ACT has just announced its 2017 season, and John Langs, artistic director, takes us on a brief tour from his fretful, sleepless nights to landing the final play that pulled it all together.
ACT Theatre has announced its 2017 season, and John Langs is relieved — a couple of months ago, the artistic director had been losing sleep.
Langs had nearly settled on his sophomore season but, he said, “something didn’t feel right … at 3 o’clock in the morning, I’d sit straight up and think about it.”
The stakes were high: Langs’ first season used this year’s presidential cycle as its springboard with plays about the birth of negative campaign ads (“Daisy”), the lingering shadow of Abu Ghraib (“Bad Apples”), political violence (“Assassins”) and the lives of black men in the U.S. (“The Royale,” about boxer Jack Johnson).
ACT Theatre’s 2017 mainstage season
March 3-Nov. 12; ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org).
Between 2016’s political brawls and the continuing urgency of Black Lives Matter, daily headlines complemented programming choices Langs had made far in advance.
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What was next?
After those restless nights, a final play clicked into place and Langs thought: “Yes! This is it!”
An artistic director’s first season, he said, is a calling card that has to come “from the gut … you have to live with those choices all year.” A second season “gives you an opportunity to listen to the echoes coming back at you from your audience, the people you’re having a dialogue with.” ACT staff listened for those echoes in lobby conversations and on Facebook pages.
Part of the audience sounded grateful that what they saw on stage reflected what they were reading in the news. Another segment, Langs said, “was crying out for escape, to step out of the world and into something warm.”
The 2017 season, he said, is slightly more optimistic.
“Once you’ve wrestled through a political season bare-fisted, people feel a need to step back and think about aspirational hope, who we could be as our best selves.” (Langs has personal reasons for hope as well. He and his partner have a newborn — and another reason to lose sleep.)
Assembling a season, Langs said, “is like a Jenga game.” Directors have to balance comedy with drama, new work with the canon, what audiences want versus what they might need — not to mention wrangling with budgets, literary rights and other directors around the country competing for the same plays.
From the beginning, Langs knew he wanted to include an ambitious version of “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s 1953 allegory about McCarthyism, set during the Salem witch trials. “The Crucible” will be the last play of 2017 but became an early anchor for the season, and will employ 16 local actors. “We want to look at a very diverse world for this particular ‘Crucible,’ ” Langs said. “Not modernize it, but to look with fresh eyes.”
Then came Nina Raine’s play “Tribes,” about a deaf boy in an unsympathetic hearing family. “They’ve never accommodated his tribe,” Langs explained, “and tried to pull him into their tribe … It’s a story about the things we listen to versus the things we actually hear.”
Next, Lang said, the season needed comedy. “We can’t underestimate the power of a really good belly laugh to reset our course.” He landed on “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” about a down-on-his-luck Elvis impersonator who finds his true voice in the world of drag.
That gave Langs “two meaty tent-pole plays and a comedy.”
Filling out the rest of palette: “Murder for Two,” a musical coproduction with the 5th Avenue Theatre (one actor plays an investigator, the other plays 12 murder suspects, and both play the piano), and Moby Pomerance’s world premiere “Alex and Aris,” exploring Aristotle’s tough-love mentorship of a boy who would become Alexander the Great. (They first meet when Aristotle is drunk in an old temple.)
Langs’ final puzzle-piece — the one that let him sleep a little more soundly — is “King of the Yees” by Lauren Yee, about a young woman who dives into the labyrinth of San Francisco’s Chinatown to find her father, who’s part of an obscure, 150-year-old Chinese men’s club. (“Yees” was one of those battlegrounds where theaters wrestle with agents and each other to land a script. ACT won.)
Now, Langs said, “I have a season I’m 100 percent excited about — for a second year in a row.” He worries his luck might run out and, eventually, “the shadowy hand of commerce will come down and say: ‘You must compromise so you can sell tickets!’ But we’ve been able to stave off that dragon.”
Langs suspects “Tribes” will be one of the more challenging plays. He decided to learn American Sign Language after promising himself to hire a deaf actor for the main role.
“I’m going in humbly,” he said. “I’m nervous about what I do know about that world and what I don’t know — which is a good place for an artist to be.”