Racial and economic equity are priorities for government leaders and community activists in the Pacific Northwest.
The same holds true for regional arts organizations.
To that end, Seattle Repertory Theatre has devoted significant staff time — and money — to an initiative called Public Works Seattle. A Rep brochure for the project echoes the U.S. Declaration of Independence, calling the initiative “theatre of, by and for the people of Seattle.”
Project manager Simone Hamilton waxes even more poetic when asked to describe it. “It’s an invitation to the entire city to collaborate with our theater in making ambitious works of participatory art,” she enthuses.
At a recent rehearsal, it was clear the exalted language isn’t far off the mark. The room was jammed with people of all ages, races and physical abilities, more than 50 performers in all.
Music director R. L. Tancioco ran them through one of the songs from a musical adaptation of Homer’s epic “The Odyssey.” The sound they made together was loud, enthusiastic, and not always on key. Tancioco didn't seem to mind; neither did the enthusiastic singers.
Members of this ensemble spent months in theater workshops around the city, working toward this production.
Last year the Rep partnered with five community nonprofits: the Ballard Northwest Senior Center, Path with Art, the Boys and Girls Clubs of King County, Jubilee Women’s Center, and Centerstone.
The Rep theater company offered long term, on-site artistic residencies tailored to each community group. The seniors focused on musical theater; the Boys and Girls’ club attendees honed in on writing plays.
“We spent nine months working together,” Hamilton explains, “doing workshops and taking field trips to see all the shows of (the Rep’s) season.”
Once participants had a sense of both the kinds of plays the Rep produces and what it takes to bring those works to the stage, they all had the opportunity to audition for “The Odyssey.”
Ken Parms stumbled into Public Works Seattle by accident. His neighbor told him he could get a three-dollar lunch at the senior center.
“I said great, let’s go, I’ll drive!” Parms says.
The excursion happened to coincide with musical theater workshop day, and Parms was delighted with the chance to participate. He was hooked.
Parms auditioned for “The Odyssey” in June and was cast as a cyclops. He couldn’t be more thrilled.
“Like a school girl, I’m giddy!” he enthuses, although he concedes that, initially, the costume was so heavy the staff had to build a special structure to support it.
The Rep’s associate artistic director, Marya Sea Kaminski, has spent the past several years working to bring this community project to Seattle.
The Public Works concept was pioneered by New York’s Public Theater in 2013. That’s where Seattle Rep artistic director Braden Abraham saw a production and decided the project would be a good fit for this city.
Kaminski had just come on board at the Rep, and it didn’t take much to convince her that Public Works could be a game changer for the venerable nonprofit theater company.
“The mission and thesis is that artistic excellence and true equity — we can hold in the same hand,” says Kaminski. “They actually inform each other.”
The Rep’s artistic staff sees Public Works as a model for how to open doors to new artistic ideas and new audiences.
Hamilton says the key is to engage in true dialogue with the community participants, to make sure they feel a sense of ownership in the process and the final product. Kaminski, Hamilton and the other artistic staff regularly solicit input and feedback, welcoming questions and suggestions.
It’s been a learning curve for the Rep as well as the community. The staff has had to rethink the rehearsal process to accommodate everybody’s differing needs: The young kids need frequent breaks; so do some of the older participants who grapple with physical challenges.
In addition to the large community ensemble, this production of “The Odyssey” also includes several Seattle-area performance troupes, as well as four professional actors. It’s theater on an epic scale to match Homer’s epic tale.
This musical adaptation was originally written for New York’s Public Theater, but Kaminski believes it’s a great choice to inaugurate Public Works Seattle.
“It’s about trying to find home, certainly a value we are trying to cultivate,” she says. “It informed a million other ideas: immigration, how do we welcome strangers to our city. It really resonates with all these strangers coming together and trying to take a big risk.”
Public Works Seattle is also something of a risk for the Rep. The company is producing the show in its 800-plus seat Bagley Wright theater, with all the bells and whistles — and union-scale staff — it uses for every other production. Plus, tickets are free to all four performances of the show.
Kaminski believes the investment will be worth it. Already, she says, the Rep has adopted some of the Public Works ideas into its overall business strategy: rethinking everything from ticketing to how to welcome audience newcomers.
For her, though, the biggest goal is to institutionalize the project’s core values: equity, accessibility and joy, and to really change the status quo, professionally and personally.
“Every day when I show up at rehearsal, I feel I’m being put to good purpose,” Kaminski says, getting a bit teary. “I have decades of theater experience, I have this big heart for this city. To serve both those things, to be changed myself, that’s quite a reward every day.”
Seattle Repertory Theatre presents “The Odyssey” September 8-10 at the Bagley Wright Theater at Seattle Center. Admission is free, but tickets are limited.