About 100 performers — military veterans, children, homeless people, bikers, plus four professional actors — will perform Homer’s “Odyssey” as the first in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s radical new Public Works Seattle program.

Share story

Seattle Repertory Theatre is going big again — but in a different direction.

Last spring, it staged “Here Lies Love,” David Byrne’s newish disco-musical about Imelda Marcos that involved ripping out seats to make a 250-person-capacity, Manila-style dance floor. In some ways, “Love” was a rich person’s sport, with tickets topping $130 (though there was a day-of lottery for $20 seats).

Now the Rep is swiveling toward the opposite point of the compass — a roughly 100-performer production of Homer’s “Odyssey” with free tickets and only four union actors. Everyone else onstage has arrived via a yearslong conversation between Seattle Rep and nonprofits; homeless shelters; and social groups, from the Purple Lemonade dance collective to scruffy members of the Dead Baby bike-race club.

Theater preview

Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Public Works Seattle: ‘The Odyssey’

Friday-Sunday (Sept. 8-10) at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., free, but sold out; there will be an on-site simulcast (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).

“The play itself is just a period on the end of the sentence,” said “Odyssey” director Marya Sea Kaminski as she rushed through the warren of backstage rooms where performers were eating dinner (dinner is served for the cast before every rehearsal) and shoving themselves into costumes in various curtained-off areas. A young, long-haired drummer from the Seahawks Blue Thunder drum line interrupted to ask where the other drummers were. “I think there,” Kaminski said, pointing down a hallway. He smiled and scurried off.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

If the play is the period, the sentence has been a long, thoughtful process, inspired by New York’s Public Theatre and funded by a grant from Theatre Communications Group — plus a conversation at the Rep about how to bring new folks, who think theater isn’t for them, into the room.

The answer? Don’t just hand them a free ticket — invite them to be in a show.

“It’s not ‘here’s some theater, you’re welcome,’ ” Kaminski said. She chose “The Odyssey” as the Rep’s first iteration of its Public Works Project because “it’s about how to find home, how to welcome a stranger, and it’s a veterans’ story. I hope people will feel at home in the theater.”

Simone Hamilton, manager for Public Works Seattle at the Rep, said the project tried to cast as wide a net for performers as possible — age, ethnicity, gender, physical ability. And, Kaminski added, the community actors worked with each other for weeks before the professional actors came in so they could set their own tone for the rehearsal process instead of vice versa. “It brings tears to my eyes to talk about it,” Hamilton said.

Large swaths of butcher paper on a backstage wall invited people to offer thoughts about the production and gave the prompt: “While Participating in Public Works I Feel …” One of the comments, written in marker: “Not old for a while.”

A few minutes later, the cast assembled to rehearse the story’s climactic scene.

A little background: After 10 years, Odysseus has finally sailed back to his kingdom. His ships were blown back and forth around the Mediterranean by some gods he’d irritated, leading to adventures — escaping from a man-eating Cyclops, having an affair with a witch, hanging out with what’s sometimes interpreted as poppy-eating morphine users.

Kaminski asked someone to turn up the house lights and told the cast to look up at the balcony, where people will be sitting. “I don’t know if I want to see up there,” one performer said nervously.

“I want you all to find a buddy,” Kaminski said. Cast members started locking eyes and nodding at each other. “I want to clarify that this is not about perfection,” she said. “It’s about making a connection to the person next to you and with the audience. Simone has a saying: ‘Perfection is the enemy of excellence.’ ” The cast murmured in agreement.

They started the scene. Odysseus (Terence Archie) shows up in the disguise of a beggar among his citizens: the homeless, the veterans, kids, all played by real-life homeless people, veterans and kids. He chats enigmatically with his queen, Penelope (Alexandra Tavares), before she mournfully announces an archery contest to find her new husband, since she assumes Odysseus is dead. Her uncouth suitors — played by the Dead Baby bikers — who’ve occupied the kingdom, take their turns pulling a bowstring, accompanied by the Seahawks Blue Thunder drum line.

“Our hope is that this will turn into a movement,” Kaminski said earlier in the Rep’s lobby. “You fall in love with theater because it reminds you you’re human.”