A Theater Collective That Would Rather Fail Than Do What Everyone Else Is Doing
The Satori Group Looks Best When They Make Things Hard on Themselves
One night outside a bar in Seattle, actor Alex Matthews told playwright Neil Ferron, "We want to fuck up your play." Matthews is a founding member of the Satori Group, a theater collective that wanted to produce Ferron's newest script, the tensely written Fabulous Prizes. "Are you going to let us fuck up your play?" Matthews asked.
People remember the wording differently—some say it was "we're gonna fuck up your play"—but the message was the same: Satori doesn't just put on plays. It pulls them apart and puts them back together again. As Ferron tells it, Matthews went on: "No really. We're going to fuck it up. We're going to do a bunch of Satori shit to it, and you'll probably hate it. But that's what we want to do."
The resulting production was a tautly performed psychological horror set in a cluttered apartment, where a deranged chef-father makes his son wear a wig and reenact the traumatic night he caught his wife cheating in the family's new restaurant. Then he stabbed her to death. (Some restaurants critics were eating there that night. Their reviews were poor.) Those reenactments, the father says, are part of the son's "training" for the day when he'll get his own kitchen—and his own collection of sharp knives. When their sad-sack, lovelorn apartment manager drops by and becomes a hostage to the father's madness, things get real dark real quick.
Company member Nathan Sorseth played the balding father in yellow-tinted aviator glasses with a restrained menace that threatened to pop at any moment. As the son, Quinn Franzen performed a combination of quivering fear (when his dad was around) and the make-believe cockiness that little boys allow themselves to feel when nobody's around to burst their I'm-a-cool-guy bubble.
Directed by Caitlin Sullivan, the Satori Group's artistic director, Fabulous Prizes was a hell of a show and the company's most artistically cohesive and confident work to date—at least of the several I've seen. And it was popular with audiences, extending its run at Satori's loft in the 619 Building, an artists' colony beneath the viaduct that would soon be cleared out to build the deep-bore tunnel. Shortly after Fabulous Prizes closed, all the artists in 619 received their eviction notices.
But Satori is known for thriving under harsh conditions—or at least not succumbing to the temptation to do things the easy way. Rather than following a rut dug by someone else, they tend to grab pickaxes and shovels and cut their own way through. In the process, they struggle with themselves and are beginning to struggle with the boundaries of theater itself.
In the past few years, they've dedicated themselves to making only original work. "We're not interested in the second, or fifth, or 10th run of a successful off-Broadway play," says Sullivan, a dark-haired and rapid-fire talker. (At one point in our conversation, she describes herself as "a woman of many words." That is accurate.)
But, I say, producing second runs of off-Broadway shows is what most companies do.
"Some people love that!" she says. "Because someone's tested it for you! All those messy beats have been worked out! But then again—all those messy beats have been worked out." Satori likes to wrestle with the problems.
Since Fabulous Prizes, the company has created haunting, almost-wordless performances in the woods (Linedry at the Smoke Farm summer arts festival) and short, intense "experiences" for one audience member at a time (Microdramas), and they are now working on their most ambitious project yet, a collaboration with playwright Martyna Majok titled reWilding.
The play is a series of fragmented scenes, dramas between people living in a remote forest community that, like the word "rewilding" itself, has an anarchist-primitivist feel. In the green-anarchist vocabulary, rewilding is about humans throwing off the domesticating yoke of civilization and learning how to be "wild" again.
The characters come to the world of reWilding to fall off the map, hunt and forage for their food, sew their own bearskin coats, and try to get along—more or less. The set, which Sullivan calls "the installation," is an immersive woodland environment that blurs the boundaries between performers and audience. A stage direction says: "Audiences sit next to musicians, in tents, under tarps." Within minutes of dropping by Satori's studio in the International District to visit a rehearsal on a recent Saturday morning, I was on my knees, tearing up old bedsheets and finger-knitting them into vines to hang around the room. Other work teams were screwing cardboard tree trunks into place and testing design ideas for the "rain" that is supposed to pour down at one point in the show. ReWilding also has live music, movement sequences by choreographer Markeith Wiley, barely linear storytelling, and 11 performers—more than Satori has put onstage before.
It seems like a difficult show to pull off. But with every passing production, the Satori Group gets a little bolder and pushes itself a little further. "Sometimes I feel like we're just starting to make our work," Sullivan explains. "Our skills are just starting to catch up with what we want to do." That sentiment was echoed by other company members, and it displays an unusual level of honesty and self-awareness, especially for a young theater company, many of which don't think much beyond Hey! Support us! Come see our show! Not in public, anyway.
Satori cofounder Andrew Lazarow, who moved to New York a few years ago to pursue a master's degree at NYU, says that self-awareness of their skill level, coupled with the company's refusal to be scared by knowing its limits, is why Satori keeps getting better. "They're always reaching for that newer, scarier place," he says over the phone. "And the places out of your reach become more interesting the stronger your muscles become."
For the first few years after it landed in Seattle, Satori was most famous for its unusual origin story: A pack of fresh college graduates, six from Williams College in Massachusetts and five from University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, decided they wanted to move somewhere within the United States and make theater together. The Williams and Cincinnati cohorts had barely met, but they had a mutual friend in Lazarow. (Lazarow says he really hoped everyone would get along, since if things went up in flames, it felt like it would be "all on me.") Company members fanned out across the country, sending reconnaissance teams to scope out promising-sounding cities: Austin, Chicago, Portland, and so on. They ruled out New York from the beginning as too expensive and too hectic. As one of their advisers told them: If you go to New York now, you'll spend all your time hustling instead of incubating and honing your work—and your company probably won't survive.
When the Seattle contingent arrived in December of 2006, they hooked up with designer Jennifer Zeyl (via a connection from a college professor) and Washington Ensemble Theater, which was in the middle of producing Never Swim Alone. The Satori recon team met people, saw shows, decided they liked Seattle, and convinced the rest of the pack to haul itself westward. They picked up a variety of jobs—in offices, in diners, as carpenters, as nannies—and got to work.
Satori's first Seattle show, a 2009 production of Will Eno's TRAGEDY: a tragedy, was fine for a just-born theater company, but nothing revolutionary. Since then, the company hasn't been too prolific, averaging around one production a year. But with each one, audiences could see the company getting better, pushing itself toward more vibrant and original performances, and finding the resources to do it. (The company's budget for TRAGEDY: a tragedy was $400, not including rent. The budget for reWilding is around $6,500.)
In 2010, they worked with fiction writer George Saunders to adapt his short story "Winky" for the stage. Satori built a shape-shifting set—with puppets and projections—that made the audience walk around, and through, the inner landscapes of the characters' minds. Sullivan says Winky, which was inventive and ambitious but had a few technical hiccups, was an important lesson for the company in learning how to knit together performance and design from the beginning. "We workshopped the text early, then worked with the designers," she says. "Then we got into tech, and everybody expected everyone else to make magic—but what we got was gridlock and collaborators fighting to the death."
Then came their successful run of Fabulous Prizes, as well as Linedry (one detail from that moody Smoke Farm performance: a clothesline with clothes on it that began at the top of a riverbank and angled sharply downward, disappearing completely into the river below) and Microdramas. Sadly, I've never seen one of their one-person-at-a-time Microdramas myself, but Stranger art critic Jen Graves underwent one last year that involved sitting in a beach chair beneath a tent of plastic and some actors manipulating it. She felt like she was on a ship that got caught in a violent storm. "I can't remember exactly what happened that night," she says, "which feels kind of right. It was very impressionistic and also very intense, almost like a trauma whose core you don't quite remember even though you remember its effects." (Satori plans to push their Microdramas experiments further once they finish up reWilding.)
Sitting at his kitchen table, in the apartment he shares with company members Quinn Franzen and Monty Taylor, Alex Matthews says if any other company asked him to be part of a project like Winky or reWilding or Microdramas, he would probably say no. "It would sound crazy," he says. "When Spike [Friedman] and Quinn explained Microdramas, it was like: Is there a story? 'No.' So what will happen? 'We'll drag people through plastic.' Holy shit! But I can get right behind them. We speak each other's language, and now we know how to help each other make a singular vision."
Matthews is a burly actor who, other company members are eager to tell me, trained in mixed martial arts and was a national point-fighting champion. (When pressed for details, he says that when he lived in California, he had to carry an ID card issued from the World Taekwondo Federation and have a special insurance policy taken out by his parents "in case I hurt someone. I guess the laws governing people with that kind of training are similar to military or police.") He came to acting late, during the final semester of his senior year at Williams, where he mostly thought of himself as a "burnout jock."
Plus, he hated actors. "I still do!" he laughs. "They're exhibitionists, they're lazy, they're entitled—but I'm all that too, which is maybe why I hate it so much." But he was Lazarow's roommate, and Lazarow asked him to audition for a part in a play he was directing. "I did the whole thing and was shaking the whole time," Matthews says. "Afterward, he asked me to get a drink and was dead serious: 'Alex, if I cast you, will you finish it? Or do I have to worry about finding someone else?'"
Matthews committed to finishing the play. He's been an actor ever since.
One of the biggest stresses looming on Satori's horizon might be its own success—the company takes lots of time and energy to develop its performances, time and energy that's getting tighter as company members get more work in other productions. Quinn Franzen was in last summer's Intiman summer festival, including a celebrated performance as Romeo; other company members may be on Intiman's short list for this summer, among other work they're auditioning for. (Or may not be—talking about auditions and hopes before a casting decision is made is always a delicate proposition.)
Satori, of course, can't compensate its members for their time—reWilding is the first show for which they're paying themselves a very modest stipend—so it's a tricky balance. "You want to be a working artist, but being part of this company means you can't be a working artist?" Sullivan asks. "That's not a choice I want someone to have to make!"
But Sullivan and Matthews both seem confident that Satori will make it work. "It took a while to be considered one of Seattle's own," Matthews says. "It took shows, milestones, and continued insistence that people would have to put up with us for a very long time."