Even before the pandemic halted performance as we know it, Intiman Theatre planned on this past year as being a period of semi-dormancy. But it hasn’t been all quiet behind the scenes.
Since 2017, Intiman’s STARFISH Project has offered free after-school technical theater training for high school students, teaching them everything from lighting to costume design to stage management. The 2020-21 program moved to a remote model, with students learning the ropes over Zoom, aided by a mailed kit of gear that included 40-some items, such as a sketchbook, fabric shears and a tiny Raspberry Pi computer.
The project is reaching its culmination: a 90-minute filmed performance titled “2020 Vision: Through Our Eyes,” which Intiman will stream on-demand for free May 28-June 6. Though training, planning and rehearsals were largely conducted online, much of the performance is being filmed in-person at Broadway Performance Hall, one of the venues at Seattle Central College, where Intiman is beginning its next chapter in a unique partnership.
For Nativia Cole, a sophomore at Rainier Beach High School, the transition to in-person work has been a welcome one.
“It feels really good to get out of the house and actually see people,” she said. “It’s a very different vibe not just seeing their heads.”
Cole heard about the program in drama class, and she initially thought it just focused on acting. But soon, she was learning about a host of technical skills, and she found set design especially interesting, she said. For “2020 Vision,” she’s been writing poetry and working on music.
Cole Swanson, a senior at Chief Sealth High School, had participated in the program as a sophomore. The Zoom-heavy format this time around made for a vastly different experience, but not an unwelcome one.
“There were long meetings, but they were never exactly boring,” he said. “We were always talking about something. We were always working something out. The more and more we did it, the more exciting it felt.”
Swanson, who plans on attending Washington State University this fall, has been trying to soak up as much knowledge about every aspect of theatermaking as he can — and he’s learning filmmaking, too, working on the team that’s concurrently making a documentary about the project.
“2020 Vision” was inspired in part by James Baldwin’s observation in his essay “The Creative Process” that the artist’s role is to illuminate “the great wilderness of himself.” An original work containing monologues and music written by the students, the show emerged from a murky place.
“We were working with nothing,” said Michelle Matlock, who’s directing the show. “We were working from a blank sheet of paper.”
Matlock, a longtime solo and circus performer who founded Circle Up Productions in Tacoma, kicked off preparations for the show last fall, and rehearsals began in January. But it wasn’t until she came up with a writing prompt around a month ago that the show’s theme gelled.
“[I asked,] ‘When and how did you realize that this global pandemic would change your life as you knew it?’ ” she said.
Twenty-five minutes later, the students had produced a series of stories that were unique but thematically linked.
“I thought, ‘These are the stories that we should be telling,’ ” Matlock said. “We just turned a corner as soon as we realized that, and that this was becoming the show.
“We hear so much from the talking heads on the news and politicians and business owners. This age group — their voices haven’t been heard in this way. They’re going through this global pandemic where their lives have been turned upside down, [but] they’re not letting go of their dreams and their hopes and what they want their futures to be.”
For Swanson, the show has offered a sense of personal catharsis, but that’s not all.
“It feels good that we’re able to create some theater and put it out there,” he said. “The pandemic really screwed with everyone, and it hit theaters and artists very hard. To be able to share with whoever watches that there are still artists making art — people need to hear that. People need to see that.”