A New Kind of Historical Adventure Premieres at Cal Shakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brynn Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wooden O Takes the Bard Beyond Gender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training Up the Next Generation of Theatre Artists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory.

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

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

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

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

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

Aidan Lang Gives Seattle Opera a Fond Farewell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating the Million Dollar Musical at Village Theatre

The return of Million Dollar Quartet marks the homecoming of one of Village Theatre’s most successful musical developments.

The return of Million Dollar Quartet marks the homecoming of one of Village Theatre’s most successful musical developments.

Workshopped in 2006 as part of Village Originals Festival of New Musicals, Million Dollar Quartet appeared on Village Theatre’s mainstage in 2007 and topped a million dollars in ticket sales for the company. 

Based on a true story of an all-day jam session between Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, the show went on to a Broadway run in 2010, a Tony Award for Levi Kreis (the Jerry Lee Lewis in the original Village Theatre run) and a host of reappearances everywhere from London’s West End to Harrah’s Las Vegas, as well as on Norwegian Cruise Lines.

As Village Theatre’s Executive Producer Robb Hunt recalls, the show was a hit with the staff as well as the audience from the first. “We did some casting in L.A. and some here, put it in Festival in 2006, and it was very exciting. It was unusual but we did [the Festival production] with a full band when typically it was just a piano.”

Executive Producer Robb Hunt.
Executive Producer Robb Hunt. Courtesy of Village Theatre

For a show to rocket out of the Festival to a full-blown production was unusual as well. “We’ve been honing our craft for many years. We did our first new musical back in the 1980s and it’s a very slow process,” Hunt said. More typically, shows workshopped in the Festival go back to the writers to rework. “When musicals start as readings at the Festival or a writers residency, we may come out with a scene or a whole act with that process. You move things around—such as songs go from act one to act two. It’s not like designing a car where all these engineers know exactly how it is going to end up and how you are going to do it.”

But Million Dollar Quartet took shape almost immediately. Creators Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux “had this concept from the get-go,” said Hunt. The only real hitch in development was trying to secure the rights for all the songs referenced in the show. “We had certain rights for [Village Theatre] but they couldn’t get some for Chicago and New York runs. They had to work really hard to adjust for that. That’s some of the things that I remember about the original run.”

For Brandon Ivie, associate artistic director at Village Theatre, Million Dollar Quartet is not just “such a feather in our cap” it’s also a musical that provides some necessary cheer. “We’re living in real tough times. It’s really easy to get beaten down by the world. This provides relief. This provides a moment for people to sit and have a great time. This is about an amazing turning point in American music,” he said.

Village Theatre’s new production features a new all-star cast and creative team that includes links to the past productions. “For this show, casting is a huge challenge,” said Director Scott Weinstein. “Not only do we need amazing actors and singers, but they also need to be virtuosic musicians. When you add on the need for them to look and sound like the iconic stars that they are embodying, the challenge only increases. Luckily, we found an absolutely incredible cast!”

The current production features Skye Scott as Carl Perkins, Brian Grey as Johnny Cash, Jason Kappus as Elvis Presley, John Countryman as Jerry Lee Lewis, Matt Wade as Sam Phillips, Cayman Ilika as Dyanne, James “Rif” Reif (who appeared in the 2007 Million Dollar Quartet at Village Theatre) as WS “Fluke” Holland and Chris Jones as Brother Jay.

2019 production of 'Million Dollar Quartet' at Village Theatre.
2019 production of ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ at Village Theatre. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Weinstein himself served as the associate and resident director of the Broadway production of Million Dollar Quartet. He also oversaw the Equity National Tour, Chicago and Las Vegas productions, and currently directs the resident productions on Norwegian Cruise Lines and at the Lawrence Welk Theatre. Joining Weinstein is music director and country music superstar, Chuck Mead who has been with the show from Village Theatre’s first outing to Broadway and back to Village Theatre again. Rounding out the team of this all-new production is scenic designer Andrea Bryn Bush, lighting designer Geoff Korf, costume designer Esther Garcia and sound designer Brent Warwick. 

Million Dollar Quartet will play through June 23 at Village Theatre in Issaquah before moving to the theatre’s Everett performance space for a month-long run June 28 to July 28.

In the meantime, Hunt, Ivie, Artistic Director Jerry Dixon and the rest of the Village Theatre team continue to hunt for the next big musical.

“The trick is to get a variety and diversity in the subject matter, the type of music and the story lines,” said Hunt. “We try to mix it up so we have a great variety for our audience. It’s sort of an art. Lots of good material that we evaluate that belongs at some point—but we’re only doing five shows a year.”

John Countryman and Skye Scott in 2019 production of 'Million Dollar Quartet.'
John Countryman and Skye Scott in 2019 production of ‘Million Dollar Quartet.’ Photo by Mark Kitaoka

“[Our workshops and festival] are developing musicals in so many different stages of the game,” said Ivie. “Definitely we are in a moment when voices that used to not be considered commercial are now being considered. I’m seeing a shift in who is telling the stories. Women writers, trans writers, people of color have started being considered seriously. That is changing the stories that are being told and that’s very exciting.”

For next season, Village Theatre will be presenting another new musical that they are developing, Hansel & Gretl & Heidi & Günter, and hoping it will go beyond their run in spring 2020.

“That’s the challenge that we have. We love the success that Million Dollar Quartet had. We’d like more of those. We’d like more that are picked up by others and published,” said Hunt. “So, we are inviting other commercial producers to see [a reading of Hansel & Gretl & Heidi & Günter] and see if we can generate interest so that they will help us move it forward.”

Million Dollar Quartet is playing at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre now through June 23. It will then run at Everett Performing Arts Center June 28—July 28.

Check out Village Theatre’s full 2019/20 season on our Events Calendar.

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

JACK Quartet Gears Up for ‘Human Subjects’ at Meany Center

An innovative collaboration between the JACK Quartet, neuroscientists and educators at the University of Washington is preparing for a performance at the intersection of science and music. After three years in the making, Human Subjects is ready to make (brain) waves.

When the JACK Quartet premieres Human Subjects by composers Richard Karpen and Juan Pampin later this month, they’ll be totally wired—literally. The quartet, whose extended three-year residency at the University of Washington culminates in the concert on May 18, will be performing this world premiere composition while wearing portable encephalophones (also known as EEG brain helmets) and attached to wearable muscle neuron sensors.

During the upcoming performance at Meany Hall, the sometimes musical, sometimes noisy response of the JACK Quartet’s brainwaves will add another layer to the composition of Human Subjects. While Karpen and Pampin’s score has been meticulously composed—and the musical response of brainwaves has been considered at every stage of the process—there’s still room for improvisation and reaction in the JACK Quartet’s performance. It’s this musical unknown that’s made the three-year collaboration with the University of Washington’s Music Composition and DXARTS departments so exciting.

Karpen, one of Human Subjects’ co-composers, is the founding director of the university’s Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) in addition to serving as director of the University of Washington’s School of Music. DXARTS, created in 2001, was designed to support a new generation of hybrid artists, creating opportunities for artists to learn in the ever-evolving field of digital arts. Pampin, Human Subjects’ other co-composer, is the associate director of DXARTS, where the JACK Quartet has been collaborating with Pampin and Karpen, several neuroscientists and a team of researchers.

John Pickford Richards, viola, wants to encourage audience members to rid themselves of expectations and let the experience of Human Subjects wash over them. “We like to say we’re controlling the music with our minds, but really, we’re making music with them.”

JACK Quartet started performing at the University of Washington over a decade ago—and in that time, the idea of developing brain-controlled music with composers Karpen and Pampin slowly began to form. When the Meany Center received a Mellon Foundation grant in 2016, the three-year JACK Quartet residency was born. Most of the residency was spent wearing those encephalophones and experimenting with improvisation.

the JACK Quartet
Shervin Lainez

“We certainly had no idea what would come of it,” Richards said, “but we knew it would be experimental, which is our general preference.”

After an extended period of research and development, the team set their sights on creating a concert-length work.

“Most music we play is composed in traditional western music notation, but this piece has developed slowly through discussion and trying things out,” Richards explained. The performance audiences see and hear on May 18 will truly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The JACK Quartet, or JACK, was founded in 2005 by Richards, violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, and cellist Kevin McFarland, whose first initials spell the quartet’s name. In 2016, violinist Austin Wulliman and Jay Campbell replaced Streisfeld and McFarland, respectively, but by then, the quartet’s name had stuck.

Wulliman hopes that audiences will leave Meany Hall curious about sound and fascinated by the pathways JACK’s brains travel in order to create the musical labyrinth on stage.

“We had a hilarious time testing the Boulez quartet for our readings on the EEG,” Wulliman said, recalling his first visit to the University of Washington as a newly minted member of JACK.

The quartet experimented with form: first playing the quartet normally, then simply moving their arms as they followed the music, and finally, just thinking about the song—all while wearing the portable encephalophones.

“This was some of the foundational data for building the electronic instrument as it stands now,” Wulliman said. “My favorite memories from that first trip are running through the Arboretum and drinking a wonderful martini at Flowers.”

While it’s often said that science and music are the universal languages of our planet, making Human Subjects an incredible blend of the two. But Wulliman prefers to examine the individual nature of music.

“I see the personal and empathic in each individual work of art,” he said. “This piece, by its very nature, becomes personal and specific to us and our bodies as performers.”

JACK Quartet at EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center). Photo by Cenk Ergün
JACK Quartet at EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center). Photo by Cenk Ergün

JACK has been visiting the University of Washington since 2009, with residencies ranging from reading student work to public performances. It was there that they met Karpen and Pampin, who invited the quartet to join them for a three-year extended residency. The technology itself was alluring, but JACK was also drawn to the amount of time they’d be able to spend on this single concert-length piece.

“This work is different from most of our other premieres in several respects,” Christopher Otto shared. “First, there’s obviously new technology involved that we haven’t worked with before. Second, we’ve spent much more time immersed in the collaborative creation of this work than we have with most pieces. Third, the composition has not involved any kind of notation, but rather relies on a dialogue among the creators about the different types of musical situations we will navigate.”

When Otto learned that the quartet would be working with EEG, the concept peaked his curiosity. Otto was familiar with the composer Alvin Lucier, whose 1965 composition Music for Solo Performer involved Lucier hooking himself up to borrowed scientific equipment in order to amplify his Alpha brainwaves and operate sixteen percussion instruments. It’s a fascinating piece (11 minutes of which are available on Youtube) but Otto knew digital music technology had advanced significantly since then.

Otto shared that there are several challenges and joys that come with the experimental nature of Human Subjects, but the biggest challenge has been enduring the physical pain that comes from the sharp electrodes pushing on his skull. But it’s not all pain. Learning how to control the electromyography (EMG) armbands to manipulate JACK’s instrumental sound was a joyful experience.

“I’m interested in the ways that sound as a material, governed by physics, can interact with the human psyche,” Otto said. He added that he’s been interested in mathematics for a long time, and that this interest informs the music he composes.

JACK Quartet
Beowulf Sheehan

“There are endless possibilities, and most of them are found through improvisation and conversation,” shared Jay Campbell.

The biggest joy Campbell is finding in the Human Subjects process is the room for experimentation.

“The collaborative aspect of this project is really fun,” Campbell said. “We can improvise with these tools and find novel sounds—or we can just ask if certain sounds could be coded in to correlate to specific physical actions.”

Campbell is fascinated with the relationships between brainwaves and sound, especially when it comes to making music and composition a more accessible form for people with disabilities. These same instruments that JACK is experimenting with at the University of Washington could one day serve as creative outlets for folks unable to sing or operate traditional musical instruments.

“We’re all just kind of playing around with these really complex toys, tweaking and honing it towards something that has expressive capacity,” Campbell said.

When asked what they’ll miss most about Seattle, Otto cited the Henry Art Gallery, particularly The James Turrell Skyspace, Light Reign. For the rest of the ensemble, what they’re going to miss doubles as a restaurant recommendation: Din Tai Fung.

Human Subjects will be performed at the University of Washington’s Meany Center on May 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for students and seniors, $20 for the general public and can be purchased online or by calling (206) 543-4880. More information about the JACK Quartet can be found on their website.

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.

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Seattle Theatre

Danielle Mohlman continues her exploration of equity, diversity and inclusion in Seattle’s theatre community by speaking with local artists and organizations about recent achievements and trials they have faced.

Over the last few years, equity, diversity and inclusion have become goals of theatre companies across the United States. But what does that look like in practice? We spoke with four theatres in Seattle who put these goals at the center of their practice and asked them to share their successes, aspirations and the areas they feel need improvement. 

In October 2018, the Dramatists Guild and The Lilly Awards released The Count 2.0, a national census that analyzed data from six seasons of theatre, 2011 to 2017, looking at the production history of theatres of all sizes. The Count was focused on playwrights, lyricists and book writers—the content creators of the theatre—and released information that doesn’t feel all that surprising: of all the major cities surveyed, Seattle has the most room to grow. Between 2011 and 2017, only 8% of produced plays in Seattle were written by artists of color and only 24% by women. 

The Count certainly has its own room to grow. It’s impossible to count every single theatre in Seattle, let alone every theatre in the country, so they created a set of guidelines to generate the most representative survey. To start, the theatre must be a non-profit with at least a decade of experience professionally producing plays or musicals. Each theatre surveyed produced at least three plays or musicals each season, with each production running longer than 21 performances. And the theatre had to be routinely reviewed, either nationally or regionally. 

And while The Count didn’t release data on generative artists who identify as queer, non-binary or disabled, the statistics still feel like a challenge to theatres. A challenge to create theatre that looks more like our world. 

There are national efforts to meet this challenge, like The Jubilee, a nationwide theatre festival featuring works by artists who have traditionally been excluded—including but not limited to artists of color; Native American, Indigenous and First Nations artists; women; non-binary and gender non-conforming artists; LGBTQIA2+ artists; Deaf artists; and artists with disabilities—and regional endeavors, like The Women’s Voices Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C. But what are Seattle theatres doing to meet this challenge? 

At Intiman Theatre, Artistic Director Jennifer Zeyl and Executive Director Phillip Chavira are using a compact and impactful mission to guide their way. Simply put, Intiman “wrestles with American inequities.” 

“It means upending the apple cart,” Zeyl said. “Change to power structures must happen from the bottom up and the top down. It means remaining open to having every aspect of your organization challenged and changed. It means empowering youth voice and centering the vision and talents of the future.”

Chavira added that wrestling with these inequities isn’t easy. 

“It means talking about white supremacy,” Chavira said. “There will be tough conversations to have with your team and facing years of oppression can be challenging.” 

Chavira pointed out that he’s the first executive director of color in Intiman’s 45-year history—and that equity, diversity and inclusion should extend far beyond the stage to include administration and executives as well. Chavira, who identifies as Latinx, Mexican-American and queer, moved to Seattle two years ago to take over the executive director role. 

Native Gardens
Cast of Native Gardens by Karen Zacarías. Intiman Theatre (2018).

In 2018, Intiman retired their $2.7 million debt and are now operating debt-free. 

“But we’re super lean,” Chavira said. “It’s time to grow our company. Our mission is flourishing and audiences want more diverse narratives on stage.”

And as they flourish, Intiman is examining how they can become more inclusive. 

“We are learning constantly,” Zeyl said. “Guarding the intersection of professional theatre-making and community storytelling takes humbleness, dexterity and a willingness to throw the rule book out the window.”

Pratidhwani’s mission centers on creating performance opportunities for artists of South Asian descent. Agastya Kohli, artistic director of the organization’s Drama Wing, explained that this often materializes in producing plays with an India-centric view. But that’s not a hard and fast rule. 

“We’ve produced plays written specifically with Indian characters, as well as plays that were not written for Indian actors at all,” Kohli said. “We are developing, fostering and maintaining a thriving pipeline of artists that all theatres in Seattle benefit from and can enrich their works with.” 

This season, Pratidhwani partnered with both Forward Flux Productions and Theater Schmeater to co-produce A Small History of Amal, Age 7 and I and You, respectively.

“Pratidhwani is an engine that is enabling equity, diversity and inclusion not just within our footprint in performance arts, but well beyond the scope of just our productions,” Kohli said. 

Pratidhwani exists to nourish and nurture the Indian community in Seattle, from both an audience and artist perspective. Kohli, who identifies as a director, producer and actor who happens to be Indian, shared that the organization doesn’t think about diversity and inclusion when programming their season.

“We are creating a space where we naturally tell stories that look ‘diverse’ to the dominant culture of Seattle,” Kohli said. “To us, these are not stories of ‘others’—these stories are not ‘different’. These are our stories. They ground us in a foreign land. They allow us to exist in two different worlds at the same time.”

Identity is at the center of Deaf Spotlight’s work as well. Patty Liang, the organization’s executive director, identifies as Deaf, feminist, Chinese-American and someone who believes strongly in giving back to her community. 

“You cannot ignore the intersecting identities that make you who you are,” Liang said. “As a community member, I want to see the Deaf arts community thrive, especially women and artists of color. I want to help Deaf people succeed as professional artists without having to let go of their dreams.” 

Deaf Spotlight’s mission is to showcase and celebrate Deaf culture and American Sign Language through the arts. 

“Our entire organization is fluent in ASL,” Liang said. “The majority are Deaf, and represent a range of professionals and community members who believe in supporting the Deaf arts community. There is not enough visibility for Deaf artists and their contributions to the art world, and there aren’t enough professional opportunities for Deaf artists to hone their skills. We want to change that.”

In Liang’s experience, most arts organizations don’t plan for Deaf and disabled access. 

“As an artist and an arts administrator, I want the ability to go to any event, any time I want, without having to struggle to request interpreters beforehand,” Liang said. “My professional and artistic growth has been stunted by the lack of options available to me. The same is true for many Deaf and disabled artists.”

I and You
I and You by Lauren Gunderson, a co-production with Theater Schmeater.

Liang understands from experience that making performances accessible takes time and resources. She challenges theatres and other arts organizations to budget for interpreting, captioning, audio descriptions and other neurodiverse and physical accommodations. 

Deaf Spotlight started a short play festival to see Deaf performances, stories and experiences on stage. Kellie Martin, who identifies as both queer and Deaf and uses the pronouns “ze” and “zir,” runs the festival each year. 

“I never thought I would fall in love with theatre,” Martin said. “In college, I realized that theatre is rich with depth in terms of analyzing each character’s role on the stage and the stories that made them who they are. I like to make people think. As an art advocate, I often see the potential in people from my community, and I want to help Deaf artists thrive in their creative fields.”

Martin shared that ze admires the six playwrights who were featured in the 2019 festival. 

“I’m really excited for these playwrights to grow, evolve and to create even more plays with their own authentic experience—rather than having hearing playwrights write for Deaf actors,” Martin shared. “I love seeing the Deaf, hard of hearing and DeafBlind communities have a chance to share their artistic expression.”

Martin is continuing to hone zir craft, but wishes access to workshops, panels and forums was a given. 

“I don’t want to feel frustrated at not having access to these types of professional development opportunities,” Martin said. “I want accessibility available without having to ask in advance, including interpreters and relevant assistive technology.”

Desdemona Chiang, a freelance director who identifies as both Chinese and American, understands that as an Asian female director working nationally, she’s in demand. 

“I’m a commodity,” Chiang joked. “Right? I’m very useful. Because if someone wants to produce Shakespeare, it’s like ‘Oh! We could totally diversify our season if we have Desdemona direct Shakespeare.’ Or if ACT wants to do an Asian play. The fact of the matter is, the number of directors who work on a regional theatre level who can check off ‘Asian’ and check off ‘female’ are very few.”

Chiang walks into any meeting with a LORT (League of Resident Theatres) establishment knowing that she’s valuable because of how she presents. However, Chiang often only sees those diversity boxes checked on the one show she’s hired on. 

“I think what a lot of theatres do, when they’re looking at the leading edge for diversity, is that they look at the plays they’re programming,” Chiang said. “Right? ‘We want to program writers of color.’ Or more female or non-binary writers. And from there, hopefully that opens up some opportunities for the creative team. But I think a lot of times they begin with the text. I think they do it because they have to, not because they want to.”

But that’s not the only way to make change in regional theatre. 

Over the course of our conversation, Chiang brought up Mixed Blood Theatre Company in Minneapolis, a theatre Jennifer Zeyl also cited as an inspiration for her own work. 

“I don’t question their motives,” Chiang said. “It’s not about inclusivity or diversity. It’s actually about justice. Jack Reuler at Mixed Blood is very concerned about justice and access. And it’s not just about the optical representation of brown bodies on stage. He’s genuinely interested in an economic justice.”

Chiang explained the theatre’s Radical Hospitality program for communities that didn’t have a way to physically get to the theatre. Reuler set up free buses for folks with transportation needs and provided free tickets for low income audience members. 

“This is the tricky part when we’re talking about diversity and inclusion,” Chiang said. “We’re talking about ‘Oh, let’s just show more brown people.’ And I don’t think that’s the solution. And that’s actually pretty problematic. Because what we’re not dealing with is how it affects the injustice in our society.” 

That sounds like an excellent challenge to Seattle theatres.

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

Sensory-friendly Performances in Seattle—and Beyond

More than 3.5 million Americans live with autism spectrum disorder. We spoke with five performing arts organizations in the Seattle area who are committed to providing sensory-friendly performances that welcome all families, including those whose children have autism and other sensory sensitive disabilities.

Being an audience member is powerful. Going to the symphony can connect you with a piece of music that feels like it was made for you. Surrounding yourself with opera can feel like communion with the soul. And that perfect piece of theatre will make you forget that you weren’t right on that stage with them. But too often, the performing arts are created for a very specific audience—an audience without sensory sensitive disabilities like autism spectrum disorder. That’s where sensory-friendly performances come in. 

According to the Autism Society of Washington, more than 3.5 million Americans live with autism spectrum disorder. Sensory-friendly performances are spaces created with autistic audiences—often children—in mind. Adjustments are made to productions, including sound levels, house lights and any strobe or other lighting elements that might be directed toward audience members. Designations are also often made to the seating arrangement inside the venue. Certain areas of the theatre are designated as quiet areas, while others allow talking amongst friends and family members. Audiences are free to walk around the theatre or even leave the space—all in the service of creating a performing arts experience that addresses each audience member’s needs.

Taproot Theatre, Village Theatre, Seattle Symphony and Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT) all include sensory-friendly performances in their programming. The national tour of The Lion King even included a sensory-friendly performance at The Paramount Theatre earlier this year. 

Spencer Wolfe in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show at SCT
Spencer Wolfe in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show at SCT

“I think it’s important to be clear that the goal is not to change the art and the performance,” said Tracy Jirikowic, PhD, OTR/L, associate professor in the Division of Occupational Therapy at the University of Washington. Jirikowic has been researching sensory-friendly performances with her colleague Caroline Umeda, PhD, OTR/L, an assistant professor at Dominican University of California. Together, they’ve worked with performing arts organizations to implement sensory-friendly performances in their seasons, with the goal of creating inclusive spaces for audiences with and without disabilities. 

“Research thus far indicates that families desire an inclusive experience,” Umeda said, “not a ‘special’ experience that isolates individuals with disabilities or specific diagnoses from the rest of society.”

In 2014, Jirikowic attended the Sensory Friendly Summit in Washington, D.C., along with two Seattle Children’s Theatre staff members. She stated that, “this summit—and the collective group of people working on these initiatives nationally and internationally—inspired Seattle Children’s Theatre.” 

Umeda, who at the time was a PhD student at UW, led SCT’s first sensory-friendly performance during the run of Goodnight Moon in March 2015

“For many families who attended it was their first time bringing their child to a play,” Umeda said. “Several parents expressed surprise at how much their child enjoyed and connected with the play and how much they got out of coming.” 

SCT has benefitted greatly from Jirikowic and Umeda’s expertise. Not only does the theatre provide sensory-friendly performances for every production in their season, they also provide a Story Book, introducing autistic children to the building itself with topics such as “The Lobby” and “Entering the Theatre.” The section entitled “My Seat” includes this comforting piece of knowledge: “My seat will always be next to my family. I might have my family on one side of me and a person I don’t know on the other side of me.”

“One of the reasons I was drawn to Seattle Children’s Theatre was its commitment to making an inclusive space for all young people in our region,” said Artistic Director Courtney Sale. When she started at SCT in 2016, the theatre offered sensory-friendly performances for three of the season’s six productions. The next year, they were included in all six. 

“Attending a sensory-friendly show is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job,” Sale shared. “After the sensory-friendly performance of Stellaluna, a mother approached me and shared that this offering truly allowed her daughter to be herself. They felt welcome to verbalize and process the show in a way that might not be encouraged with a predominately neurotypical audience.”

But even with all the joy that comes from sensory-friendly performances, that space presents its own challenges. Umeda flagged marketing as one of the key challenges. Visibility is growing, but there are still many audience members who aren’t aware sensory-friendly performances are an option for them. Another key challenge is a lack of financial resources at the ­ non-profit level. 

“Organizations invested in these inclusion and equity initiatives need financial support to both get these programs off the ground and make them sustainable over time,” Umeda said. “In order to make sensory-friendly programs a reality for non-profit arts organizations, a funding stream is necessary.”

Sarah Diener, Maya Burton, Arika Matoba, Coulson Bingham, Julee Felts and Brad Walker in Taproot Theatre’s 2018 production of A Charlie Brown Christmas
Sarah Diener, Maya Burton, Arika Matoba, Coulson Bingham, Julee Felts and Brad Walker in Taproot Theatre’s 2018 production of A Charlie Brown Christmas

Taproot Theatre began offering sensory-friendly performances of A Charlie Brown Christmas in 2015, after actor Sarah Ware shared her own experiences of creating sensory-friendly performances in graduate school with Associate Artistic Director Karen Lund. And they have continuedever since. 

“After one particular performance, a parent told me what a joy it was for them to be able to enjoy theatre as a family in an atmosphere tailored to their needs,” Ware shared. “It’s really a privilege to be able to serve people in this way. Theatre is for everyone—and everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the art form. Sensory-friendly performances afford people the opportunity to be included in a world that often feels exclusive and out of touch with their needs as a family.”

In addition to many of the sound and lighting adjustments already mentioned, sensory-friendly performances at Taproot begin with a live announcement from the actors. 

“They introduce themselves and let it be known they’re all friends putting on a play together,” Lund explained. “So, if they say mean words in the play, they aren’t really mad at each other. They also remind the audience it’s okay to laugh and just have fun.”

Village Theatre began offering sensory-friendly performances through their Pied Piper series for youth and families during their 2012-13 season. Through the generosity of The Mark and Vickie Fund of the Nysether Family Foundation, Village Theatre is able to offer sensory-friendly performances free of charge. 

General Manager Erica Weir shared that during those first few seasons of sensory-friendly performances, Village Theatre put a lot of stress on themselves to deliver the perfect experience for those audiences. 

“What we started to realize through talking to families,” Weir said, “was that the most important and valuable thing was for the kids and their families to feel welcome and accepted, and that no apologies were needed.” 

Weir elaborated, explaining that every audience member has different needs. Some need to sit still, taking in every detail, while others need to use electronic devices, fidgets or headphones in order to feel comfortable. Some children need to be able to walk around during the performance and others leave before the performance is over. And every experience is accepted and welcome. 

In 2015, Seattle Symphony began exploring ways to make their family programming more inclusive to neuro-diverse children. A board member connected the Symphony with the University of Washington Autism Center and, soon after, the Symphony partnered with Seattle Pacific University’s Music Therapy Program and Music Works Northwest. These partners provided the Seattle Symphony with the resources required to develop sensory-friendly programming as part of their season. 

“The best part of the Sensory Friendly Concerts is seeing families and children able to experience a concert in a comfortable space where they do not have to worry if their child is going to make too much noise or be singled out for acting strangely,” said Collaborative Learning Manager Amy Heald. “What I love most is how the children and families feel comfortable to experience the concert however is best for them. It’s always incredibly rewarding to watch how the children get more comfortable and confident throughout the concert experience. Many are dancing and singing by the end. The dream is for all families to feel welcomed and comfortable attending any family program at the Symphony,” Heald said, “no matter what needs their child may have.”

Seattle Theatre Group experienced their first ever sensory-friendly performance earlier this year with the national tour of The Lion King. 

“Seattle Theatre Group has been receiving a number of emails and thank you letters from audience members expressing their most sincere gratitude,” said Associate Director of Education Marisol Sánchez Best. “I’ve read a number of letters that have stated that this show was the first show they’ve attended as a family. As a parent, this is hard to hear because everyone should be allowed to enjoy a night out as a family in a judgement free environment.”

Sánchez Best hopes that this will be the first of many sensory-friendly performances at the organization. 

“Seattle Theatre Group is the people’s theatre,” Sánchez Best said, “and we are committed to continuing this work for years to come.”

And a commitment to inclusive, welcoming performing arts experiences for audience members with autism spectrum disorder is a commitment we can all get behind.