When I asked Seattle Repertory Theatre associate artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski why she selected Todd Almond's musical adaptation of The Odyssey as the inaugural show for the theater's ambitious new Public Works Seattle program, she said a couple things that surprised me.
Since the President deployed his evil elf to rescind DACA earlier this week, "folks [in rehearsal] have really started talking about immigration, and what it’s like to meet a stranger," Kaminiski said. "The lines 'Who are you? Where are you from? How did you end up here?' recur over and over throughout the show. You just never know what somebody has been through when you meet them; you never know how deep and wide their story is. So the question we keep asking is should we tolerate people and ignore our differences, or should we embrace them?"
The Public Works Seattle program, which the Rep is billing as "theatre of, by, and for the people," is based on the model created by NYC's beloved Public Theatre. Essentially, the theater teams up with nonprofit organizations all around the city in an effort to create an ensemble show that puts "theatre at the heart of our city, and city at the heart of our theatre." Kaminski selected The Odyssey from a short list of mostly Shakespearean productions commissioned especially for the program, and so approximately 80 recently trained performers from the participating organizations will combine their talents with four equity actors and eight local artists groups (everything from drag queens to drum lines) to tell Homer's ancient and adventurous tale of home-seeking and nostos. All told, there's going to be 160 residents from the Greater Seattle Area singing and dancing on the Bagley Wright stage this weekend, all under Kaminiski's steady direction.
"I was also attracted to The Odyssey because it’s a story that so many of us know, so there wasn’t a single expert in the room," Kaminski continued. "It wasn’t like a Shakespeare story, where only one person will be comfortable with it. In fact, I have a 12-years-old actor from the Southwest Boys and Girls Club. I asked who had heard of The Odyssey before, and she told me the entire story of The Odyssey based on the Simpsons episode."
The eight local performers who will make Simpsons-esque cameo appearances during key parts of Homer's narrative look impressive. The Purple Lemonade Collective will perform some serious voguing, the Seahawks Blue Thunder drumline will bang out some beats, Oleaje Flamenco dancers will swirl like dervishes, the drag queen Tipsy Rose Lee will play the seductress, Circe, while the Thalia Symphony Orchestra adds their strings, and a gospel choir, who plays the goddess Athena, adds their soulful voices. "The whole idea is to show off how amazing and magnificent our regional artists are," Kaminski said.
"But the heartbeat of the show is the 80-person community ensemble," she continued. "There are so many different kinds of people with different needs and experiences. We've got ages 2 to 78. Calvin, the baby, does some dancing—but mostly his mom carries him."
The show itself, which Charles Isherwood at The New York Times described as a "brash, funny and heart-stirring" musical that's "more homage than adaptation" and more populist than classical, is really just the customer-facing product of months of theatrical teaching and training throughout Seattle.
For the last year, teaching artists from the Rep have been working closely with five organizations all over town, including Path With Art, The Boys & Girls Clubs of King County, Jubilee Women’s Center, Centerstone, and Sound Generations/Ballard NW Senior Center.
Kaminski, who also directs the Public Works Seattle program, stresses that the partnerships with the area nonprofits were "chosen based on consensus organizing and mutual benefit." The Rep talked to staff and leadership at several nonprofit organizations, and after mutually agreeing on five organizations with whom to work, the Rep and the orgs hashed out how the creative process of theater-making could align with everybody's priorities.
Once that was all sorted, teaching artists from the theater ventured out to the community centers and taught workshops and classes based on interest.
"It wasn't like, 'Here’s some theater. You’re welcome," Kaminski said. "At the Southwest Boys & Girls club, for instance, they didn't want to do acting. They wanted to do spoken word, so we started there. At the Ballard NW Senior Center, they wanted to breathe and sing, so we started with musical theater practice. They weren’t into the idea at first, but now the choreography is there favorite part."
These workshops and classes culminated in a July audition, which were held in several sites around the region. "There were participants in the workshops who opted out of participating in the stage play, and some folks who weren’t in the workshops who decided to audition. So almost everyone who has been in the workshops is in the show," Kaminski said.
Nobody's sure if anybody's getting paid, and nobody's sure if the Rep plans to produce the show again next year (though the community workshops and classes will continue with the five partners for the next 3-5 years), but the tickets are free and open to the public, and Kaminski says the process of creating the show has completely changed everyone involved.
"This institution is being transformed. I’m being transformed as an artist. Every staff member who comes in has been transformed by the community ensemble. We’re learning so-freaking-much from these people," she said.
Those statements don't appear to be just a bunch of gooey nonprofit talk. The Rep is putting some resources into recording the qualitative and quantitative impact of this work. "As soon as the show goes up, we’ll start our reflection mode," Kaminski said. "The thesis is that art makes us better, gets us to know each other more deeply. And to understand that better we’re dealing with a linguistic anthropologist from Stanford, and really trying to measure the impact of the work."