Cultivating Art While Raising Children: Parent-artists on How They Make It Work

No matter the profession, becoming a parent is a significant life moment—one that inevitably requires more time, money, and creative problem solving than expected. The state of Washington is taking a major step this year by providing up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave annually. It’s a significant milestone, but one that butts itself up against a hard reality: this new policy is restricted to full-time employees, a category that many working artists do not fall under.

I had the opportunity to speak with a variety of artists—a stage manager, an actor, a scenic designer, a playwright, and a pair of ballet dancers—about their own experiences as parent-artists, and how they’ve made things work at all phases of their children’s lives. Whether they’re on stage or behind the scenes, raising newborns or tweens, these artists are working to make their own lives a little more parent-artist friendly.

Freelance stage manager Pamela Campi Spee is the chief representative of the newly formed Seattle chapter of the Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL). She’s raising her three-year-old daughter with her husband, an actor. Spee first gravitated toward PAAL after speaking with other parent-artists in her community about the challenges of the industry—juggling changing rehearsal schedules and a lack of affordable childcare chief among them.

“It seemed like such a great idea to have more people out there who are focused on doing this work, to advocate for parent-artists and help them get what they need from a theatre or a contract,” Spee said. PAAL is based in New York, but their reach is national. “I really wanted to make sure that the voices of the Seattle parent-artists were heard—and that the needs that we have in Seattle are being worked on.”

Spee has only been the chief representative of Seattle since October 2019, but she has big plans for the future of Seattle theatre, starting with childcare at auditions. PAAL has successfully partnered with theatres and childcare providers in other cities in order to make this dream a reality. And as Seattle’s spring audition season approaches, it’s the number one thing on Spee’s mind.

Stage manager and chief representative for PAAL Pamela Campi Spee.
Stage manager and chief representative for PAAL Pamela Campi Spee. PHOTO BY PAMELA S. PHOTOGRAPHY

“The other big thing I’m working on is just really understanding the needs of parents as far as the rehearsal and performance process is concerned,” Spee said. “I know there are some theatres that have become more open about having their artists bring their children to work with them as needed. And it makes those conversations just a little bit easier to have. ‘Hey, my childcare fell through so I’m going to bring them to rehearsal.’ Or, ‘I have to leave rehearsal for half an hour to go pick my child up from school because their ride fell through.’ You know, just basic needs like that.”

It’s a role she takes very personally, reflecting back on her own place in the parent-artist community. Spee knows that if she’s not happy and fulfilled on a human level, through her work as a stage manager, she won’t be able to be the best parent she can be. She adds that many artists she’s worked with opt to remain in the industry after becoming parents, despite the juggling necessary.

“It can only enrich the art that we’re seeing because you’re getting that wider scope of human experience,” Spee said. “You know, as your children are growing up, you’re seeing what’s going on in the world through that lens as well. There are also all the wonderful playwrights who are writing about the parent experience. And for those stories to be told truthfully, to have parents involved in that, is so important. Even as an audience member, these actors that you’ve watched grow through these roles get to continue to grow instead of disappearing or taking a break from acting. It’s going to be so wonderful for audiences to see those people being built up and fostered in that way.”

When Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer Lindsi Dec found out she was going to have her second baby, the timing worked out perfectly with a nine-month contract that her husband, retired PNB dancer Karel Cruz, had with the University of Oklahoma. Her boss, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, was supportive of Dec taking that time away from the company, encouraging her to spend time with her young family and return to Seattle the following season, giving her time to get back into ballet shape. When we spoke, Dec and Cruz were parents of one child, a four-year-old son. But I reminded them that by the time this article published, they’d have a newborn as well.

“Oh Lord,” Dec exclaimed, clearly excited about the new addition and caught off guard by the timing. We were five weeks from her due date.

Dec and Cruz had been talking about becoming parents for some time, starting around 2014, the season they were both promoted to principal dancer. But Dec felt like she still needed to dance and wasn’t ready to take a break, however brief.

“And then we had the opportunity to do Don Quixote by Alexei Ratmansky,” Dec said. “And Karel and I were partnered together. It’s kind of a full story for us because when we were back in the corps [de ballet] when we were 19 or 20, we would go to the back of the studios and we would practice doing pas de deux so that we could get better. And Don Q was the first pas de deux that we started, you know, us both being Hispanic, of course. And then a billion years later to have the opportunity to dance together on stage at McCaw Hall and do Don Q as the principal couple—I just remember thinking ‘Oh gosh, nothing will ever get better than this. I am ready to start a family.’”

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz in PNB’s 2015 performance of Don Quixote.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz in PNB’s 2015 performance of ‘Don Quixote.’ PHOTO BY ANGELA STERLING

Two months later, Dec was pregnant. She says that there’s never any pressure to come back to work right away and that some dancers take three months of parental leave while others take longer. Dec returned to PNB five months after having her first child.

“It was really hard for me to come back,” Dec said. “Just physically it was hard—and, of course, emotionally. But my muscles and tendons and joints and ligaments were very, very weak after I had my son. And they were just—it was always very supportive, which I really appreciate.”

But even with that support, it did take some creative problem solving for them to both return to PNB full-time. Cruz’s mother, who lives in Cuba, came to live with the couple for two years to help raise their son while Dec and Cruz were at work. But it’s all worth it for them.

“This is the best present life can give you,” Cruz said. “Having a child is the best thing in the world. When you come home from work and they run into your arms, and you see their smile. They’re basically the reason for us to be here.”

And Dec agrees. One of her favorite things to do is to bring their son to the ballet.

“He just falls in love with it,” Dec said. “And for us to be able to share that with him—something that we love so much. And now we see him so musical. To be able to share all that magic when you’re so little, to provide kind of a behind the scenes view, it’s really special.”

When Dedra Woods decided to become a parent, she wasn’t doing very much acting yet. Woods raises her nine-year-old son with her husband.


“I’ve always wanted to be a parent,” Woods said. “And it felt like the right time, so we just dove into it. And it’s interesting because I do have friends now who are pursuing their careers as artists and saying ‘Oh I don’t know. We’re thinking about having children. We’re just trying to figure it out.’ Because the schedule is so grueling, and it’s not very family friendly. It’s definitely not a decision to be taken lightly, but I feel like if it’s something you want to do, you just gotta make it work. Because there’s never going to be a perfect scenario or perfect situation. You also have to teach your children to be adaptable.”

For Woods, making it work means having a support system around her who can step up and be there. We spoke over her son’s winter break, right in the middle of the rehearsal process of The Revolutionists at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery. Her son was on his way to a play date at a close friend’s house. Woods also has family members who occasionally come into town, particularly when she’s in technical rehearsals.

“I’ve never come into contact with a theatre that wasn’t supportive of my time and my commitment to my family,” Woods said. “I feel like Seattle Children’s Theatre was a great example of this—and probably the theatre I’ve worked with that’s been the most supportive when I bring my son with me to the theatre when I have a show and he’s out of school. I had to leave town for an emergency and I knew the theatre was very supportive right from the get go. I had an understudy and I was able to attend to my family’s needs without worrying if I was going to lose my job, or if there was some penalty that was going to happen because I have to take care of my family.”

Most of the plays Woods performs in are too mature for her son to watch, but she has a vivid memory of the first time he was able to see her in a play: A Civil War Christmas at Taproot Theatre.

“He saw me and the look on his face was just—he said, ‘Mommy, you’re so good!’” Woods said. “And he’ll say things to me like ‘Mom, I’m so glad you’re an actor’ and tell me that he loves what I do. But then on the flip side, he doesn’t like my schedule. He said ‘Mom, you’re only off one day’ or ‘How come you can never do things with me and Daddy? You’re always away.’ And that hurts. That’s probably one of the most difficult challenges, feeling like ‘Am I missing out on everything?’ But I’m also helping to build and raise a human who will be resilient and see his mom as someone who is passionate about her work, which I think is very important.”

Scenic designer Matthew Smucker doesn’t remember there being much of a debate when he and his late wife Andrea Allen decided to have children. They wanted to establish their careers before having children, making a deliberate choice to wait until Smucker had finished graduate school at the University of Washington.

Scenic designer Matthew Smucker. PHOTO BY MIKE HIPPLE

“There were enough challenges that we ultimately relied on science,” Smucker said. “It wasn’t just happenstance. And we were both theatre artists—as is my current partner—so there was always the sense of ‘How do we combine these things together in an effective way?’ There were certainly some of our friends who had kids, but many of our peers in the theatre community chose to forego that aspect, which I still have complete respect for. But we knew that this was a deliberate choice and that we would have to make it work.”

Smucker’s twins are now 12 years old and he values the flexibility he has as a designer. Most of the time, he doesn’t have to be in rehearsals. And he’s not performing in the show six nights a week.

“As a parent, even with older kids, it still feels like some of the design work happens in the margins,” Smucker said. “You know, like between nine and midnight at night as opposed to fully during the day, particularly because I’m a full-time associate professor at Cornish College of the Arts. And so there’s that balance as well. When you carve out a pocket here, you have to figure out where to make it up someplace else. It’s a juggling game.”

When Smucker’s children were born, he very intentionally carved out time when he was not working—his equivalent of freelance parental leave. And once he did return to scenic design, he relied on the twins’ grandparents coming in from out of town, especially during technical rehearsals leading up to opening night.

“Even with the kids being a little older, it’s still a need,” Smucker said. “This next two-week period, I’ll be going into technical rehearsals at Village Theatre for She Loves Me and my wife Carol Roscoe is starting rehearsals as a director for Book-It for Turn of the Screw. And there’s enough challenges between those two things—enough of that after school period or that evening period—that somebody has to be there. So, Carol’s mom is coming into town for a couple of weeks to help with that.”

Smucker says his children feel very at home in the theatre, and that he remembers pulling props from the Seattle Rep warehouse with them when they were three or four years old.

“The theatres I work with regularly in Seattle are all very much aware of my status as a parent,” Smucker said. “And they’re often interested and excited to see my kids when they happen to come in with me to work. The fact that my kids might be in the theatre watching part of a rehearsal or run through, or sitting in during tech for certain periods of time, has not been a problem. I haven’t felt like I have to keep those aspects of my life separate.”

For playwright Holly Arsenault, becoming a parent and coming into her own as an artist happened at the same time.

“When I was first deciding to become a parent, I didn’t know I was a playwright yet,” Arsenault said. “I was applying to grad school for dramaturgy and praying that secretly I would get pregnant and not have to go to graduate school. I think it’s because I knew somewhere deep down that dramaturgy wasn’t really it, but I was too afraid to write plays.”

Playwright Holly Arsenault in rehearsal for Undo at Annex Theatre in 2013. PHOTO BY TRUMAN BUFFET

Arsenault’s son, who she raises with her husband, is now eight years old. And she knew that if she wanted to teach him to be brave, she would have to be brave herself. Arsenault wrote her first full-length play when her son was an infant, in addition to working full time.

“I went back to work at my day job when he was four months old, but I was writing when he was really tiny,” Arsenault said. “He didn’t sleep at all and so I did a lot of writing in the literal middle of the night, which was a little crazy but actually helped me. I think actually being sleep deprived helped me suspend my judgment on what I was writing and just write. Sometimes I would write something at four in the morning and think ‘Oh my god this is incredible.’ And then I would wake up in the morning and be like ‘What the hell? This makes no sense.’ It was like I was writing in an altered state.”

Because Arsenault began her playwriting career with so little writing time, she values the time she does have in front of her computer, whether her time is compressed by parenthood or her full-time job.

“A lot of my writing is walking around and thinking about it, not sitting in front of a computer,” Arsenault said. “And then when I finally sit down to write, I can get a lot done in 45 minutes because I’ve sort of conditioned myself that way. Even though there are times when I feel like I’ve missed out on 10 or 15 years when I should’ve been writing, I feel a bit lucky that I forged my writing style on the fire of being a brand-new parent. I didn’t have to deal with completely changing my system because I never knew any other way.”

Arsenault describes her plays as “pretty adult,” but says her son is starting to become interested in theatre.

“Now he’s starting to ask me about my plays,” Arsenault said, “and he’ll say ‘What’s it about?’ And then I’ll try to explain the play to him in a way that’s not too scary. He definitely identifies me as a playwright when people ask what I do. He doesn’t say ‘My mom works at the School of Drama at UW,’ although he does know that I work here. But he says that I’m a playwright, so that feels nice.”

Arsenault says that while there are a lot of logistics involved with raising a child as a theatre artist, what she most wants prospective and current parent-artists to walk away with is this: the theatre is poorer without your voices.

“I think that a lot of what our culture, especially our artist culture, tells us is that the qualities that make a good artist and the qualities that make a good parent are really opposite one another,” Arsenault said. “I want parent-artists to stop thinking that that’s true—and to realize that there is so much potential in the journey of parenting that can make your art better. Those are stories that deserve to be told, that belong on stage.”

I couldn’t agree more.

For more information about the Seattle chapter of the Parent Artist Advocacy League, visit

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. dan

STG’s ‘More Music’ Gives Teen Musicians a Place to Thrive

If you’re a young artist looking to jump-start your career, where should you start? Outside of traditional music schools and private lessons, teen artists hoping to break into the music industry face a plethora of youth-specific obstacles. Venues often have age restrictions, bookers tend to not take young musicians seriously, and many teens simply lack the resources to navigate the industry on their own.

One Seattle-area program, Seattle Theatre Group’s More Music @ The Moore, is disrupting this issue by providing up-and-coming teen artists and bands with the opportunity to learn from experienced teaching artists, gain insight into the music industry, and collaborate with their peers of all different musical styles. This intensive artist development program culminates in a performance this week at The Moore Theatre[Editor’s note: This event has been canceled due to restrictions on public gatherings in light of COVID-19. However, there will be a livestream of the event. More details are at the end of the article.]

Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of More Music @ The Moore is its teaching artists. Representing an expansive range of genres, styles and backgrounds, each mentor brings a different perspective that informs their teaching style. And the participants love them for it. Ethan Bovey, 2020 participant and member of hard rock band Splitting Silence, describes his experience with the mentors as “exceptionally positive.” Bovey describes being amazed at having access to such a wide variety of talented mentors who provided impactful and practical advice on songwriting, performance, and building a successful career in the music industry.

Another aspect of More Music @ The Moore that separates it from other artistic mentorship programs is its emphasis on the technical aspects of the music industry. Building a fruitful music career can be especially difficult for young people—there are innumerable barriers exclusive to young musicians that limit the options of youth trying to break into the industry. Especially without experience in the administrative side of the music industry; things like booking shows and negotiating contracts, which are often difficult for adults, can seem impossible to teens.

This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that teen artists have to juggle their career and continuing development as an artist with school and other commitments. While it might be much easier with an agent, most up-and-coming artists, especially young ones, simply don’t have the resources to hire one. More Music @ The Moore not only recognizes this problem, but actively combats it by advising participants on how to navigate the music industry as a young person, which enables them to jump-start their professional careers. 


The adults involved get a lot out of the process, too. Mentors describe the teaching process as reciprocal—while the mentees learn about technical and stylistic aspects of being in the music industry, mentors can keep up with emerging trends and stay in touch with the evolving tastes and techniques of the younger generation. Seeing so many young and talented artists working diligently at their craft invigorates the mentors as well. Being surrounded by such a great variety of “young people who are really looking to become much better at what they do” is also a source of inspiration, according to mentor and Brazilian jazz pianist Jovino Santos Neto. In addition, mentoring provides a way for teaching artists to give back to the artistic community in Seattle and pass their knowledge on to a new generation of young artists.

More Music @ The Moore is now in its 19th year, and those almost two decades of youth engagement have produced an abundance of amazing moments. One that particularly sticks out to STG’s associate director of community programming Sarah Strasbaugh, happened in 2013, when bassist and singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello was the program’s music director. One of that year’s participants, 007th, an acapella group, chose to perform a song by Ndegeocello in the finale, without mics. In order to capture the best acoustics, the performers sang from the very back of the top balcony. Strasbaugh recalled, “The audience just stopped—everyone was just taken away by how beautiful their voices were, how beautiful the sound was.”

Experiences like this, seeing such talented young artists in their prime, and “seeing young artists’ faces light up when they’re on the stage for the first time,” is why Strasbaugh enjoys her work with More Music @ The Moore so much.

More Music @ The Moore isn’t STG’s only young artist development program. Their Songwriters Lab, targeted more explicitly towards teen singer-songwriters and lyricists, truly makes STG one of the premier resources for youth musicians in that region. Also, under the guidance of an incredibly diverse and experienced mentorship team, teenage musicians of all genres and experience levels converge to learn about song composition and lyric writing. This program, like More Music @ The Moore, allows participants the ability to immerse themselves in a creative community and work with other youth artists to produce new work that’s performed at an informal show in front of family and friends. It also emphasizes practical skills for navigating the music industry, providing another exceptional opportunity for young musicians.


Another aspect of STG’s programming that makes it so unique is the tuition. Seattle Theatre Group’s programming is really rather affordable—only $375 for the week-long Songwriters Lab program, with need-based scholarships available. Starting in the music industry is already expensive for teens—instruments can cost thousands of dollars, and private music lessons can easily run more than $70 per hour, expenses that are hard to finance on a teenager’s allowance or with an after-school job. By providing such high-quality artist development programs at a price that most teens and their families can afford (and providing scholarships if they can’t), STG is taking a bold step to disrupt the economic inequities faced by so many teens. 

After learning from their peers and mentors, participants finish the intensive with a performance. Sure to be far from a typical teenage talent show, this year’s nine participating groups were scheduled to perform at The Moore Theatre on March 13. However, due to Governor Jay Inslee’s issue to cancel or postpone all public gatherings through March 31, STG has canceled the performance. Instead, STG will be offering a livestream of the March 13 matinee starting at 11 a.m. for free to the public. The impressive line-up of teen artists from this unique program is sure to demonstrate not only the talent, but the hard work of these up-and-coming youth artists.

Seattle Theatre Group is offering a livestream of the March 13 11 a.m. performance for free to the public Through their partner, Melodic Caring Project, you can view the livestream starting March 13 through March 20 here.

Lily Williamson is a first-year student at the University of Washington, where she is the managing editor of the undergraduate history journal. This will be her second year as a member of the TeenTix’s Teen Editorial Staff and arts leadership board, the New Guard. Lily is passionate about arts accessibility and art that highlights intersectionality, and she hopes to use her position as a teen editor to foster greater youth involvement in the Seattle art world.

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. 

Old and New: Looking at Jazz Through Opera Glasses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Joy and Value of a Student Matinee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start a New Holiday Tradition With Help From Bay Area Theatres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a wonderful way to welcome in the new year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Spotlight through the TeenTix Press Corps, a program that promotes critical thinking, communication and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. TeenTix is a youth empowerment and arts access non-profit. 

A Flurry of Holiday Delights Take the Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being There: The World of Nassim Soleimanpour

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

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

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

It was a complicated place.

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

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

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

I got caught.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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