This fiercely brainy and sharply funny play is cast by lottery each night, meaning the cast has to memorize the whole thing — without knowing who they're playing that night until shortly after the performance begins. Every performance has a possible 120 actor combinations.
The actors are a little scared of “Everybody.” So is director Kaytlin McIntyre.
It’s not so much that “Everybody” is a fiercely brainy, challenging story about death with a take-no-prisoners sense of humor. Nor that it’s an updated version of a 15th-century morality play called “Everyman.” Nor that 34-year-old playwright (and MacArthur fellow) Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is the kind of writer who inspires awe in fellow theater makers and seems to think seven steps ahead of the rest of us. (As “Everybody” actor Lamar Legend put it: “He writes for everyone — an Asian immigrant sitting next to a young white woman sitting next to an old black man — like, ‘I already know what you guys are thinking,’ but all in the voice of his own blackness. That’s very difficult.”) It’s not even the nudity.
It’s the lottery.
Near the top of each performance, most of the nine actors gather around a lotto wheel to take a ball dictating which character they’ll play, with 120 possible actor combinations. Some are big parts, some are bit parts, but the actors have to memorize and prepare for them all.
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The lead, Everybody, spends the play suspended in a dream state, moments before her death, contemplating — and frequently whining about — her fate in the company of archetypes with salty personalities: Friendship, Kinship, Love, Stuff, others.
Because the script demands a diverse cast, lines land differently depending on who says (or signs) them. Everybody could look like anybody. Even you.
“You just have to give over to the lottery, and there’s a lot of fear that manifests in that,” McIntyre said. “We’ve brought the lottery into rehearsal to get acquainted with that gut-crawling-up-in-your-throat feeling. Not only do you not know what role you’ll pull, but who you you’ll be standing across from. A lot of it will be response in the moment.”
One scene, for example, involves a classic call-out argument. One character says “hellll to the noooo!” and punctuates a sentence with “homey.” A second wonders: “Why are people talking like that?” A third (Everybody, while dying) calls out the second for policing how people are “supposed to talk.” The second protests: “You are taking my words completely out of context.” And so on. Now imagine three actors: young Asian woman, middle-aged black man, older white woman. That quick burst of dialogue could have a dozen different inflections, depending on who’s saying what and how they play it.
The lottery isn’t a cute novelty. For Jacobs-Jenkins, whose earlier plays (including “An Octoroon,” recently at ArtsWest) drill deeply into the dynamics of racism, it’s a visceral way of making a point.
“We’re all very different, but we’ll all die alone,” McIntyre said. “How would you handle that moment? How does Everybody? Would you bargain or rage? There is a universality to how much of a meaningless speck we all will ultimately be — if that doesn’t sound too nihilistic.”
McIntyre, who is also the casting director for Seattle Repertory Theatre, says Jacobs-Jenkins pulls another critique with the lottery — one directed at theaters themselves.
“It makes the point that casting is bullshit,” McIntyre said. “It challenges the idea that certain actors, because of their past roles or how they look, are best used in one way or another. At one point, I told an actor I was looking for ‘character actors who are lead-curious’ — but those skill sets overlap quite a bit. Good actors are capable of so much more than the small, defined box we often put them into. It’s exciting to watch actors who often play strange ‘character’ types pull Everybody. The play is written in this brilliant way that feels very specific but is actually really malleable.”
During a recent rehearsal at 12th Avenue Arts, actor MJ Sieber worked through one of Everyman’s self-pitying monologues with a comforting beer and a big bowl (which might eventually hold frosting or cookie dough). The rest of the actors sat, scripts open, scribbling away as McIntyre gave Sieber notes. The notes for one were notes for all.
Lamar Legend has been simmering in the world of Jacobs-Jenkins for nearly a year. He played the lead in ArtsWest’s “An Octoroon” (also based on an earlier play, by 19th-century Irish writer Dion Boucicault). He delivered the opening monologue in his underwear, expressing things he’d thought before but never said out loud in public. “It demanded that I reveal some very real anger I had toward the privilege that white people in America get to enjoy,” he said. “That was frightening. As a person who’s just trying to be liked in this world — I’m human that way — there are some boats I don’t want to rock and feathers I don’t want to ruffle.”
Audience members walked out during that speech every night. “As actors, we’re driven by our egos, so that kind of thing would normally offend us,” Legend said. “But as a theater maker, I think: ‘If you’re not being shaken in some way, then what’s the point?’ “
Legend thinks “Everybody” marks a shift for the playwright. “It’s so much more universal and gets to the heart of the matter. We can get into the branches of ‘-isms’: racism, sexism, bigotry. But the problem is at the trunk, the root: What do we deal with when we die, when we’ve got just minutes or hours? Are you going to think about the epic themes of life and death? About racism? About your relationships?” He likes the fact that while dying, Everybody calls out a character for getting squirmy about somebody else saying “homey.”
“Then that rug gets pulled out from under Everybody and they realize they’re dying alone,” Legend said. “That’s when the play really takes off.”
“Everybody” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins; Jan. 17-Feb. 16; Strawberry Theatre Workshop at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $24-$36; 800-838-3006, strawshop.org