This paragraph, a description of a nonfiction performance piece by Stokley Towles called Waterlines, might be what's wrong with theater in America:
Artist Stokley Towles will present Waterlines, a performance piece, in July at Volunteer Park, also home to the Volunteer Park Reservoir. Towles will explore local perceptions and behaviors around water use, its sources and conservation efforts. He traced the flow of our city's water through interviews with city utility employees. He will show his findings, tell stories of our city's water supply, and share artifacts in a 40-minute performance that presents the municipal utility in playful and illuminating fashion.
Apologies to whoever wrote that dreary description—one assumes somebody at the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, which commissioned the project—but you screwed up. Bureaucratic pidgin like that is like chloroform to audiences. It's almost as if you don't want people to come to Stokley Towles's bizarre little piece of journalistic theater about rats, oil-clogged pipes, and sewer-worker slang for all the used condoms they find crumpled in the pipes beneath our city ("whitefish"). Thank you, Arts & Cultural Affairs, for commissioning Waterlines, but can we please not write about it like it's homework? It's not supposed to be good for you.
Towles is a disarmingly charismatic man—tall, tanned, and wholesome looking, like a Christian camp counselor—who interviews people about the mundane facts of their lives, mixes all the details in a storytelling blender, and then makes shows telling you things you never even realized you should've been wondering about. They're like Richard Scarry books—the ones that explain what firefighters are and how buildings are made—for grown-ups.
Towles hasn't made many performances—only seven in the past 14 years, most of them in the 1990s—but Waterlines is about so much more than "perceptions and behaviors around water use." It's about the rats in your toilets (they're really there), about the invention of near beer (as a safe alternative to drinking water, since the low alcohol content supposedly killed germs), and about a local man named Mel who has walked 90 percent of Seattle's sewer pipes (the things he's found there: a tricycle; part of a canoe; a secret reading room with desk, chair, and plywood floorboard that somebody obviously set up as a private hideaway—Mel, Towles says, let it be).
Other topics discussed: secret tunnels leading to springs, accidentally demolished in Israel; what parts of Seattle have the most fat- and oil-clogged sewers; the etymology of "rival" (those who share a river or a stream); and Seattle's professional water tasters, whose palates are more accurate than microscopes in figuring out what kind of algae are living in the water. Microscopes can only see what's in a tiny drop, but the tasters can detect a broad range of algae species in one mouthful and help the city figure out what kind of treatment methods to use. The tasters, Towles says, claim our source water has a potato flavor in October, then moves on to notes of cucumber, beets, and Brazil nuts as the temperature and algae content change. Once, Towles heard an expert describe her sample as tasting "like summer camp—a hint of wet life jacket."
"I find it very reassuring that it's not left to the mechanics and computers and pipes to determine how our water is treated," Towles says in a trailer in Volunteer Park where he will perform Waterlines for the next few weekends. "Everyday stuff that I thought was everyday stuff is not everyday stuff."
Towles has filled the trailer—near the reservoir and Seattle Asian Art Museum—with maps, photographs, different brands of bottled water, and other people's stories about water pinned to the wall. Don't be shy about going in. When the trailer opened on a sunny day last week, the first visitor—a bespectacled, gray-haired docent at the Volunteer Park Conservatory—timidly walked through the door and said: "Oh, I'm sorry."
"No, no," Towles said, ushering her inside. "It's for you."