Somewhere between audience passivity and active audience participation in a theatrical experience is a sweet spot Cate McCrea is trying to create.
McCrea, scenic designer for the Satori Group’s ambitious production of “Returning to Albert Joseph,” in performance through May 25 at the Satori Lab @Inscape (the former INS detention center-turned-arts center in South Seattle), is in her element fashioning a set that establishes “a world an audience can feel part of, implicated in ever-changing ways throughout the play.”
Potential patrons who are nervous about being yanked from their seats into “Albert Joseph’s” dystopian drama needn’t worry. What McCrea and the Satori collective have in mind is a shaping of perceptions: revealing, by degrees, how the audience fits into a futuristic environment very different from our own.
Designing sets that encourage audiences to relate to what’s happening in front of them is an aesthetic that excites McCrea.
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She boldly employed the idea when designing Jonathan Draxton’s solo theater piece, “Soldier,” in which the playwright-star portrayed a dead Nazi begging a small audience — seated mere feet from him — for a coin to pay for his passage across the River Styx. “Soldier” ran in 2012 at New York’s HERE Arts Center.
“That show asked questions of the audience, and asked them to make choices and feel responsible for them,” McCrea, 22, says. “I’m less interested in theater where you can go in and pretend you’re not there.”
“Returning to Albert Joseph,” written by Spike Friedman and developed by Satori since 2010, is a two-hander set in a society in which, says co-director Caitlin Sullivan, “precision of language is highly valued.
“Inefficiencies in language are no longer an option. Society has become perfectly rational, yet is failing on some fronts.”
Pushing back against this widespread cleansing of communication and thought is a resistance movement whose simplest actions include graffiti.
“The play is so much about language and its power,” says McCrea, “I felt the act of someone writing on a wall is very political, and also beautiful.”
Four days before “Albert Joseph” opens, the set is still very much in progress, but graffiti-covered walls are a strong element. So is an unusual seating plan for the audience that stresses an implied relationship, through crucial cues, locations and vantage points, to the characters. McCrea says “we have a few tricks up our sleeve” that will intensify audience perspective over the play’s course.
By opening weekend, McCrea will have returned to New York, where she is building a career.
A 2013 graduate of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., McCrea has developed a reputation, as Sullivan describes it, “for quickly translating heady intellectual concepts into creative choices.
“She has aptitude, hunger and a desire to understand dense ideas, and digest them theatrically. She’s driven but egoless in the room, always working for the best idea, and not afraid of creative conflict.”
Sullivan, also a Williams College graduate, met McCrea at the school’s summer theater program. She invited McCrea to collaborate with Satori, a company created in Seattle by 11 former theater students from Williams and the Conservatory of the University of Cincinnati. These founders, remarkably, uprooted themselves en masse and moved here in 2008.
McCrea has long known she was destined for stage work. Her grandfather, James P. McGlone, is a beloved, recently retired professor of theater studies at Seton Hall University, where he ran the Celtic Theatre Company and directed Shakespeare and more.
McCrea’s mother and other family members often appeared in McGlone’s productions.
“My grandfather was a huge inspiration for me,” McCrea says. “He would take me to the theater when I was young and have conversations with me about it as if I were one of his college students. I had a great education from the beginning.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org