A few weeks back, George Mount, Seattle Shakespeare Company’s artistic director, went to a rehearsal hall to begin work on directing “The Comedy of Errors.” When he walked in, he started crying.
Almost a year and a half ago, Mount was in that same rehearsal space, about to begin tech for a production of “Troilus and Cressida” that an audience would never see. A week before the scheduled March 20, 2020, opening, Seattle Shakes canceled the rest of its season due to COVID-19.
After so long away, a cathartic return was inevitable.
“It felt like home,” Mount said. “It felt like purpose had been brought back after 15, 16, 17 months of not knowing what to do. Appreciating all of the efforts and the experiments and the new directions that we went, but I felt on solid ground again.”
Like most theaters in the city, Seattle Shakes made some programming pivots during the shutdown, from the ubiquitous Zoom events and readings to a novel series of Shakespeare-themed digital scavenger hunts.
“Everyone was just trying to figure out how to reinvent,” Mount said. “For me, it was kind of daunting. I kept thinking, ‘I spent 30-plus years trying to get good at making a 3,000-year-old art form, and [I have] to reinvent it in three months.’”
But now, a return to live performance is imminent. From July 23-Aug. 8, Wooden O, the outdoor theater arm of Seattle Shakes, will stage “The Comedy of Errors.” One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, the silly and slapstick-y farce will be seen in parks around the Seattle area. Admission is free, with donations welcomed.
Producing the show has gotten Mount thinking about that 3,000-year history.
“We’re coming back with our outdoor shows, [and] it does put it into that continuum of what I love about doing classical theater,” he said. “It connects our theater to what the Elizabethan troupes did during times when they couldn’t perform in the cities. They went down to the provinces because theaters were shut down. [It connects us to] the actual origins of the art form itself: being performed in open-air theaters at the foot of the Parthenon.”
“The Comedy of Errors” was slated for a Wooden O production last summer, but it feels especially timely now as theater begins to emerge again, Mount said.
“[It’s] a story of confusion and reunification, being lost and inadvertently finding your way back to your community, your people, your family,” he said. “All of that started to really resonate as the [show] to come back with.”
That said, it’s a “non-thinker” at a time when “it would be lovely to have some fun,” as Mount puts it wistfully.
Seattle Shakes’ Wooden O productions are typically large-cast affairs with substantial sets and costumes. This return will be much leaner, with a five-person cast made up of Seattle theater vets (Kate Witt, R. Hamilton Wright) and newer faces (MJ Daly, Kelly Karcher, Rico Lastrapes) bouncing between characters.
“[We were] looking for folks who had a bit of a different kind of triple threat,” Mount said. “Good at Shakespeare. Good at comedy. But also, more specifically, good at improv, because some of this show is inspired by long-form narrative improv, where it feels like you’re making it up as you go along.”
Mount foresees smaller casts being part of his company’s new normal for a while as they ease back into indoor performances. And while stages have sat empty, there’s been plenty of discussion behind the scenes about what programming will look like, both in the wake of a pandemic and a racial reckoning that led to the creation of Seattle Theatre Leaders, a coalition formed to confront institutional racism in arts organizations.
“I’m thinking about who the storytellers are, what stories are being told,” Mount said. “We’re working internally to expand into areas of classical theater that are not Eurocentric or English-centric.
Mount acknowledges that some of the shows in the forthcoming Seattle Shakes season will likely be familiar titles. It remains to be seen how many Seattle theaters will follow up diversity, equity and inclusion statements with productions by underrepresented voices, particularly when dire financial straits could tip the scales toward conservative programming.
For Mount, the future may look like redefining the kind of shows a company oriented around the classics produces.
“So many people have been historically excluded from theater making, that it’s only in the last few decades that other voices have felt empowered to engage in classical stories in a re-imagining,” he said. “If we want those voices in there, we’re going to have to be looking to more recent work.”
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