Playwright Idris Goodwin had been working on his play “The Boy Who Kissed the Sky” for around four years prior to it becoming this year’s season-opening show for Seattle Children’s Theatre (running Oct. 11-Nov. 6). Back then, the early conversations about the play were with then-artistic director Courtney Sale, who left SCT in 2020 to become the artistic director at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Massachusetts. There was no way anyone could have known that, years later, Goodwin would be introducing both his play and himself to Seattle after becoming SCT’s new artistic director in late July.
“This was the only place I applied to,” said Goodwin, who resigned from the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College in May 2022, a choice he said was to follow his passion back to theater for young audiences. “It was either this or I was just going to be a stay-at-home, grilled-cheese playwright dad. Luckily, I made it through the gauntlet.”
Goodwin, who is splitting time between Seattle and Colorado where his wife, author Felicia Rose Chavez, and children are living during this initial season, said that there was no greater calling for him than being able to tell stories to a large group of kids. Goodwin, a breakbeat poet who cites comedians, rappers and preachers as inspirations drawing him to language and word play, has over 20 years of playwriting experience under his belt. Seattle audiences may be familiar with his play “And in This Corner: Cassius Clay,” which ran at SCT in 2018 and was originally commissioned after the then-artistic director of Louisville’s StageOne Family Theatre, Peter Holloway, noticed Goodwin’s knack for writing the voices of young people.
“Once I was in a theater, and I heard 300 kids respond to the work — young audiences are the best because they don’t lie,” Goodwin said of “Cassius Clay,” which originally premiered in 2015. “They’re the most connected and honest and alive audiences on the planet. So I was hooked after that.”
In a statement, managing director Kevin Malgesini called Goodwin “a phenomenal addition to SCT at an incredibly important time” and called Goodwin’s qualifications on both the creative and administrative sides of theater “unprecedented.” In addition to Goodwin previously serving as producing artistic director of StageOne Family Theatre, he currently serves on the board for Childrens Theatre Foundation of America and as board president for Theatre for Young Audiences/USA, the leading national organization for professional theater for children and families.
“He brings a deep commitment to high quality, meaningful theater productions and education, as well as expertise and passion for new works — a cornerstone of SCT’s mission,” added board president Anh Nguyen. “Idris is a collaborative ecosystem builder, who is unapologetic about the need to increase access, and this, combined with his innovative and artistic mindset, will help propel SCT as it builds upon its legacy and strives for expanded impact.”
Since 2020, Malgesini has worked with an Artistic Advisory Circle to plan the artistic efforts for SCT, which saw its total revenue dip below $5 million during the 2020-21 season after previously hovering around $6 million or above in the years leading up to the pandemic. Goodwin said that he intends to continue working relationships with those artists in different capacities moving forward.
During his tenure, Goodwin hopes to collaborate with and empower artists to tell a wide range of stories. There can be a perception, he said, that the artistic work of Theatre for Young Audience organizations isn’t on par with other theater companies. However, Goodwin holds fast to the belief that children “deserve the highest caliber of artistic acumen.”
“I think a lot of people think it’s like the school play,” Goodwin said, “like seeing their kid — which is an important part of their development. But this is what the Opera does or what Seattle Rep does or what any other performing arts organization does.”
No one questions Pixar’s ability to be for both children and adults alike, Goodwin noted, but for some reason there’s a misunderstanding when it comes to theater. But as he sees generations shifting, with Gen X and Millennials raising families, he sees a chance to create new classics that reflect and appeal to those generations and their children.
“We have a lot of opportunities to tell a new story and give people experiences that are transformative every single time,” Goodwin said.
Goodwin called his work as a playwright “joyous and humorous and magical,” mixed with his interest in and reverence for cities and cultures, and how the past and present intersect. “The Boy Who Kissed the Sky,” for instance, was inspired by Seattle’s own history, using the young life of Jimi Hendrix in the 1950s as a springboard for a magical, fictional journey that follows a budding guitarist as he finds harmony inside of the cacophony of his life. The piece serves as a tribute to Hendrix’s spirit and hopefully an invitation to audiences of all ages.
“This piece is very me,” said Goodwin, whose work regularly centers music and Black characters and history. “But it also signals a new chapter for us. We like to see ourselves as a space for multiple generations. Young people don’t show up to the theater by themselves, somebody brings them. We think that all the stories we tell should hold up and have some relevance and some resonance for everybody.”
Added Goodwin, “We’re artists, so we have to be bold and we have to be brave and we have to believe in the power of creativity. We wouldn’t have made it this far if that wasn’t true. It’s on us to defy the expectations every single time. That’s the gig.”