Late last year, 5th Avenue Theatre’s new musical producing associate Nina Williams-Teramachi saw Kristina Wong’s “Sweatshop Overlord” on a trip to New York City. Wong’s Lortel Award-winning solo show takes its audience through what The New York Times referred to as a sort of debriefing of the pandemic as it examined the first 20 months of the outbreak through the eyes of Wong’s Auntie Sewing Squad, which brought together volunteers to make face masks.
“I had been avoiding things about the pandemic and any sort of art around it,” said Williams-Teramachi. “But actually, after seeing Kristina Wong’s show, I was like, ‘Oh no, there totally is value.’…I felt every single date and every single thing about that. It was a cathartic experience.”
Williams-Teramachi is hoping Seattle audiences will have a similar experience with 5th Avenue’s new musical, “And So That Happened …” The musical, running May 18 to June 19, brings together three stories, three different perspectives from three local writing teams in one musical about their experiences during the height of the pandemic.
In conversations with producing artistic director Bill Berry, Williams-Teramachi said they know they couldn’t try to simply move on from the pandemic — not least because it’s not entirely over, prompting jokes that they wish they could change the title to something like “And So This Is Currently Happening …” The challenge for 5th Avenue was finding a way to showcase this cataclysmic change that upended everyone’s lives, but do so in a way that’s both respectful of its ongoing nature and in a way that isn’t triggering for audiences.
To accomplish this goal, 5th Avenue ventured into a new creative process, taking a uniquely big swing for the company in what playwright Maggie Lee called “a rare gift from the 5th.” Many new works that come through the organization come from a net cast wide across the theater field. (“Afterwords,” which opened earlier this month at 5th Avenue, features a book from the Los Angeles-based Emily Kaczmarek and music and lyrics from the New York City-based Zoe Sarnak, for example.) But for this particular production, 5th Avenue wanted to focus specifically on the experiences of people living in Seattle over the last two years.
The call was put out to local writers who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, disabled writers and trans and nonbinary writers to submit their ideas for stories, prompting them to find something hopeful that can be taken away from a difficult two years.
“I feel like there’s going to be so many plays and musicals about how terrible everybody was to each other, how we all failed,” said Lee. “So just to try to think of something else, like, ‘Hey, you know what, this actually spurred me to do something or think about something in a different way,’ was very cool.”
The stories being put on stage aren’t all one-to-one true stories, but they are all rooted in truth from the lives of each of the writing teams. Lee, for instance, pitched a story around the fact that she got married during the pandemic, having a wedding with her partner of 19 years shared with attendees via Zoom. Prior to the pandemic, neither had been excited about the prospect of planning a big event-type wedding. But faced with her partner out of work and the need to think more deeply about things like health insurance and next of kin, they were spurred to go ahead and get married. Lee’s story, created with composer Lauren Freman, explores what marriage means in a modern day setting and how something terrible might cause you to think differently about your relationship.
Meanwhile, Reboot Theatre Company artistic director Jasmine Joshua brought to the table their experience with twins who just started in-person school for the first time last October. They were supposed to start kindergarten in fall 2020 and all of their preconceived notions on how that was supposed to go were thrown out the window. Joshua’s story examines parenting over the last two years. Joshua said they knew they wanted to acknowledge the tragedy and hardship, but also make the story funny. After all, looking back on the sheer lack of knowledge we all had in the early days of the pandemic when everyone was scraping together any information they could find — what are the protocols around sanitizing my groceries again? — there’s comedy to be found.
“I think there’s a lot of comedy in that, now that we have some distance from it,” said Joshua. “Through writing this and poking around the more tender parts of what that was, I have found the funny, and that funny has helped me. I don’t know that I’m totally healed from it, but at least it’s helped me work through it and continue to process it.”
Actor and storyteller Dedra D. Woods pitched her story to be about a woman who lost her grandmother, how she dealt with grief and ultimately how she can find joy. At the center of this idea is this struggle to return to herself, pushing against the mentality that you must return to business as usual instead of actually stopping to grieve. It’s a sentiment that resonated with fellow creative team members Porscha Shaw and Aaron M. Davis Norman, who are helping to craft the music around Woods’s story.
“That is something that’s so important and something we don’t often get to see Black folks in musicals do,” said Davis Norman. “It’s always perseverance and resilience and all these things. But this character gets to explore that grief in order to get back to their joy.”
The group described their sound as pulling from R&B and gospel influences as they wanted to define for themselves what musical theater sounds like. A tricky aspect of this particular production is working to maintain their voice as it becomes interwoven with the other two stories being told.
“And So That Happened …” is essentially a devised work, crafted in a television-like writers room alongside a creative team that includes creative director Desdemona Chiang, choreographer Alyza DelPan-Monley and music director Steven Tran. The team and writers worked mostly virtually until early March, storyboarding out on the computer how each story can weave together across the musical’s timeline. Once they were in the room together, things started to mesh into telling one cohesive story. As a result, the script for “And So That Happened …” isn’t quite as settled as is, say, its May counterpart “Afterwords,” which has had longer to develop, including a radio play last season. But Lee said that brings a different energy and a scrappiness to this production.
“I feel like this project is fringe-ifying mainstream theater,” added Freman. “The thing that is wonderful about fringe theater is that you have the ability to take these big risks.”
There’s a sense that, even though its produced by 5th Avenue and performed at A Contemporary Theatre, the stakes are lower than they might be for other new works that are under the pressure to be marketed and picked up by a producer or try to make a transfer to Broadway. Joshua called the experience “freeing” because wider commercial appeal isn’t the goal here. The goal is to give artists the room to freely create, allowing them to experiment more and create something truly hyperspecific to Seattle.
The writers know everything about the last two years can’t be shoehorned into one production or under one tidy, happy ending. But Freman said they had a realization working on this production, that they’ve been avoiding feelings around the events of the last two years. But that resistance to going there, to looking back, is exactly what makes the catharsis these writers are offering through “And So That Happened …” so necessary.
“My sort of thesis when working on our modular little bubble of story was that cataclysmic change is not the same as destruction,” Freman said. “You may have to rearrange everything you’ve ever known about yourself or your life or your circumstances or whatever, but at the end of the day, fearing change isn’t necessarily productive.”