Despite a year in which theaters have gone dark and whole seasons have been canceled due to the pandemic, Seattle Rep is embarking on an ambitious undertaking: three commission projects that will support the development of over 20 new plays over the next decade — more than the Rep has ever commissioned all at once, according to artistic director Braden Abraham.
“This is the right time to do it,” said Abraham. The pandemic shutdown provides “an opportunity for renewal where we can really step back and dream about who we want to be as a theater and what’s the work that we want to make together when we can finally open our doors again. These commissions are that investment in the future and also a way to meet artists where they’re at right now. They can write. We can’t produce, but they can start creating.”
While some of the money for these commissions was already in the budget for the 2020-2021 season, Abraham says the theater is also raising money and shifting resources from productions that were not staged in 2020 to fund the commissions.
“Resources are really tight right now and we’ve had to make some really hard decisions, but the question is how can we afford not to invest in the artists and their work,” he said. “They chart the course for the worlds we make onstage. So the way we look at it, these investments are critical for how we’re going to build back.”
The three commission projects:
- Through the 20×30 project, the Rep will commission 20 new works by playwrights by the year 2030, centered around the theme “Reimagining Life in the Anthropocene.” (“Anthropocene” is a term describing our current age as one in which humans are the biggest influence on climate and the environment.)
- New Directions commissions new works by theater directors — another first for the theater.
- Though Seattle Rep’s Public Works program — in which the theater partners with community organizations to get people from various walks of life involved in creating a play — has existed for several years now, it’s relied on existing plays. This time, it’s commissioning a new one from Seattle-based playwright Cheryl L. West.
Since November, the Rep has already commissioned 10 new works through these three projects.
We talked to some of the playwrights and directors the Rep has commissioned for an early glimpse at what Seattle audiences can look forward to after stage lights come back on.
Abraham first encountered the idea for the theme of the 20×30 project after seeing the augmented reality installation “Gardens of the Anthropocene” by digital artist Tamiko Thiel at Olympic Sculpture Park.
“If this is the age of humans where everything we do is affecting every corner of the Earth, then we’re going to have to start thinking differently about how we live with each other and our environment,” he said.
When Seattle Rep approached Santa Monica, California-based playwright Larissa FastHorse (Sicangu Lakota) to commission a play around that theme, she recalled a story she’d heard about Native elders in Alaska.
“Some elders there said this is just Mother Nature telling us we need to be living the way we used to live,” said FastHorse. “We used to be nomadic, we used to move with the Earth. We used to listen to it and change as seasons changed and as climates changed. We’ve had other great warmings of this Earth and this is just the Earth telling us you need to get back in touch with how things are.”
Seattle Rep has commissioned four other playwrights so far for 20×30: Zora Howard (“STEW”), Mary Kathryn Nagle (“Miss Lead”), Sylvia Khoury (“Selling Kabul”) and Nathan Alan Davis (“Nat Turner in Jerusalem”).
For New York-based playwright Khoury, it’s no surprise that a theme about climate is coming from Seattle, which she has long considered “the heart of eco-consciousness.”
“When you grow up around cities with people that don’t really think about mountains in clear air, just being in Seattle, you gain eco-awareness,” she said.
She expects her project will look at how the world might be different in the future in subtle ways, through her characteristic style of intimate portraits of people.
New York-based writer Howard is taking the theme and running with it … all the way to South Africa, where she’ll research real-life events.
Howard says the past few years have demonstrated that some people will always try to manipulate the facts, so it’s important to protect the historical record.
“That’s what I feel called to do as an artist — to capture, to witness, to tell and to protect the truth, especially in these funky times,” she said.
When the Rep asked Donald Byrd, artistic director of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater, to write a play, Byrd was surprised.
Although he is also a director, Byrd says most people approach him as a choreographer first.
Also surprising to Byrd was the nature of the commission project. For the first year, artists will have time to simply think, research or engage in their own creative processes before putting pen to paper or showing up in the rehearsal studio.
Byrd already has several ideas and influences he’s playing with, including a study of Octavia Butler’s work, a lifelong interest in Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and how the places he has lived have impacted him. While he doesn’t yet know how it will all come together, he believes that this past year will change the very nature of theater by the time the play is staged.
“If any of what happened beginning with the demonstrations in the summer, if any of that sticks, then where we’re going is a much better place,” he said.
In addition to Byrd, the Rep has commissioned local director Valerie Curtis-Newton, director Taibi Magar and actor John Douglas Thompson in collaboration with director Carey Perloff.
Seattle-based playwright West believes the job of artists right now is to look at the present and tell the story of our time. So when the Rep asked her to write a Public Works play, she drew her inspiration from what she saw around her — an increase in people living in tents and on the streets.
Due to the pandemic, many, particularly gig workers, are at risk of losing their homes, she said. “I wanted to look at home. What does it mean to us, and what happens when your home is in danger.”
Given the tendency of Public Works plays to riff on classics (previous productions included Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” and Homer’s “Odyssey”), West naturally thought of “The Wizard of Oz,” calling it “the perfect vehicle because it looks at home and dreams.”
But more than anything, West says she’s excited to create this work with the community and looks forward to when theater can bring people together again.
The Rep’s commission projects, she says, are a sign that with support, theater artists will have new works and old ones ready and “queued up” for when live theater returns.
“We are responsible and accountable for building and rebuilding after the divisiveness and strife that we’ve just gone through,” she said.