When I saw the revival of “Into the Woods” in New York City in the spring of 2021, at the end, the production hit a truly magical note. The whole experience was something special — Sara Bareilles is inarguably an angel from some other plane — but in the finale, rows of community choir members rose up all around the huge theater. On every level, dozens of people of all ages, races, genders and vocal ranges sang out, “Careful the tale you tell, children will listen. … You can’t just act, you have to listen.” It’s a memory that still catches my heart.
Theater is performance art for an audience, but who is that audience? It’s always the community. No matter who comes to the show, when they’re there, they’re in community. The audience, the actors, the crew, the production team: everyone has done something special and meaningful to get there to that day and that performance. By being present, everyone is creating something transitory but necessary: Art.
However, when community is directly involved with that theater, we reach a new level of art. “The Tempest” at Seattle Rep this past August was part of the theater’s Public Works initiative, in which, among other year-round projects, a whole production is developed and performed free of charge. Well, the crew and cast are paid, but tickets are 100% free.
The performers included both community members — cashiers, marketers, coders or the person who sat next to you on the bus earlier that day — and Actors’ Equity Association professional union actors who get the big bucks, best roles and, I was once told, a guaranteed nap couch on every set. Being an Equity actor means you do this for a living and, in some cases, are even comfortable while doing so. Outside of the larger theater spaces in Seattle, most plays only have the budget for one, maybe two, Equity actors. Their union contract means Equity members get a decent hourly wage, as opposed to the stipend most community actors get at the end of their “volunteer” work.
At “The Tempest,” though, you could be forgiven for not being able to tell the difference between Equity and non-Equity cast members. By having a cast of over 80 performers, Seattle Rep created the closest energy to Broadway I’ve seen in Seattle. Sure, the featured performers were Equity actors, but notably Mykhanh Pham as Miranda, Ben Swenson-Klatt as Ferdinand and each member of Ariel’s Super Six (Denny Le, Emma Brown Baker, Karis Ho, Katya Schexnaydre, Matthew Reyes and Viviana Garza) were all local community actors. Swenson-Klatt’s performance in “Magic Here,” an original song by Justin Huertas, was especially beautiful; while the theme of a white boy exploring a magical island could become problematically “Pocahontas”-like, Swenson-Klatt’s adorable, handsome clown of a Ferdinand instead caused us to fall in love with not only them but also the island. Their glee and joy at witnessing the magic portrayed by the ensemble’s dancing, singing and teaching them the language of the island also set up the romance between them and Pham as something wondrous, not trite like love at first sight can sometimes be. Ferdinand was already open to accepting the strange gifts of the wild island, whether they appeared in the form of a crowd of smiling air spirits or a beautiful girl.
The magic of the island was the defining feature of the show. Performances by drummers and dancers from the Morning Star Korean Cultural Center grounded huge magical feats in historical cultural practices from Seattle’s Korean population. Jindo drum and silk dances represented the titular storm and other natural forces being called up by Prospero (Isaiah Johnson) and commanded by Ariel (Rachel Guyer-Mafune).
Each community cast member became a different aspect of nature, from stone to the sea. These transformations were accomplished through the feat of providing over 80 custom outfits, each demanding “nonstandard cuts,” and with each person requiring and receiving the dignity expected in a union house. Costume designer An-lin Dauber’s collaboration with the ensemble members achieved masterful storytelling; we know exactly what kind of spirit each type is from both the way they’re dressed and their expressions. I was also impressed by the patchwork clothes Miranda wore; they were unique and modern, combining garments to tell a story of a girl loved and cared for, but not given everything she needs to succeed.
Guyer-Mafune as Ariel stole the show, though. Her energetic reading of Shakespeare, even though most of her lines were modernized, crafted expressive images; her grumpy face and crossed arms accompanying the line “their arms in a sad knot” helped audiences understand the complexities of the text. There was some chatter in the audience about the national names being featured, but as the play went on, that energy completely shifted to Ariel, Ariel, Ariel. As associate director Kate Drummond told me after the show, “It’s the Super Six that does it. You’re like, well, she can’t be that bad if these guys like her.”
The charm exuding from Guyer-Mafune, Le, Brown Baker, Ho, Schexnaydre, Reyes and Garza was infectious. Their voices filled the room, and magic took over. And, again, notably, each of these performers were local (even if Guyer-Mafune is Equity). And the best part about these shining stars of “The Tempest” being local is that you can continue to see them around the city. Much of the cast is active in community-level theater year-round, not only in Public Works shows.
That community-level theater is vital. “The Tempest” was packed, and it’s fair to say a lot of the draw was the utterly accessible price point of free tickets. Places like Fifth Avenue, Seattle Rep and even Taproot Theatre are typically out of reach for the average Seattleite: According to Zip Recruiter, the average hourly wage is $23 for Seattleites. However, the average prices at these theaters are respectively $81, $66 and $49, at least according to my math. I personally can only go to as many shows as I do because three-quarters of my tickets are covered by press passes (thank you).
As anyone familiar with my editions of the Staged in Seattle column likely knows, I’m committed to producing and promoting theater that is financially accessible. Since watching that world-opening production of “Into the Woods,” I’ve joined Dacha Theatre here in Seattle and been involved in the group’s last six productions; Dacha is committed to offering accessible art to the degree that you can buy a season pass for $1 and get the same goodies, benefits and seats offered to someone who paid face value at $80. I also work with a community theater group out of a small town in south King County. And, honestly, the shows Auburn Community Players produce consistently feature some of the best talent I’ve seen on the West Coast; our version of “Elf the Musical” was so popular that dates were added to its sold-out run.
The smaller, accessible community theater groups in this city should be celebrated: Dacha Theatre, the group I’m a part of, which specializes in immersive experiences and feats of memorization; Pork-Filled Productions, an Asian theater group whose operatic production of “She-Devil Pirate of the Seven Seas” defined epics for me; Reboot Theatre Company, whose mission is to, well, reboot older works through nontraditional design; Pony World, doing original shows that feel like classics. Notably, most of these groups have tickets starting at $5. Community theater artists know who their audience is, which is why they often focus on lowering ticket costs. When people can afford to see shows, they see them. I’ve sat in sold-out shows at Seattle Public Theater, ArtsWest and Base: Experimental Arts and Space, an otherwise big empty room in a warehouse in SODO.
Unfortunately, regardless of the wealth of talent here, local theaters are struggling. Despite the sold-out shows I’ve seen, plenty more go unappreciated. Longstanding groups are closing, like Book-It Repertory Theater and Theatre22. Book-It’s “Solaris” at the Center Theatre at Seattle Center was a beautiful, scary and honest piece of art and presented to a nearly full audience; Theatre22’s “Nonsense and Beauty” at Seattle Public Theatre, a sweet piece that lifted up past queer culture and heroes, was, when I saw it, performed to maybe 10 of us. Both groups closed in the last 12 months, but only one got media coverage.
How can theater regain its level of importance in the community? I think we need to involve more community in theater. There’s room for every type of person in theater, not just extroverted actors who need all eyes on them. Whether it’s volunteering behind the scenes, posting pictures of great shows on social media or just filling seats in the audience, all you need to get involved in any part of community theater is free time. Deciding to focus your energy somewhere tends to, in my experience, encourage that energy and passion to keep flowing; keeping it stifled means it never has a chance to develop at all.
When we involve everyone who has interest, theater grows and becomes something larger than itself. We create not only a few hours of art, but weeks of memories, lasting relationships, inside jokes and the knowledge that your hard work is helping someone else succeed in theirs. “The Tempest” was only presented for one weekend in August, but my hope is that free, accessible and engaging art continues to be highlighted and valued in Seattle. There’s more than just what’s downtown.
Read more of the Sept. 20-26, 2023 issue.