“Our Town” has spanned generations for Brendan Healy, artistic director of Seattle’s Pony World Theatre. The Thornton Wilder classic was his dad’s favorite play, his mom loves it and his grandmother has even performed in a production. “Our Town” in general is a show so well-known and beloved that it has become, as Healy put it, “ubiquitous in American theaters.” It won Wilder his first Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938 before becoming an Academy Award-nominated film starring William Holden and Martha Scott in 1940. To this day, “Our Town” remains one of the most produced plays by high schools across the country.

“I never quite got it,” Healy said. “Later in life, I started to appreciate it a little bit more, but still understood why a lot of people aren’t on board, especially contemporary audiences.”

Wilder’s slice-of-life play follows the everyday lives of the citizens of Grover’s Corners, a small American town, between the years of 1901 and 1913. Looking at the story now, Healy said, the relationships depicted in Wilder’s play feel saccharin and without conflict or complication.

“I think it’s really hard to do well,” added Pony World actor Mark Fullerton. Watching the play, “you sit through the tediousness of the every day, and by the time the third act comes around, you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t care anymore.’”

So Healy has put a twist on Wilder’s play with “Not/Our Town,” a new play written and directed by Healy that runs at 12th Avenue Arts through Dec. 3. Every night, the audience will be invited to use their smartphones to scan a QR code and take a survey. Healy has written numerous different scenes, styles and story elements, and the audience survey will determine which of these make it on stage. The goal is to take Wilder’s “Our Town” and grapple with questions of legacy. It puts the audience in a position to decide for themselves whether a play like “Our Town” should continue to be performed, even if it doesn’t reflect the experience or values of a present-day audience, or if it should be replaced by newer works and ideas that actually appeal to that present-day audience.

“If this is such a big pillar of American theater, let’s critique it,” said Healy. “Let’s ask if it still has value.”


To be clear, Healy isn’t completely writing off the original “Our Town.” He readily points to the fact that the play contains truly beautiful elements. He specifically pointed to the feeling of catharsis felt by the final third of the play — an act that focuses on death and the precious, fleeting moments that pass us by before we notice. Healy wanted to find a way to capture that feeling while creating a play that felt more accessible to modern audiences.

Healy couldn’t recall when exactly the idea of an audience survey came to him, but said that the two ideas are now inseparable. Wilder’s play is already metatheatrical, breaking the fourth wall immediately by having the role of a Stage Manager guide the audience through the show. Wilder’s Stage Manager introduces the show by directly acknowledging that you, the audience, are seeing a play in that particular theater at that particular time.

For “Not/Our Town,” Healy dials the metatheatricality up to 11.

Audiences are given quite a bit of control with the preshow survey. Healy estimated that somewhere around 65% of the scenes stay the same each night, with the rest being determined by audience choices. Traditionalists who love “Our Town” as written, for instance, may vote to see the show performed without props, since Wilder originally wrote the play to be performed without sets and minimal props. You can also vote to see part of the play as if written by someone like playwright Samuel Beckett, or with elements of an Agatha Christie murder mystery or a blockbuster summer movie. But you also face the choice of whether or not a married couple stays together by the end of the play or falls out of love. It’s highly likely that no two nights will be the same.

“It’s got this very lighthearted silliness to it,” Fullerton said, “and yet, at the same time, there’s a real depth of feeling that seems to come out. In a run-through, I was brought to tears, and that does not usually happen to me [even] as an audience member.”

The winning options are calculated live as the show begins. The results are then projected against the backdrop as part of the show’s opening scene. Right then and there the nine-person cast learns what that night’s performance will contain, taking notes on clipboards of which elements will move forward. 

These ideas are then filtered through the ebb and flow of a relationship between a father and daughter, dual Stage Manager roles that guide the audience’s journey. The father, a playwright and drama teacher, loves the classic “Our Town,” while the daughter dislikes the play and presses for a more modern, exciting version of the story. The audience, and their choices, are put at the center of this debate between wanting to keep the classics the way they are and replacing the scenes, words and style of an 84-year-old play with elements that they voted would appeal to them.


“Sometimes the night feels much more melancholy and some nights it feels exuberant and ridiculous,” Healy said. “It’s kind of a joy to me that the audience has that power.”

Rehearsing a play where certain scenes may not come up on a given night (or ever) can be a challenge. For early run-throughs of the show, actors were given a day’s heads up to prepare for which story elements would be included in their next rehearsal run. As director, Healy worked to find balance, making sure certain sections weren’t getting more attention or rehearsal time than others. Amber Walker, a recent graduate from the University of Washington’s School of Drama and the Stage Manager daughter to Fullerton’s Stage Manager dad, said it was key to keep in mind that the inclusion of a scene early in the play may entirely change how a later scene may need to be performed.

“When we started,” Walker said, “we were all just overwhelmed by, ‘How are we going to put all this together?’ It’s just the sheer amount of possibilities with every rehearsal.”

Walker hesitantly admitted that she too didn’t relate well to Wilder’s “Our Town,” noting that there are other plays that cover similar themes that she can relate better to. But she also said this production has led her to a deeper appreciation for conversations that can be had around works that might feel outdated.

Healy’s show sets out to have a modern conversation with “Our Town,” neither stomping on a beloved treasure for those who love the play, nor providing the same old story for those who have kept it at arm’s length. Instead, “Not/Our Town” aims to be a wholly unique experience, one that invites the audience to join the conversation through their choices and votes for what appeals to an audience of today. And hopefully, that experience still manages to capture the catharsis that comes with the end of Wilder’s original.

“One of the major themes of ‘Our Town’ is that we have limited time here on Earth together,” Healy said, “and we don’t usually fully appreciate what we have. And then it’s gone. Theater is already ephemeral, but let’s make it as ephemeral as possible. Let’s create an experience where, quite possibly, the play you see on any given night has never been performed before and never will again.”

“Not/Our Town”

By Brendan Healy. Through Dec. 3; 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; masks required; $24, with pay-what-you-can nights Nov. 10, 14 and 27; ponyworld.org