west of lenin

February, part two: White Hot, The Bells, and Grotesque Animal

Here’s the continuation of short show responses for February. Sorry for the delay. Hopefully I will have caught up through March by the end of this week, and then go back to writing longer pieces about the shows I see. Also, I’m writing for The SunBreak, so look out for my debut piece later this week.

White Hot at West of Lenin

After seeing White Hot my first thought was, “Ah. There’s your backbone, Seattle theatre.” If there’s one thing White Hot had it was spine, cojones even. But aside from the shock value of seeing something new for the current Seattle theatre scene, there was a lot to love and debate about White Hot. The design was phenomenal to the point where scene changes and transitions made me sit up a little taller in my seat. Though the show spelled out “the message” overtly in a monologue (this is a show about despicable, unlikable people with a no-hope ending) I found myself compelled to watch on. The shock and violence of the piece was not exactly new, but was well-executed. And the actors handled sprawling intense dialogue with ferocity. Overall, it was a play that did not passively act on you; engagement needed to happen and dialogue about it was necessary to fully process what it accomplished. I would love to see more shows that aspire to shake-up audiences. Also, shout out to the skills of Ray Tagavilla. I’ve only seen him in two productions (the other being Lie of the Mind) but I’m amazed at how captivating he was for a relatively small part. I want to see more of him on the Seattle stage.

Strawshop’s The Bells at Erickson Theatre

I heard a reading of this play many, many months ago when I worked at Intiman as a House Manager. I remember hearing it and thinking, “This is good, but a slow pace would kill it.” There’s not a lot of action. And because you guess early on that the “twist” is not so much a twist as the inevitable direction, it’s important for the rest of the story to move at a steady clip. That’s where Strawshop lost me a bit. Though the play was well-acted, designed, and directed, they decided to keep the pauses long and pointed. The same happened for the transitions even though the transitions were using opposite sides of the stage. The lights had to fully black out (usually at 3-5 second fade time) before the lights would go up on the second half of the stage (again, at a 3-5 second fade time). This made for a longer piece with less weight. The set design was phenomenal balancing between realism, and suggestion of snow and mountain terrain. The sound, especially the bells themselves, was haunting.

El Pasado es un animal grotesco at On the Boards

The turntable of time going around for a ten-year span was surprisingly captivating especially considering the production was based in narration as opposed to action. Despite that (or, perhaps because of it) there were many moments of laughter and calls to action. The themes of transformation, progression, separation, and falsely presenting a persona connected the separate story threads over the backdrop of political upheaval in Argentina. Clear parallels from the decade the author describes in Argentina to our contemporary decade in America compelled the piece throughout, though the narration never makes the comparison directly. And though, I don’t think the intention was to have the piece show how “we are all one,” I liked that the production was different things to different people. On the Boards is a force to be reckoned with, and I’m continually amazed at what they bring to their stage.

Seattle Theatre: What’s Next?

On Monday, I had the good fortune of attending (and strangely, House Managing) an open forum for the theatre community called Seattle Theater: What’s Next at the new performance space in Fremont, West of Lenin. This event was organized by Jim Jewell in an effort to initiate discourse and create an action plan for issues facing the Seattle theatre community that some (myself included) felt went unaddressed at Mike Daisey’s How Theatre Failed America post-play discussion with Seattle artists.

For non-Seattleites, Intiman Theatre closed and the whole theatre community had an opinion about why, and whom to blame, and then wanted to discuss what to do with the empty space. After a wonderfully amazing performance, the post-play discussion heated up and then went to luke-warm. I found myself becoming more enraged as I listened to some of the biggest names in the Seattle theatre scene say truly amazing things, some shamelessly self-promoting things, and in some instances, say nothing at all.

Not many in attendance said anything new; the ones that did (most of whom weren’t speaking on stage) didn’t talk enough, and the ones that had nothing to say, said it over and over again. By the end of the evening, there were no revelations, no proposed solutions, and no incite to riot. I wanted a revolution.

Fast forward to Monday. Jim Jewell, local playwright and all around nice guy (I only met him on Monday, but I feel qualified to make this judgment) organized a gathering after penning an Open Letter to the Intiman Board. The goal was to get the local community together in one place and actually start working on some of these ideas that we keep talking about, but never put into action. The event was blogged live, so the fullest account possible can be found here. Below are the ideas from the speakers that resonated with  me.

  • Josh Groshong: re-instate the Fringe Festival
  • Jena Cane:  Can we as Seattle theatre stand for something (and she could give a fuck about bringing in new audiences)
  • Caitlin Sullivan: focus should be on making great theatre, not creating new companies, or managing new spaces
  • Meaghan Arnette: create a Humana Festival for the Northwest

All of the speakers said many more amazing things than these, many of which were revolutionary. Overall themes for the evening were defining Seattle theatre as it’s own entity, demanding space, and focusing on local talent in every aspect. After the initial speakers, we started to track projects and commit names to paper.

During this segment, there was a particularly eye-rolling moment in which people wanted to argue about what to name the Fringe Festival (some people feeling that calling it “fringe” marginalizes the work and has the connotation of something that failed before). Not that this isn’t an important debate – names are a big deal – but, Theatre Community, can we please debate about what to call the thing after we actually have the ball rolling? Trying to have a serious debate about a name when we haven’t even created an action plan, mission statement, committee members, etc. is an incredible waste of time.

That moment aside (though there were other moments that drifted in that direction, which I will refrain from outlining here) I thought the evening was successful.  Rather than just talk, which we are all very good at doing, we started to make plans. We re-convened at the George & Dragon, created assignments, collected contact information, and talked about more ideas. On the whole, I feel like Seattle theatre may trend in awesome new directions.