Letter from Seattle: Theater, again

Like Portland, the Emerald City is tiptoeing back into live performances. No, it's not the same as the old days – but Shakespeare's in the parks.

 If theater falls dormant in a pandemic, does it make a sound?

The answer in Seattle has been yes – even though those involved weren’t committing, technically speaking, theater as we knew it.

Among the rough dozen fully professional companies in Seattle, and the shifting population of quite a few others operating on a semi-pro basis or volunteer shoestring, there’s been a steady stream (pardon the pun) of online talks, panel discussions, master classes and low-tech performances, as well as podcasts, script readings and radio plays since the plague began last year.

But when a couple hundred people or so gathered outdoors in Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park recently to watch a GreenStage rendering of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it felt new and familiar all at once, with a palpable zing of occasion in the air. And a sense of relief.

An outdoor crowd in Seattle’s Volunteer Park for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Photo: Greenstage

The amplification was spotty, the performances broad enough to reach across a vast lawn.  But at every opportunity the audience greeted a witticism, or the slapstick antics of Bottom and his rude mechanicals, or the vented frustrations of two sets of fairy-beguiled young lovers, with generous laughter. And as a veteran of, oh, several hundred al fresco Shakespeare offerings over the years (at least), I was struck by how attentive this crowd was. The chitchat was minimal, the restlessness confined largely to a voluble toddler near me expressing himself in squeals and yelps.

The show was fine, exuberant, but clearly the play was not entirely the thing. Just watching actors in the flesh zestfully go through their paces, the shared experience of people acting out a story within striking distance, seemed like a miracle of normalcy after more than a year’s hiatus from live performance.

But what now? Will playhouse doors be thrown open, and patrons rush in?

Not so fast.

Even before the recent resurgence of the pandemic, via the ultra-contagious Delta variant of Covid-19, theaters in Seattle were skittish about announcing live indoor productions. It was a concern for public health, as well as the challenges of getting back up to speed with hiring and production logistics, that led to the wariness.

Now it seems prescient that the flagship resident playhouse Seattle Repertory, the prime musicals showcase 5th Avenue Theatre and other prominent companies are announcing lineups and selling tickets to indoor seasons that don’t get into high gear until early 2022. And questions persist about how many seats will be available, and whether masking and/or vaccinations will be required to even step into the lobby.

A few venues, with fingers crossed, are hawking big events for the fall. The Paramount Theatre, one of Seattle’s largest arts venues, is advertising a national tour of that old rugged cross, Jesus Christ Superstar, for early October 2021. (They are requiring proof of vaccination at the Paramount, and their other two, mostly-music venues, Neptune Theatre and the Moore Theatre). ArtsWest, in West Seattle, has slated hot composer-writer Justin Huerta’s new sci-fi musical, We’ve Battled Monsters Before, for a late November world premiere indoors.  And Taproot Theatre plans to reopen in November also, with the local premiere of Babette’s Feast, based on the mouthwatering 1987 Danish film.

But Book-It Repertory Theatre, which specializes in dramatizing popular literary works, is one of numerous outfits that will stick with digital productions through the end of the year. The audio dramas Zen and the Art of an Android Beatdown (from Tochi Onyebuchi’s sci-fi novel) and the swashbuckling Alexandre Dumas classic The Three Musketeers will be available only online.

Some other longstanding outfits (ACT Theatre, Issaquah’s Village Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre) are taking their time revealing what’s next – risky,  but understandable considering the public health confusion. (Like the Portland area, Seattle/King County has a relatively high rate of vaccination but is also experiencing a wave of Delta variant cases and  increased hospitalizations.)

Personally, I yearn for the great spread of site-specific outdoor new works that popped up on beaches, alleys, parking lots in San Francisco when I was a theater critic for the SF Bay Guardian way back in the day.  (Say, the day is the 1980s.) I always wish for more of that intrepid experimentation in the Pacific Northwest, and it seems especially apropos during a pandemic that has made mingling safer outside.  On the other hand, it could be hard to get necessary permissions or permits for such less-conventional outdoor shows these days.  (Even Seattle Shakespeare Company lost its long-established outdoor venue, Luther Burbank Park on Mercer Island, this summer.)

Part of the intricate design for The Williams Project’s production of Jose Rivera’s apocalyptic “Marisol.” Photo: Michael B. Maine

But if you are in Seattle itching to see a show pronto, there are still a few open-air options in play during August. The Williams Project, an inventive troupe focused on rigorous reinterpretations of notable American dramas, is reviving Jose Rivera’s aptly apocalyptic Marisol. It will be staged al fresco at Equinox Studios, a former factory repurposed into art studios, in the culturally vibrant Georgetown district. 

Performer Yadira Duarte on-site at Equinox Studios for The Williams Project’s “Marisol.” Photo: Michael B. Maine

And although its Midsummer Night’s Dream has closed,  the classical troupe Greenstage is hosting the annual Backyard Bard series in local parks for a couple more weeks. This year the small-cast Shakespeare fare is Twelfth Night and The Tempest.

Meanwhile, on the horizon for Seattle Rep are a “hybrid film and live theater experience” (whatever that turns out to be) of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale sometime in December. Looking ahead, the Rep is hyping the world premiere in spring 2022 of the new musical Bruce by screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, based on his memoir about penning the screenplay for the horror flick JawsArtsWest is prepping the Seattle premiere of Christian St. Croix’s award-winning Monsters of the American Cinema, and Village Theatre in Issaquah is readying Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World for next January. And at the Paramount a national tour of the heart-rending Tony-honored musical The Band’s Visit is set for March 2022, with the surefire return of Hamilton coming in August and September 2022.  

No guarantees, of course.  But we can dream, can’t we?

About the author

Misha Berson, Seattle-based writer and teacher, was the head theater critic for The Seattle Times from 1991-2016. She is the former theater critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has contributed to American Theatre, Los Angeles Times, Oregon ArtsWatch, Crosscut.com and Salon.com, among other outlets. She is the author of three books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard Books), and twice served as a juror for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. She has taught at several universities, including Seattle University and University of Washington.

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