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 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.

A New Kind of Historical Adventure Premieres at Cal Shakes

The journey from words on paper to action onstage is not a fast or simple one. Playwright Madhuri Shekar and Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian prepare for the world premiere of House of Joy at Cal Shakes and share with us how they developed a “swashbuckling action-adventure romance, set in 17th century India” to the stage.

When Madhuri Shekar and Megan Sandberg-Zakian arrived in Orinda, California last month to start rehearsals for House of Joy at California Shakespeare Theater, they were already pretty familiar with each other. Earlier this year, when Audible commissioned Shekar to write an audio play as part of their Emerging Playwrights Fund, Sandberg-Zakian came on to direct. The result was Evil Eye, a play told entirely through phone calls between a millennial named Pallavi and her mother, who desperately wants to see her daughter marry.

Despite being two different plays in two different forms—Evil Eye is contemporary and meant to be listened to on headphones, House of Joy is a period piece staged in Cal Shakes’ outdoor theatre—there are some striking similarities.

“They’ve both involved some degree of combat,” Sandberg-Zakian said, adding that she hired a fight choreographer to stage Evil Eye’s pivotal fight scene so that the team knew what that moment could sound like. “There’s also a really cool relationship between badass women fighting evil villains in both of these plays.”

Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian and playwright Madhuri Shekar in rehearsal.
Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian and playwright Madhuri Shekar in rehearsal. Photo by Zhanara Baisalova

And despite both plays living in completely different genres—House of Joy is a swashbuckler—Shekar noticed some overlap in theme in her own writing. “Both Evil Eye and House of Joy have, like, these undercurrents of domestic and intimate partner violence,” Shekar said. “Which, you know, that’s not really my thing.”

To say that any one theme is Shekar’s thing would be an incredible disservice to the worlds she creates. Queen, which premiered at Victory Gardens Theater in 2017, explores scientific ethics in the face of ecological disaster. In Love and Warcraft considers real versus imagined worlds, using World of Warcraft as a lens. And A Nice Indian Boy, which premiered at East West Players in 2014, navigates queer relationships in Indian families. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

When folks ask Shekar to describe House of Joy, she’s quick with an elevator pitch. “I say it’s a swashbuckling action-adventure romance, set in 17th century India—in a harem,” Shekar says.

A moment later, she admitted that she used to be in marketing. “I don’t ever want to do marketing ever again,” Shekar said. “But I think communicating what the story feels like is very important.”

House of Joy has a dense development history, beginning with a reading at the Atlantic Theatre Asian American Mix Fest in 2017, continuing on to a workshop production in the Juilliard New Play Festival later that year, and various readings, workshops and showcases at Pratidhwani, New York Stage and Film, South Coast Repertory and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival.

A reading of House of Joy at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival 2018
A reading of ‘House of Joy’ at Bay Area Playwrights Festival 2018. Photo by Lorenz Angelo

“There’s been lots of readings,” Shekar said. And while each opportunity for House of Joy has been beneficial in its own way, Juilliard definitely stands out as a highlight. “The Juilliard production was huge because we did it with a $200 budget or something like that,” Shekar said. “And it was seven actors who were student actors in a classroom. I wrote an impossible play—deliberately—just to see what was going to happen. And seeing that the play could function in that very limited setting, and communicate the story to the audience, was just very affirming.”

Another major step forward for the play was the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, produced by Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco. That’s where Shekar received a production offer from Cal Shakes.

“You don’t actually learn that much from readings,” Shekar said. “You learn something, but you don’t learn that much, especially with a play like this. What incentive do playwrights have to really, really push themselves if they don’t know what that reading is for, you know? Whereas if you had a production, oh my god, look at this crazy huge incentive to make the play the best you can be. You know?”

And that’s when Sandberg-Zakian came on board. Together they organized a workshop in New York with Cal Shakes in mind. A few actors from that workshop continued on to the production. “A lot of actors, and other directors too, have touched the play and really contributed to its development,” Sandberg-Zakian said. “But it’s been great having a mix of people who were familiar with other drafts and people who aren’t because we can get some fresh perspective. And also they’re just really, really smart. And the actors’ brains have been just instrumental in figuring out some of the play.”

Dramaturg Vidhu Singh, Playwright Madhuri Shekar and Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian in rehearsal.
Dramaturg Vidhu Singh, Playwright Madhuri Shekar and Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian in rehearsal. Photo by Zhanara Baisalova

When I spoke with Shekar and Sandberg-Zakian, House of Joy was undergoing significant rewrites. “I just have so much admiration for new play artists,” Shekar said. “Actors and directors and designers—people who understand how insane it can be on a world premiere with things changing around you. Everyone’s been really game.”

One thing that Shekar learned during the research for House of Joy was that in 17th century India, the women of the harem were female bodyguards. Building out that rich world has been a particularly joyful experience for this team.

“There’s a scene where the bodyguards are basically doing a training exercise,” Sandberg-Zakian said. “And because it involves a whole bunch of people who aren’t actually there—if there are fifty bodyguards and we only have three of them on stage—there can be things happening that real human bodies couldn’t actually do. Madhuri wrote that somebody does a back flip. And it’s an invisible person. So, everyone’s watching. Their eyes are following them—‘Ohhhhh!’—and they’re watching this person land. It’s super fun.”

Shekar and Sandberg-Zakian are both looking forward to staging this play in Cal Shakes’ outdoor space. “You have the rolling hills in the background; sometimes there’s like cows that wander by and moo at you,” Sandberg-Zakian said, painting a picture of what she has to look forward to during tech rehearsals. “There’s a real sense of journeying in that space. You feel like you take a journey to get there, even though it’s ten minutes from downtown Berkeley. You’re just in another world where things seem more possible.”

Model of the 'House of Joy' set by Lawrence Moten.
Model of the ‘House of Joy’ set by Lawrence Moten. Photo by Zhanara Baisalova

And the outdoor setting has dramaturgical support behind it as well. “If you look at photos of the harems of Mughal India, they are mostly outdoors,” Shekar said. “There are bedrooms inside, but most of the communal spaces are out—loads of fountains and gardens. They called them houses, but they’re really like gated communities. So, having the play happen outside is really great.”

We could have talked for hours about the stage combat and the importance of having so many women of color on stage—together—but Shekar and Sandberg-Zakian had a rehearsal to get to. There were new pages to rehearse and some swashbuckling to fine tune.

“It’s going to be like nothing you’ve ever seen in the American theatre,” Shekar said. “I can promise you that.”

House of Joy runs August 14 to September 1 at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater. Tickets are available online. Evil Eye is available to download through Audible.

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

Why Aren’t Young Characters Always Played by Young Actors?

When we go to see a play or musical, we expect to enter a world of suspended reality. For this reason, watching adults perform the roles of children may not register as strange in the moment. But after the show we may ask ourselves, for what purpose are adults cast in much younger roles?

TeenTix Press Corps contributor Hannah Schoettmer gives us a youth’s perspective on adult casting in children’s roles.

The infamous teen flick/cult classic Mean Girls follows Cady Heron, a high school student who has recently moved from Africa to an American public high school. There she meets “the Plastics,” a group of mean girls who rule the school. Hijinks ensue. The key concepts here are not the hijinks, but the high school setting. The ringleader of the malicious Plastics, Regina George, was played by a then 25-year-old Rachel McAdams. In the movie, the character is 16—that’s a nine-year age difference. In the warp speed of puberty, that’s a “totally bogus” gap.

Huge age gaps between actors and the characters they play isn’t an isolated trend—think of almost any smash hit starring teens and the actors will be in their twenties, occasionally even pushing 30. These casting age gaps are in no way exclusive to TV and movies. Kids and teens are everywhere in the media, be it on the silver screen or live on stage. And across genres, the casting age gap is startlingly prevalent. There are some obvious reasons for this—teenagers are often gangly and awkward, and by casting people in their mid- or late twenties, the acne and braces can be edited out without any post-production or makeup department headaches.

…age dissonance in casting can set a standard of beauty that is nigh impossible for many teens to achieve, which can contribute to long-term issues with body image and/or self esteem for the kids in the audience.

But there are also some troubling implications—for one, age dissonance in casting can set a standard of beauty that is nigh impossible for many teens to achieve, which can contribute to long-term issues with body image and/or self esteem for the kids in the audience. Also, there’s the chance that the age gap can impact the ability of an actor to capture the youth experience accurately—if older bodies are playing younger people, the chance for an actor to play a role in telling their own story is lost.

Brynn Williams, David Samuel and company of Roald Dahl’s 'Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.'
Company members, Brynn Williams and David Samuel in Broadway’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. ’ Photo by Joan Marcus

A lot of a character’s impact, however, depends on the actor. Brynn Williams, a Broadway actress who starred as Sandy in Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical, is coming to Seattle’s Paramount Theatre from July 31–August 11 with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She plays Violet Beauregarde, a bratty twelve-year-old with a penchant for blowing bubblegum and spitting snark. Williams said that in taking on her role as Violet, she not only alters her speech patterns and energy, but even the small details—like the way she’s standing—in order to accurately capture the essence of a kid. “The Golden Ticket winners have qualities that transcend age…who are very prideful or very greedy,” she stated. “What we [actors] do is we take that energy and put it in a kid form.”

In this role, Williams felt that having a child played by an adult actor is beneficial. “People are more forgiving of kids,” she said. “If a kid is being nasty, there’s a little more tolerance that goes along with it. If [the Golden Ticket winners] are played by adults, it really zeros in on how this isn’t okay behavior.”

Arika Matoba, who will play Marcy Park in Village Theatre’s upcoming production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, had similar feelings. In Spelling Bee, Marcy is a grade schooler. “Anyone, at any age, can play those child-like characteristics,” Matoba said. “A lot of us feel like kids sometimes…if you can tap into that, then it doesn’t really matter what age you are.” While she acknowledged that the casting of older people as younger characters can impact audience perception, she felt that “everyone knows that you’re not a kid, but they’re there with you for that hour and a half of the show.”

The cast of the original Broadway production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which was also a full cast of adults playing the grade school characters.
The cast of the original Broadway production of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,’ which was also a full cast of adults playing the grade school characters. Photo by Joan Marcus

In theatre, one must check a certain amount of realism and disbelief at the door to engage with the medium, so adults taking on bite-sized roles can be considered along as part of that. However, it does raise the question—why are adults cast in these roles in the first place?

Brandon Ivie, the director of the upcoming Spelling Bee, felt that he needed people who could “play child-like characters…but still keep it grounded in some kind of reality.” He said that he treats casting the child roles just like any other, and that to cast somebody who couldn’t take the role of a kid seriously would damage the production’s credibility as a whole. When asked what he was looking for in casting the show, Ivie said, “adults that have a youthful energy to them, a joy, an optimism, without being caricaturish or juvenile or…treating the material and characters as ‘lesser than.’”

…the age dissonance between the casting of Charlie and the other kids in the play helps to emphasize the good qualities possessed by Charlie, which are often associated with kids in general—innocence, goodness and a sense of wonder.

Brynn Williams

Ivie also pointed out an unfortunate stigma in theatre, especially musical theatre, against productions that feature predominantly young actors. It’s different than in TV or film, where there are a variety of critically acclaimed shows featuring young actors—think Stranger Things. But on stage, it’s different. For one thing, “as soon as you see a kid on stage, you think about Annie,” Ivie said. As well as other associations to “cheesy, corny musical theater.” These stigmas color the casting decisions made in shows, as productions that feature kids are categorized as “family shows” or pieces of fluff, rather than being treated as valid, respectable productions.

But every production is different. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example, the role of Charlie is played by age-appropriate actors—three of them, in fact, all of whom play the role on different nights. Williams said the age dissonance between the casting of Charlie and the other kids in the play helps to emphasize the good qualities possessed by Charlie, which are often associated with kids in general—innocence, goodness and a sense of wonder. The casting also serves to contrast those good things with the negative quirks and traits of the other kids, who are all, in their own unique and terrible way, bratty, spoiled and generally rotten. Also, Williams said the age gap among the actors helps to amp up and emphasize Charlie’s cuteness factor. So in this case, there are young actors involved in a production largely populated by young characters, but the kids are cast deliberately, with awareness of the impact that the age gap in casting can have on the audience.

Rueby Wood as Charlie in Broadway's 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.'
Rueby Wood as Charlie in Broadway’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’ Photo by Joan Marcus

Given that theatre is a medium inherently reliant on a suspension of disbelief, the casting of adults in these young roles, when done with thought and care, can actually have a positive impact on the production. It’s important to acknowledge that there can be harmful impacts to age dissonance in casting—it all depends on the needs of an individual show and role. So next time you see a kiddo or a teen played by somebody clearly pushing 30, think carefully before you chuckle—is this casting beneficial to the production? Is there a reason a kid isn’t up there? The casting dissonance is probably an intentional decision, so ask yourself—does the casting work for the show? If it does, maybe the whole thing isn’t “totally bogus” after all.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now playing at Broadway at The Paramount through August 11; tickets are available online. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will play at Village Theatre’s Francis J. Gaudette Theatre September 12–October 20 and then travel to their Everett Performing Arts Center location October 25–November 17; tickets will be available on August 7.

Hannah Schoettmer is a senior at Interlochen Arts Academy. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Butcher Papers, a youth-focused literary magazine, which can be found online at She is also an active writer and participates in several other arts-centered activities around the city of Seattle.  

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. 

Wooden O Takes the Bard Beyond Gender

Gender-fluid casting in Wooden O’s Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet gives the audience a fresh interpretation of the Bard’s venerated works, by taking the focus off gender.     

Shakespeare’s plays have been performed for the last four hundred years; so long that they have become part of the basis of the canon of Western literature. So how do theatre companies make them relevant and interesting for modern audiences? One of the answers, for Seattle Shakespeare Company at least, is gender-fluid casting.

This summer, Wooden O—Seattle Shakespeare’s Shakespeare in the park program—is performing Twelfth Night (a comedy about love and mistaken identity) with an all-male cast, and Romeo and Juliet (the classic, tragic tale of star-crossed lovers) with a cast made up of female and nonbinary actors. This isn’t exactly a new direction for Seattle Shakespeare; in 2018 they partnered with upstart crow collective (a company that performs classical plays with female and nonbinary casts) to put on Richard III. But it is a little bit of a big deal for Wooden O, which tends toward more traditional, consistently crowd-pleasing productions rather than the edgier, higher-budget plays the company does year-round. 

Leah Adcock-Starr, director of Romeo and Juliet, has the intention of giving people who wouldn’t have been allowed to act on the Shakespearean stage (women, nonbinary people, people of color) a space to do so. “There’s a certain kind of hunger,” she says, “in people who haven’t been invited—or challenged—to play these roles.” For her, it’s important to expand the way we look at Shakespeare.

His plays have been consistently performed for centuries but, as Mary Machala, director of Twelfth Night, says, “the truth is that he was writing for men, not women.” Even though women have been playing roles in Shakespeare’s plays for a long time (the actor Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet in 1899), there’s something powerful in female and nonbinary actors claiming the historically all-male stage as their own.

Director Leah Adcock-Starr in rehearsal for 'Romeo and Juliet.'
Director Leah Adcock-Starr in rehearsal for ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Courtesy of Seattle Shakespeare

“Shakespeare said that in theatre we hold a mirror up to nature,” says Adcock-Starr. She elaborates on that thought with the belief that theatre should hold up the best possible mirror to nature. One of the reasons Shakespeare is still relevant for her, is that there’s a large percentage of people (basically everyone who isn’t a cis, white, able-bodied man) who have spent hundreds of years not having plays written for them. It’s theatre’s job as the holder of the mirror, to show the rest of the world people who look like them, who feel things and love each other, and are a part of the universal Shakespearean idea of human nature. 

Where Adcock-Starr is expanding the Shakespearean canon for people who haven’t historically been invited to play within it, Machala is going back to the roots of the text to find something true at the heart of it. She had seen productions of Twelfth Night before, but they were never as funny as she thought they could be—until the Shakespeare’s Globe all-male production in 2002. After seeing it, Machala set out on a quest to figure out what about that casting choice made the play more intriguing to her. What she found was an absence of the tension she knew from directing casts with men and women. That tension, whether it was about sex or power dynamics or gender politics, didn’t seem to be present in the all-male cast.

The play exists in a space that isn’t about time, or gender; it’s about the words this playwright wrote…

Working with an all-male cast for this production has helped Machala and her cast get closer to Shakespeare’s original intentions. “With Shakespeare it’s all about the language,” she says, “and the character comes from the language.” Casting the play in more or less the same way it would’ve been in Shakespeare’s time allows Machala to get beyond gender in a way. Seeing men onstage has been normalized, in part due to Shakespeare—when plays are written with men in mind and then society goes along with that for a long time, it can be hard to move past that as the default.

However, playing to that normalization means Machala can get deeper into the text. We have continued to perform Shakespeare’s plays for so long, not just because they’re part of an established canon, but because there’s something eternal at the center of them—an idea Shakespeare put into words about the way humans feel. Machala is taking advantage of her cast of male actors and the timeless setting of the parks to go beyond our modern ideas about gender and sexuality and tap into that eternal, true thing. The play exists in a space that isn’t about time, or gender; it’s about the words this playwright wrote that have been beautiful and meaningful for four hundred years and continue to be today.

Brandon J. Simmons, Jason Marr and Michael Monicatti in 'Twelfth Night.'
Brandon J. Simmons, Jason Marr and Michael Monicatti in ‘Twelfth Night.’ Photo by HMMM Productions

However, as Adcock-Starr points out, Shakespeare was one of the earliest great queer playwrights. Whether or not he himself was queer (although he wrote sonnets to both women and men), the fact that he was writing only for men is inherently not-straight. Shakespeare’s plays are built on a base of queer desire and Twelfth Night, a play about gender and desire, is especially representative of that.

Machala says the all-male cast has a way of stripping away the queer desire aspect of the story: “It’s more about the mistaken identity, and less about the gender. It’s about how [Viola] is not who she is, and that is the bigger issue.” 

With Wooden O’s productions this summer, Shakespeare is not just a man who wrote plays four hundred years ago. These productions focus on the deep human connection of his plays, and combined with their traditional/non-traditional casting, they expand and light up these old and beautiful plays for a modern audience.

Seattle Shakespeare’s free Wooden O productions of Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet are now playing through August 11 at various parks throughout the Puget Sound area. The full schedule can be found on their website.

Lark Keteyian is a teenager who’s written a lot of words, including plays that have been performed by 14/48:HS and their own theatre company, and arts reviews for TeenTix’s Press Corps. They’re excited about theatre, old books and ghosts.

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. 

Training Up the Next Generation of Theatre Artists

Fifty years ago, as the Summer of Love engulfed San Francisco, the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) expanded its class offerings to hold its first Summer Training Congress for actors. Today, its educational offerings and related community programs continue to inspire theatre artists year round.

From a Master of Fine Arts program to summer intensives for teens, education at A.C.T. is designed to be rigorous and to take full advantage of the professional theatre company they occur in.

“The summer training program is the oldest education program,” said Melissa Smith, A.C.T.’s conservatory director. The program, begun by Robert Goldberg, served as a way to keep the actors training, to grow the number of actors available and to give them work teaching. Today, it’s difficult to attend any of the Bay Area’s many theatres without finding an alumni connected to one of A.C.T.’s programs.

“In the mid-1980s, they launched the M.F.A.,” said Smith, who came onboard in 1995. “Right before I came, the accrediting body asked us to make the M.F.A. a three-year program.”

Also launched in the 1980s was the Young Conservatory program that provided more intensive training for younger actors. “Summer is a very busy time for us,” said Susie Falk, interim director of education and community programs. “We have the audition-based musical which is a very competitive program every year. We’re doing Into the Woods this summer and the students get to perform at the Strand with members of the M.F.A. program in the cast.”

The Young Conservatory offers three different age levels of programs, from elementary to high school, ranging from one-week to three-week classes. All the classes take place at the company’s studios near Union Square in downtown San Francisco. Classes this summer include improvisation, singing and dancing, voice and speech, on-camera acting, Alexander technique, audition preparation, stage combat and introduction to Shakespeare, among others.

“It’s high caliber training with professional theatre artists,” said Falk. “We want them to gain confidence and collaborative skills, as well as have a high quality experience. Many will pursue theatre for a college or graduate degree program.”

“Connections between the M.F.A. program, the Young Conservatory and other education programs have grown to become an important part of the experience,” said Smith. “Around 2007, the M.F.A. launched the Shakespeare school tour. It began as a pedagogical tool and with wanting our actors to perform in different spaces. Once the education program launched seven years ago, they took on the booking of Will on Wheels.”

A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts program. Photo by Alessandro Mello

Today, M.F.A. students work with younger students year round throughout the conservatory programs and on-site visits. “Our collaboration began with Downtown High School because they were meeting up in the halls,” said Smith. “It got rolling in a grassroots way and then we took it over.”

Downtown High School teachers Charmaine Shuford and Robert Coverdell work with A.C.T.’s M.F.A. students to create a theatre project each semester. “Our students examine a theme each semester. Our partnership with A.C.T. is great because they provide tickets to see their shows and read the plays that they [will perform]. We partner with their M.F.A.s. At the end of the semester they help us put on a show. This spring we looked at identity: what are the forces that shape our identity? Environmental pressures, biological pressures, all the thing that impact teenagers,” said Coverdell.

Working with M.F.A. students and their instructors, the teens at Downtown High School crafted their show around this theme.

“A.C.T. dreamed big for our students,” said Coverdell. “For some of [DHS students] it is their first time going to the theatre and they’re always really appreciative of it. A lot of these students don’t ever get a chance to get their work showcased the way that we showcase it here. After they do [their performance], they are always so proud of themselves. You can feel that joy and accomplishment. Audiences come and are amazed by the work that the students put into it.”

Last year, one audience member noticed that a piece about changes in the Mission District featured District Supervisor Hillary Ronen. “One of our students who grew up in the Mission wrote a play and Hillary Ronen was a character in the play. One of Hillary’s friends saw it and texted Hillary. Then they invited us to go perform at City Hall. The student who wrote the play is so proud of that,” said Coverdell.

 The inspiration goes both ways, for those who teach and those who perform. “At the end, all the M.F.A. students have the experience of working with Downtown High School students in their first year,” said Smith. “This experience of working with somebody who is younger and looking up to them is inspiring. Many discover that they want to go on to community work. It’s a great gift. It works both ways, a great gift to them and to the Downtown High School.”

A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory.

As the founders hoped in the 1960s, this connection between the San Francisco community and a professional theatre has become one of the program’s strengths. “A couple of things set us apart,” said Smith. “We are the only freestanding M.F.A. in the country. The fact that we are freestanding and attached to a professional theatre, right here we are apart. Engagement with Young Conservatory, the engagement in the summer programs, and the citizen-artist pieces that happen in the community are truly unique as well. Three features that you wouldn’t get someplace else.”

For all the students who move through A.C.T.’s educational offerings, Falk and Smith see the importance of arts education going beyond just an appreciation of the theatre. “For all of our residencies we’re working together to deliver the content,” said Falk. “It’s important for these students to work on writing, acting, speaking from their own voice and own experience. It’s great to see how these kids can grow. We have a residency with one of the chapters of the Boys & Girls Club. One of the students didn’t speak for the first two years in the program and then she was up there on stage, acting the lines that she wrote.”

“I believe that people have different talents and aptitudes,” said Smith. “For some people, computer programming is an endless walk up a hill. There are people who are born into this world who want to grow up and make art. I think people who are studying the arts are preparing themselves to lead creative lives. We train them to go out into a world that is hungry for them.”

More information about A.C.T.’s M.F.A. program, Young Conservatory and other educational programs can be found on A.C.T.’s website.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, and others. Additional work can be seen at

Aidan Lang Gives Seattle Opera a Fond Farewell

When General Director Aidan Lang departs Seattle Opera later this month to become general director of Welsh National Opera, it’ll be a bittersweet departure. After five years at Seattle Opera—a relatively short tenure for a general director—Lang is returning to the opera company that started his career.

“Why when we’ve cracked it do I want to go?” Lang asked himself, reflecting on how the Opera has truly engaged and expanded its audience during his time. “But the company has a huge place in my heart.”

The company he’s referring to is Welsh National Opera, where Lang got his start as a staff director in 1985. But it’s clear Seattle Opera occupies significant real estate in his heart as well. His five-year tenure was shorter than he anticipated, but he has high hopes for the future of the company and the opera community as a whole.

“As I move on, the company moves on,” Lang said. “It moves on because society will move on to change. It’s good for organizations to develop and change as well. As soon as things get stagnated, the audience feels it. And god knows our society is shifting so fast. We have to be reflective of that.”

Christina Scheppelmann, artistic director of Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, will be stepping into the role in August. Lang was out of town during Scheppelmann’s onsite interviews, but he’s had the opportunity to speak with her several times since the appointment became official.

“One thing which has been really exciting is the way that racial social equity has become an important part of the conversation,” Lang said. “Christina met with our equity team and understood that importance. We’ve been really proud of the work we’ve done so far. And the way we’ve embedded this thinking within the organization.”

Lang noted that for Scheppelmann, who hadn’t worked in the United States in six or seven years, racial and social equity wasn’t a pressing concern. But once she understood the priority Seattle Opera places on equity, diversity and inclusion in every level of their programming, she was on board and ready to work.

Scheppelmann won’t have the opportunity to plan her own season of operas until the 2020-21 season, but Lang has been consciously seeking her input whenever possible. The opera is as much hers as it is his at this point, and the collaborative decision making seems to suit Lang.

cast of Beatrice & Benedict at Seattle Opera in rehearsal
Cast of ‘Beatrice & Benedict’ at Seattle Opera in rehearsal. Photo by Philip Newton

Of all the initiatives Lang has spearheaded during his five-year term at Seattle Opera—introducing the chamber opera series, expanding the youth programming both inside and outside of schools, and opening the new Seattle Opera headquarters, just to name a few—he’s most proud of Seattle Opera nearly quadrupling its millennial audience.

“It’s also easy for an arts organization to be so excited about what they do, that they forget the reason they do it is for an audience,” Lang said.

He went on to say that opera has always suffered from the incorrect perception that the art form is aloof—an elevated entertainment for a certain type of person. Through research funded by the Wallace Foundation, the Opera had the opportunity to truly analyze their audience demographics and began taking steps to actively engage them in the work on stage.

“I’ve heard some young people say it’s actually quite cool to go to the opera,” Lang said. “Which is such a good thing for us to hear.”

Lang has been focused on making Seattle Opera more accessible for all audiences.

“You know, it’s very easy for organizations to rightfully be very proud of what they achieve, especially if they achieve good stuff,” Lang said. “But that’s not the purpose. The purpose is the experience we get with the audience. It’s the only reason we’re here. Without an audience it’s a rehearsal. I’ve always said that.”

Thinking back on his career at Seattle Opera, Lang remembers the pre-production days of Beatrice & Benedict in 2018 fondly. Lang brought on two fellow artistic leaders to help him rework the classic Hector Berlioz opera: John Langs of ACT Theatre and Ludovic Morlot of the Seattle Symphony.

“You know, what we devised, honestly is a better piece than what Berlioz gave,” Lang said.

The way Lang tells it, Berlioz had completely removed the emotional core of Much Ado About Nothing from the opera, leaving audiences with two witty lovers and nothing to hold onto. Langs and Lang would pull from the original Shakespeare while Morlot found additional Berlioz music to score those scenes.

The cast of Beatrice & Benedict
The cast of ‘Beatrice & Benedict.’ Courtesy of Seattle Opera

“I’m so proud of what we did,” Lang said. “I mean, it may have had some flaws along the way. It’s never going to be perfect. But as a concept, I thought it was a real example of three organizations coming together in a creative manner. It was so memorable, actually.”

While there are no plans for this particular version of Beatrice & Benedict to be performed again, Lang feels like it would do really well in a conservatory setting.

“You know, it’s out and about that this version exists now, and I’d love to see it on again by someone else,” Lang said. 

While Lang has plans to visit Seattle many times in the future, his first visit unfortunately won’t be lining up with the opera he’s most looking forward to this coming season.

“I’m really upset to miss the Rigoletto,” Lang said. “It’s a production we did at New Zealand Opera, directed by Lindy Hume. And it’s contemporary. It was actually inspired by Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister who was always getting caught in scandal.”

When Giuseppe Verdi first premiered the opera in 1851, he wanted audiences to see their own contemporary world, reflecting the corrupt power of the ruling aristocracy on stage. The opera was censored and it wasn’t until Verdi agreed to set the opera in Renaissance Italy that the production was permitted to move forward.

“You know, people say opera always has to be in the time the composer saw it,” Lang said. “But if we do that, we’re doing exactly what the censors did. We’re putting it back in history, and it’s losing its impact.”

When New Zealand Opera produced this reimagined Rigoletto in 2012, it was slightly ahead of its time. With its up to the minute contemporary costumes and settings, New Zealand Opera’s Rigoletto examined the danger of political power and the ways that power could be used to inflict sexual abuse and assault without consequence. It was a #MeToo era opera without the hashtag.

New Zealand Opera 2012 production of Rigoletto
New Zealand Opera 2012 production of ‘Rigoletto’. Photo by Neil Mackenzie

“He’s a young, charismatic, newly elected prime minister or president, whatever, whichever,” Lang said. “It’s not clear. It doesn’t need to be clear. And that’s exactly what this piece is about. It’s about this guy who isn’t just a playboy and some idle Renaissance aristocrat. He’s the political leader. And he’s corrupt. And this production makes it totally clear and potent.”

After a breath, Lang lamented his absence in the audience once more.

“I’m sorry to miss that because everyone’s in for an absolute thought-provoking treat,” he said. “The best Rigoletto I’ve ever seen. I was so pleased we could bring it here. I’m sad I’m not going to see it.”

After I asked my final question, Lang offered to take me on a tour of the new Seattle Opera headquarters. As he guided me from the admin offices to the rehearsal rooms to the Opera’s dedicated loading dock to McCaw Hall, he greeted every employee by name, asking them about their day and thanking them for their work. It was clear from our interview that Lang’s passion for Seattle Opera and the people who work there ran deep. But it wasn’t until these off-mic moments, these stolen moments of comradery in hallways and rehearsal halls, that I was able to see that passion reflected right back.

It feels fitting to close with a quote from Seattle Opera’s founder Glynn Ross, a quote from June 4, 1969 that’s prominently displayed in the lobby of the new headquarters, greeting employees and visitors alike.

“We are not custodians of the old order,” Ross said. “We are not curators of establishment art. We must be oriented towards the future. It is our business to improve the quality of life. We had better become positive and not just stand by.”

It’s a sentiment Lang echoed over the course of our conversation. And it’s one Seattle Opera will continue to hold dear for many years to come.

Rigoletto will be the first show in Seattle Opera’s 2019-20 season, playing August 10–28. Tickets are available online.

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.

Pacific Northwest Ballet Thinks Outside the Box—and the Theatre!—with OUTSIDE/IN

Once summer rolls around, nothing can stand between a Seattleite and the outdoors. Which is why the Pacific Northwest Ballet made outdoor performance an annual tradition.

Ask any Pacific Northwest resident what their favorite time of year is and they’ll answer, without hesitation and with a resounding amount of verve, summer. Every workday ends with a detour through the Olympic Sculpture Park or a jaunt around Green Lake. Every weekend is filled with long lazy trips to Golden Gardens or taxing treks in hiking boots. But we’re still art lovers. Just don’t make us go inside.

When it comes to merging a love of the outdoors with a love of art, Pacific Northwest Ballet has you covered. In June 2016, PNB started what will hopefully be a very long tradition of outdoor summer performance, beginning with Sculptured Dance at the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park in 2016 and 2017, and continuing on with an annual series of performances on their home turf in 2018 and, now, 2019.

Longtime ballet audiences may remember the first iteration of PNB’s outdoor performance series: summer performances held at Chateau Ste. Michelle from 1992 to 1995. Audiences were charged admission and, as the story goes, there was always a little too much rain. The best part of this new and improved outdoor performance tradition? Admission is free and open to the public.

Peter Boal, artistic director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, cited access, inclusion and a total removal of entrance barriers as the main reasons these outdoor performances are, and always should be free.

“One of the reasons that we have been interested in outdoor performances of late is to create easier access to ballet,” Boal said. “We had 5,000 attendees at our first Sculptured Dance, many of whom were seeing PNB for the first time. New settings bring new inspiration and new audiences.”

Noelani Panatastico’s Picnic at Sculptured Dance, 2017.
Noelani Panatastico’s ‘Picnic’ at Sculptured Dance, 2017. Courtesy of PNB

And those new audiences sometimes surprise themselves. Boal recounted the joy he felt whenever an audience member stumbled upon Sculptured Dance or NEXT STEPS: OUTSIDE/IN—as they biked across the Olympic Sculpture Park bike path, played in the Pocket Beach or walked around Seattle Center. It’s a joyous challenge for dancers and choreographers.

“I think both choreographers and dancers love a new canvas,” Boal said. “So much of dance is created in a studio for the stage. A backdrop of sculpture, water or landscape can inspire fresh perspective.”

Boal says there’s a lot to look forward to at this year’s OUTSIDE/IN performance, but the performance he’s most excited about is a group-choreographed piece created for the Kreielsheimer Promenade and Fountain by PNB’s newest and youngest class of choreographers: the nineteen choreographers who make up New Voices: Choreography and Process for Young Women in Dance.

Ron Gatsby, artistic director of Purple Lemonade Collective, first became involved in PNB’s outdoor performance tradition through Purple Lemonade’s partnership with the Seattle Art Museum. When PNB moved their outdoor performances from the Olympic Sculpture Park to Seattle Center in 2018, Gatsby came along for the ride.

With the entire Seattle Center campus available as a canvas, Gatsby chose to choreograph for the International Fountain, using the mythology of Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of art, love, beauty and fresh water as inspiration. When Gatsby is choreographing for indoor performance, they’re conscious of the limitations of the space and how those limitations affect the dynamics of the performance. 

“When I’m choreographing for an outside environment,” Gatsby said, “I really allow myself to choreograph movement without concern for the space around me. I can jump higher, reach farther and really stretch myself—both literally and figuratively.”

Gatsby begins every rehearsal for his upcoming NEXT STEPS: OUTSIDE/IN performance with a spoken piece, a story or a meditation on the goddess Oshun. This sets the tone for that day’s rehearsal, preparing the dancers for a new set of choreography or a movement workshop.

“One thing we’ve recently incorporated is rehearsing in Cal Anderson Park in addition to a traditional studio space,” Gatsby said. “This allows us to see how the public organically responds to the movement.”

There are many things you can’t control when it comes to outdoor performance but the biggest outlier is always going to be the weather. Gatsby said that the worst thing a dancer could face when performing outdoors is the possibility of rain. But with the entirety of their piece taking place in the International Fountain, the scariest factor—water—is confronted head on. But that doesn’t make it any less of a challenge.

“The fountain has an effect on everything from the wardrobe to the way we move,” Gatsby said. “Because we are working with the fountain, I have to choreograph movement that is both dynamic and safe enough for the dancers to perform. I have to consider how they’re going to feel dancing in wet clothes, the type of footwear they wear.”

But Ron Gatsby will be the first to tell you: he loves a challenge.

'The Purple Lemonade' at Summer at SAM: Sculptured Dance, 2017.
‘The Purple Lemonade’ at Summer at SAM: Sculptured Dance, 2017. Photo courtesy of Ron Gatsby

Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, has been involved in this new tradition of outdoor PNB performance from the very beginning. When Peter Boal invited Byrd to choreograph a piece for the inaugural Sculptured Dance performance in 2016, he was eager to return to site-specific choreography.

“I saw it as an opportunity to return to a kind of work that had given me great pleasure earlier in my career,” Byrd said. “I also thought it would be a lot of fun.”

And it was fun. Byrd enjoyed the challenge of drawing the audience’s attention to the unique outdoor space, especially in the case of Untitled, which was performed at the Roy McMakin sculpture of the same name.

“There is an interplay among the various elements,” Byrd said. “The terrain, sculpture, dancers, movement, audience and sound—including audience sounds; ambient sound like traffic, dogs and sirens; and the predetermined sounds that the choreographer has chosen—all play a role.”

Byrd was incredibly aware of the audience’s role in the performance of Untitled. Because of the dancer’s proximity to the audience, and the audience’s ability to view the performance from any angle, he choreographed the piece as something to be eavesdropped on. It was a breakup.

The biggest challenge in choreographing for Sculptured Dance was being okay with the audience missing part of the performance—either because they were standing too far away or because other audience members were obstructing their view. In the end, it was something Byrd simply had to be at peace with.

“I had to submit to the realness of the circumstances,” Byrd shared.

While Byrd agrees that free public performances like Sculptured Dance and NEXT STEPS: OUTSIDE/IN are important to our community, he warns that “free art” and “accessible art” aren’t synonymous phrases.

“In terms of arts exposure, education and awareness, all of our communities are underserved,” Byrd said. “None of them get enough.”

Which leaves Byrd wondering: How do we get to a point where art plays a critical role in the health and well-being of all our communities? How do we ensure that art becomes essential?

Christopher D’Ariano, a corps de ballet dancer at PNB, first became involved in NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN last year as a participant in both the outdoor and indoor components. As both a dancer and a choreographer in the same 2018 program, D’Ariano performed Donald Byrd’s solo piece Wake the Neighbor and then, mere minutes later, watched a company of PNB Professional Division dancers perform his own choreography: Youthquake. This year, D’Ariano was inspired to create outside the theatre walls.

D’Ariano in Byrd’s 'Wake the Neighbors' at NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN, 2018.
D’Ariano in Byrd’s ‘Wake the Neighbors’ at NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN, 2018. Photo by Lindsay Thomas

“Outdoor performances are more unpredictable,” D’Ariano said. “The audience is more involved and the dancers’ work is challenged by the direct gaze of every viewer around them. It becomes a more personal experience.”

The audience’s proximity to the dancers makes everything more intimate. Audience members are granted access into a 360-degree view of the choreography, giving every single moment a new and specific meaning. Audiences share in the sweat, breath and momentum of the piece, sharing in an orchestration of tension and control. And dancers are stripped of the theatrical protections of the orchestra pit, stage lights and curtain.

“Creating for an outdoor space allows me, as a choreographer, room to explore the limits I can push,” D’Ariano shared. “Will the fourth wall be broken, or will the subject be like a fish in an aquarium? The magic lies in the intention.”

Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan, a corps de ballet dancer at PNB, first became involved in the ballet’s outdoor performance tradition as a dancer in Noelani Pantastico’s Picnic at the 2017 Sculptured Dance. The performance was such a success that the entire company was invited back to perform the piece at the 2018 NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN.

“The main adjustment we made to dance outdoors was ditching our pointe shoes for sneakers, which I think we all enjoyed,” Ryan said. “We also had a much closer audience than we get in a theatre. I appreciated this because it allowed us to have a greater connection with our audience than we traditionally do from a raised and distant stage.”

Simply being on the same level as the audience made Ryan feel like she was more than entertainment. She was a human being.

Ryan said the rehearsal process for Picnic wasn’t all that different from a traditional ballet rehearsal. Instead of adjusting for set pieces, Ryan was conscious of the placement of Alexander Calder’s The Eagle or the slope of the Boeing Green.

“We mostly had to make sure the choreography was feasible for grass so that our bodies were protected,” Ryan said.

Ryan loves that PNB includes free outdoor performance as part of their season. “I could seriously do an entire interview on this subject alone,” Ryan joked. When asked to comment on the importance of accessible art in our community, Ryan said this: “Accessible art is essential to all communities—and I love that PNB is contributing to ours.”

This year’s NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN will be held on Friday, June 14 at and around McCaw Hall. The outdoor portion of the performance is free and will be held from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., surrounded by food trucks, a photo booth and PNB giveaways. Choreography by Dammiel Cruz, Christopher d’Ariano, Ron Gatsby, Mark Haim and the nineteen students from New Voices: Choreography and Process for Young Women in Dance will be featured. The indoor portion of the performance is $25 and begins at 7:30 p.m. that evening.

Danielle Mohlman is a nationally produced feminist playwright and arts journalist based in Seattle. Her play Nexus is among the 2015 Honorable Mentions on The Kilroys list. She is an alumnus of the inaugural class of Playwrights’ Arena at Arena Stage and the 2018 Umbrella Project Writers Group.