Monsters show us things. Etymologically, the word comes from the Latin monstrare, “to show” or “to reveal” (which, incidentally, is also where we get the words “demonstrate” and “monstrance,” the Catholic vessel used to display a consecrated host).
Actor and musical-theater writer Justin Huertas has a soft spot for monsters — their awkwardness, their out-of-place-ness and their extraordinary ability to show us things about ourselves, like the struggle to find connection and transcend adversity, in stark relief.
Huertas’ musical “Lizard Boy” (Seattle Repertory Theatre, 2015) was about a self-conscious young man with scaly skin and cello-related superpowers. In 2017, Huertas adapted “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the British fantasy novel that became a Japanese film, for Book-It. “The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion” (ArtsWest, through July 28) concerns a young, love-struck girl who discovers she’s part octopus, and that the collective consciousness of Puget Sound (“The Undertow”) wants her back. His next musical, “Lydia and the Troll” (Seattle Repertory Theatre, summer of 2020), is a fantasy about a stymied singer-songwriter and the Fremont Troll-ish creature.
We caught up with the omni-theater-maker to talk about advice, identity and his favorite freaks. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
You’ve said that your interest in monsters, freaks and superheroes is a rich way to write about your experience growing up as a gay person of color in the Northwest. How so?
The big eye-opener as a kid was X-Men. They were these people with powers that all humans hated and feared, but also superheroes bent on protecting the world from evil. As a kid, I was reconciling an understanding that these people are hated and feared because they’re different, and they have superpowers, and they represent the next stage of human evolution. I felt like: “I could be Iceman shooting ice out of my hands and I’m a freak, but I’m actually the coolest. Other people just don’t know it yet.”
People with superpowers have these struggles they’re working through — all heroes have things they’re overcoming and a lot of that has to do with identity, growing up and understanding how they fit or don’t fit, in the world around them. I freaking loved the Power Rangers for the same reason. I remember being in high school, turning 16 and thinking to myself quietly (because I’d never say it out loud!): “I’m at the age the Power Rangers got their powers. Maybe my powers will show up soon.”
I didn’t gain telekinesis or anything. [Laughs.] But I wrote my first crappy musical!
Do you use different parts of your brain for writing musicals and acting in plays?
I thought I might at first, but even writing “Octopus” has reinforced that it’s all the same parts of my brain working together — the first thing I learned to do was play cello, so that comes out everywhere. “Everybody,” “Caught” and “Things” were all monologue-heavy for me, and I thought about them in terms of musical dynamics, building up a rhythm to the climax of a monologue, or if there’s pause or rest you have to earn that, like you would in music with rhythm and melody.
When did you start playing cello?
I decided I wanted to play at 9 — some string instrument, maybe violin, because I saw Itzhak Perlman on TV and he looked cool. In third grade, there was a music class when they brought in a bunch of instruments for us to touch and try out. I picked up a cello, it was as big as me and I was like: “I wanna play this.” I told my parents that night and they were like: “Do what, now?” But we went to the music store and rented a cello. Years later, when I was competing, playing crazy concertos, they said: “Sitting through your fourth-grade concerts was excruciating, all screech screech screech! But you loved doing it, so we sat through it. Now it’s paid off!”
About five years ago, long-simmering discussions about race and representation in Seattle theater seemed to bubble right up into the mainstream conversation. There were a lot of catalysts in 2014: the “yellowface” controversy with “The Mikado”; a big, town-hall-style conversation about it at Seattle Rep; the Shakespeare-in-the-park “Othello” starring an actor of color who wasn’t black. Five years later, do you think the needle has shifted at all?
There has been some progress — one thing that’s really helpful is that artists of color are feeling more and more empowered to speak up and let their voices be heard. In 2014, even I was in a place of: “Mmmm … I don’t know if I have an opinion on this, but I’m going to write a musical with a queer Filipino superhero [“Lizard Boy”] and let the work speak for itself.”
I was new to the community, cautious to engage, didn’t want to ruffle feathers. But I think it’s wonderful to have theater artists beside me to learn from, especially Sara Porkalob. Her activism in the community is so inspiring, and she’s getting all these opportunities [including annual invitations to A.R.T. in Boston to perform parts of her “Dragon Cycle” trilogy] by not doing anything other than being her authentic self.
Intiman is doing a wonderful job of lifting up voices not generally heard; some other institutions, not so much. But it feels like we’re on our way with really slow but positive movement. For the most part, it feels like we’re all kinda on the same page but not really sure how to move.
You’re 32 now — what advice would you give a 15- or 16-year-old who wants to write musicals?
I think what I needed to hear was to be myself, trust that my story is worth telling and that no one can tell it the way I can. The other advice is to do everything. You say you don’t have time, but you’re this young, you have time, you have the energy and brain space, so do everything.
What advice would you like to give your older self, if 70-year-old Justin is still writing musicals?
I hope he’s not too jaded. It sounds cheesy, but I want to make sure future me is still allowing for the weird stuff — building weird worlds with weird people in them and letting there be power in all that. Hopefully, I’ll never need that advice!
“The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion” by Justin Huertas. Through July 28; ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; $20-$42; 206-938-0339, artswest.org