserving opportunity.

However, Book-It is still hard at work making in-person experiences happen. For example, in-class performances are being offered now. “The whole idea is to bring students back on site,” explained Jorgensen, in a form where one actor visits a group of students in person. “There are a lot of social skills that students are missing,” she added, explaining more about why Book-It is determined to resume in-person programming.

She also added that Book-It wants to vividly present to students that jobs in the arts are a reality.  To relay the same message to older students, Book-It is also offering a program called Story-Makers, in which older-aged students write, rehearse, and perform a play in the one hour they have with Book-It. Among their many goals, the organization wants to share and perform stories that students will relate to.

Two women sit together smiling and holding a children's book
Education Director Gillian Jorgensen and Tour Manager Jordi Montes. Courtesy of Book-It

Oftentimes in life, we must think about the past in order to infer how we got to where we are today, and how we can make the best decisions for the future. Jorgensen reflected on how arts education has changed over the course of her 25-year career: “One of the deepest changes over the last 25 years, going on 30, is that there is a broader sense of student-focused material and the need to have student voices truly included.” One way that Jorgensen sees arts educators responding to this need is by more consistently including social-emotional learning in theatre art education. 

While this is one important change in theatre arts programs, there has also been a lack of progression in different areas of the industry. “The field is moving along really slowly,” she added. “People aren’t able to stay in the field for that long because it often doesn’t pay well.” Jorgenson described how theatre and arts education lack new, excited, and driven college graduates that are passionate to enter the field. Many of those graduates are driven away because of the low salary. She mentioned, however, that not all theatres are behind. A handful, including many in Seattle and, Jorgensen specifically mentioned, New Victory Theater in New York City, are “leaders in arts education and opportunities for students.”  These organizations are spearheading renewed efforts to make “sure to compensate for art, which is really awesome.”

The pandemic has taken a great toll on students. Part of moving forward is reminding students that they are important and needed. Today’s youth need to be inspired in a way that makes them driven and passionate about what they truly love to do. These activities that have been categorized as “unnecessary” during the early stages of the pandemic are now coming back, stronger than ever before.

How can we show young people that their passions are really necessary and make a difference in the world?  Montes sees one solution in Book-It’s educational programming: “I’ve been working at Book-It for about eight or nine years now, and I feel that there has always been this desire to make sure that students feel seen, heard, important, part of the conversation, part of the story—that we bring stories that they see themselves in. Right now, it’s important for us as we are trying to connect with [kids] in real life.”

A woman in a red sweatshirt and face mask holds a white box and is loading up a van with boxes that hold kits for kids
Jordi Montes prepares kits for kids. Courtesy of Book-It

The pandemic has put Book-It in situations of having to adapt and improvise. But it did not stump them. They carried out their programs throughout the pandemic and are moving forward into the new year with in-person performances in January. Jorgensen and Montes, like other educators around the world, are dedicated to their work of providing opportunities to children, giving them memorable experiences, and skills to carry them through their lives and future careers. Theatres like Book-It are here to provide our youth with opportunities; they are here to support, and educate the community.

Learn more about Book-It’s arts education programs and how to get involved.

Malak Kassem is a 16-year-old high school senior from New York City.  She joined Teentix Newsroom as a writer in September of 2021.  She was a writer for three years and editor for one year at NYC Lab School’s paper, The Lab Report. She also has had multiple projects and roles with other organizations, such as 826NYC and Youth Journalism International. She loves to read and write, and plans to major in journalism when she goes to college next year. She loves to travel, cook, and visit museums.

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.

Arianne True is Seattle Rep’s Inaugural Native Artist-in-Residence

Seattle Rep is launching an annual Native Artist-in-Residence program and Arianne True is the first awarded the residency. “I love that Seattle Rep is really focusing on having it be relational. I think that’s really important and really exciting to me,” True said.

Nabra Nelson, the director of arts engagement at Seattle Rep, is excited about the relational aspect of the program, too. Nelson kicked off this project in September 2021 amidst a flurry of new Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives at Seattle Rep, and she is running it with the express intention of building relationships.

Nelson was very intentional about the way she created the program—she centered support and relationships first and did it all with a keen eye on our national history and the greater context of the work. “We’re really trying to work on relationships with our local Indigenous communities,” Nelson explained, “and really examine our history of exclusion, and colonialism, and respond to that in some way and learn through our response in many ways.”

These are much more than just words: she eagerly anticipates changes in the program and has concrete plans for how to encourage and respond to feedback from the artists, both those who apply for and those who are awarded the residency.

In the application for the residency, it was made clear that the program is going to evolve with input from the artists and that Seattle Rep is open to continually changing the program. Nelson shared, “There’s even a question in the application of ‘Do you have any feedback about this application?’ And there are already things that I’ve learned even before I had my first meeting with Arianne, that we’re going to be shifting a little bit in the application process. So it’s constant learning, but you’re never going to learn if you don’t try.”

Not only is the Native Artist-in-Residence program relationship centered and open to change, it is also adaptable to as many different circumstances as its Awardees desire. All artists are offered a budget, and then, in Nelson’s words, “they can use that $10,000 however they want to, and we provide artistic support, and we provide our PONCHO space, if they want to use that for a showcase. And the only requirement of the program is that they do some type of showcase at the end of the season.”

Seattle Rep's Native Artist in Residence Arianne True speaking at a podium

The showcase is just as structurally free as the rest of the program. It can be public or private: widely advertised to any communities the artist intends to reach or take the form of an invite-only event for selected individuals. The genre and medium of the artist’s work are similarly unconstrained (non-theatre art creators are encouraged to apply as well, all regardless of formal experience), and the program is set up to be as open, accessible, and ultimately as inclusive as possible.

As Nelson said, “It’s really all about the artists, their vision, and their professional development. It’s super open ended.”

For Nelson and Seattle Rep, it was imperative that the program be as unrestricted as possible because of the historical context of interactions between institutions and Native peoples. As shared in Nelson’s words, “We acknowledge that there’s a history of tokenization and exploitation of Native folks by White folks and White institutions for the benefit of the institution, and we wanted to make sure to avoid that as much as possible.” Nelson is so conscious of this historical (and, in many ways, contemporary) exploitation that she notes that it “may not be fully possible to fully avoid as a PWI (Predominantly White Institution).”

I don’t have to have any kind of theme. I don’t have to use any kind of words or images in my artistic work for it to be Native. It just has to be made by me.

Arianne True

True agrees that it is crucial to combat this pattern. “There has been, historically [lots of] external gatekeeping around Native work and Native art,” True pointed out. Non-Native people in positions of power, judging Native art, have long controlled the dominant narrative around what kinds of art get funded and published. In many cases, True said, art from Native creators has been deemed—by White institutions—as ‘not Native enough,’ which is a huge part of the continual marginalization and exploitation of Native identities. True stated that it is very “important [to] push back against that” by showing that “I don’t have to have any kind of theme. I don’t have to use any kind of words or images in my artistic work for it to be Native. It just has to be made by me.”

The work that Arianne True is doing as Seattle Rep’s first Native Artist-in-Residence is an exploration of experimental poetry that will eventually be published as a compilation, “Exhibits,” but first will manifest in the PONCHO space as a showcase that is “basically trying to recreate a museum in as much textual fidelity as possible,” True explained. “My dream is for the reader to feel like they’re walking around the museum, but it’s made of text.” And this museum is carefully attuned to the viewer’s experience. “I want them to feel how the museum is talking back to them.” Not just through the individual exhibits but also through curatorial notes that remind you to “pay attention to how you’re looking” at pieces such that “you have a lot of choice in how you read them,” True said.

True started out in slam poetry and through this developed a deep understanding of the connection between writer and audience, keying into when “a poem is really landing and you’re vibing with the audience, you can feel, sometimes, how you have them,” True shared, and how you can “draw and focus and measure attention.”

Now, through “Exhibits,” True has taken on an ambitious project: through a distinctive form of structurally experimental poetry, every reader can have a very distinct experience of interacting with the art. “As a reader, you get to choose what makes sense to you and how you read [the poems],” True explained. “There are notes that talk to you, from the voice of the curator, that encourage you to stay aware of what choices you’re making around the reading, and how you’re moving through the space and remembering that your reading is an active thing. It’s not this passive thing you’re doing.”

Arianne True wants to invite the greater public to this “highly performative installation art within a totally textual space,” but True also appreciates the open-ended aspects of the showcase and the residency as a whole. “It’s really cool that the Rep is very specific,” True said, about the fact that “this is your event, you choose what it is.”

The thing that I most hope other organizations will get excited about and want to try more is focusing on relationships instead of transactionalism.

Arianne True

True also appreciates the relationally-focused aspect of the residency as a whole and said, “The thing that I most hope other organizations will get excited about and want to try more is focusing on relationships instead of transactionalism. And having more unrestricted funding, but with support for the artist.” This program, True pointed out, “has a lot of support built in [and] it’s so human. Artists aren’t like these divine inspired beings. We’re just like regular people who are making stuff. I feel like sometimes people forget that if they’re not close to a lot of artists; we’re really just extremely normal people. When we’re not making art, we’re doing all the other things: I still go grocery shopping. I still mess things up. And I still don’t know how to do things when it’s my first time doing them.”

Seattle Rep has created an open, inclusive, responsive space to build relationships with the Indigenous community and uplift Native artists, and as True said, “They’ve been really kind, you can tell that the relationship piece is important to them.”

This piece is especially vital to Jeffrey Herrmann, Seattle Rep’s managing director, because it is much simpler to say words than to actually do the work and establish relationships. “It’s too easy to stamp words about how we support this community, those land acknowledgments are very, very easy to read off before your show and feel like you’ve actually done something. And I understand that, gotta start somewhere, and maybe those words are a place for organizations to start that journey.” But more importantly, he argued, you have to ask, “Okay, well, what real action can we take, so that it’s not just words, but it’s actual action.”

That is exactly what Nelson is working to do. She wants this program to actively uplift and support the Native artists that come through the new residency. She wants to integrate community and work to make spaces more inclusive and open. In her words, the program is meant to help Seattle Rep “really work towards building relationships and listening to the community” and then, hopefully, respond “properly to the community.”

Rosemary Sissel is a sophomore at Northwestern University and an alum of the wonderfully empowering TeenTix Press Corps, which she wants everyone reading this to tell all the young people they know about! (And to all the youngins themselves who see this: TeenTix is freaking fantastic — you get paid to go to shows and tell others how epic they are!!) When Rosemary is not doing Very Serious Academic Things or extolling the epicness of various art things, you can find her reading a book in a tree (or strongly hinting that she’s cool enough to read books in trees).

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. 

In Kids We Trust

It’s not every day you see a musical in which a large portion of the creative team isn’t old enough to legally drink. This summer, Village Theatre is producing three.

“There’s not a lot of opportunities for young students to have artistic control over a production. What we strive for here are professional-feeling productions that are driven by youth. A big part of that is trusting that these students have the capabilities, vision and skills to be able to put together a show—what we do is provide resources, space, time and guidance.”

This is Joel Arpin, the KIDSTAGE production manager at Village Theatre Issaquah. He oversees every element of their productions from auditions and intern recruitment to facility management. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with him as well as young artists Lacey Jack and Rachel Faria to discuss Village’s Summer Independent Program, a unique project in which youth artists are given the resources to autonomously produce a show of their choosing.

“Village is one of the first theatres to trust kids,” said Jack, a KIDSTAGE veteran and incoming college freshman currently portraying Hope in this season’s production of Urinetown. “Most will hold your hand and as soon as you begin to take a step in the wrong direction, you’re done. Are there negatives to that? Absolutely. However, I don’t mind the mistakes because you’re either going to make them now or in 10 years when you’re finally on your own.”

Unlike most youth arts programs, the Summer Independent Program has been completely youth-driven from its inception. “Students came to us asking for the responsibility of being able to create a show on their own, so we turned the theatre over to them for the summer,” said Arpin. “We offer five shows a year in each KIDSTAGE location, but this is the only one that’s completely student-driven.”

“Students come forward in August/September to submit a proposal that contains three shows they would like to produce as well as why they think they’d be good choices based on ticket sales, messaging, etc.,” Arpin explained. KIDSTAGE’s slogan is “skills for theatre…skills for life,” so Village tries to create as many learning opportunities within the process as possible. “Students used to pitch an entire team, but we later decided to make interviewing designer applications a part of the process so students can build their interview skills—it’s very rare as a young adult that you’re the person learning how to interview.”

Production image of "Spitfire Grill", a production of Village Theatre's summer independent program.
Youth actors performing in “Spitfire Grill”. Courtesy of Village Theatre.

However, having such independence can be overwhelming. Faria, an incoming college senior and director of this season’s production of Spitfire Grill, claimed, “I sometimes felt a little bit lost and didn’t know exactly what to do next.”

In order to provide support, Village sets up mentors to help guide these young artists. “You can chat with your mentor when you have questions or need more guidance on how to approach a situation,” specified Arpin.

Faria continued, “It was nice to have advice, but we were never told ‘no’ outside of things due to budget or safety. It’s something you just can’t find everywhere else, to be able to do something at this scale in a way that feels so independent. It’s a huge learning experience for everyone involved.”

This also creates a unique opportunity for the actors, as this is the one program Village Theatre provides in which the focus is on the designers and director. Arpin stated, “We call it summer independent because the designers and director are independently learning and growing, but it’s also a chance for the student actors to no longer have direct professional support.”

“I was so used to working with adults,” Jack commented. “But it’s very exciting for me as an actor to work with these fresh minds because you can relate on more levels.”

Village also helps prepare young artists for the world of professional theatre by running rehearsals with equity rules. Jack emphasized, “Performing is so much more than the physical act onstage—it’s about learning how to deal with friends and how to talk to people as well as how to sing, act and dance. Village wants you to be a good performer, but they also want you to be a great human being.”

Production image of "Jasper in Deadland", a production of Village Theatre's summer independent program.
Youth actors performing in “Jasper in Deadland”. Courtesy of Village Theatre

Inevitably, the COVID-19 pandemic heavily impacted the program. According to Faria, “A lot of [the artists] weren’t able to be in the same room until tech rehearsals.”

However, this unique situation had its benefits as well. “Typically, the Summer Independent productions are performed in houses with under 200 seats, so instead, we moved to our main theatres (500-seat houses where our mainstage productions typically perform), allowing us to sell 200 tickets, social distance, and be under 50% capacity,” Arpin shared. “This also allowed our students to work in a larger space with more access to equipment.”

Faria added, “We got access to all of these professional facilities including a fly system and construction space that you wouldn’t really expect for a production put on by a bunch of 20-year-olds.” The extraordinary opportunity to access such advanced technical equipment allowed for the designers to fully embrace their creative visions and learn how to operate professional equipment, demonstrating Village Theatre’s effort to do as much as they can to support these young artists.

The tasks of creating three completely youth-led productions and being one of the first live theatres to reopen are daunting individually, but the students learned to overcome both challenges and contribute to Washington’s cultural landscape as we begin to transition back to in-person theatre. As Arpin said, “The students this summer walked into a situation in which they didn’t know what it would look like and I am so proud and impressed by what they have put together.”

The Summer Independent production of The Spitfire Grill ran from July 9-18. Jasper in Deadland is running now through July 25 in Everett. Urinetown will run July 30–August 8 in Issaquah.

Kyle Gerstel is a 14-year-old theatre geek who couldn’t be happier to have found TeenTix in 2020. He recently directed his school’s first musical in over a decade as well as the online production Hamleton: A Quaranteen’d Musical. When not writing articles for the TeenTix Newsroom, you can find him acting in Youth Theatre Northwest productions, writing comedy songs, 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.