Seattle Actors Travel To A Country Where Art Is Dangerous | KUOW News and Information

Seattle Actors Travel To A Country Where Art Is Dangerous

Jan 22, 2015

When a Seattle theater troupe decided to make the long journey to Tashkent, Uzbekistan last spring, the artists had no idea what was in store for them.

"We had meetings with the American embassy that helped us get over there," says director John Langs.

"They basically said don't do anything or say anything in your hotel room that you wouldn't want your grandmother to hear or see, because you will be bugged."

Langs, the Associate Artistic Director at ACT Theatre, traveled with The Seagull Project. It's a group of theater artists who came together a few years ago to perform Anton Chekov's play, "The Seagull." That production was hosted by ACT, and directed by Langs. The troupe planned to present it in Tashkent at an international theater festival.

ACT had established a relationship with a Tashkent-based theater company called the Ilkhom. The company's late artistic director, Mark Weil, had taught at the University of Washington, then arranged for the Ilkhom to travel to Seattle to perform at ACT. But one month before the Seattle residency, Weil was killed.

"We have come to believe," says Langs "that he was assassinated for political reasons."

The Ilkhom doesn't shy away from controversy. Uzbekistan is a majority-Muslim republic; its geographic location in Central Asia, just north of Afghanistan, means it's a potential way station for anti-Russian, anti-Western political movements.

Langs says one Ilkhom production that included a portrayal of the prophet Mohammed provoked a negative response and a government crackdown. At one point, the company performed only silent clown shows as a show of protest against restrictions on what they could present in the theater.

For Seagull Project co-founder Julie Briskman, the life-or-death nature of theater in Uzbekistan was profoundly moving.

"The thing about being in Tashkent is it really reinforces that in other parts of the world, theater is a birthright," she said.

Briskman and her fellow artists founded the Seagull Project out of a love of Chekov.  She says the Seattle artists' commitment to their work was overshadowed by what they saw during their stay in Uzbekistan.

"The necessity and the need and the passion that you see from people who are willing to do a production with police cordoning off the entire theater" -- which the audience broke through -- was inspirational to her and her fellow actors.

Langs says visiting the artists of the Ilkhom, with its driving passion to change the world through theater, was inspirational.

"They get up every night and face those obstacles, which to them is quite literally life or death," he says.

For Langs, Julie Briskman and the other artists in Seattle's Seagull Project, watching the Uzbek actors continue to produce theater despite the dangers, re-ignited their own commitment to produce Chekov's four major plays, despite the lack of funds and the uncertainty of the artist's life in this country.

The troupe says it will spend two years rehearsing and refining each play, a luxury for American non-profit arts organizations.

Next up, the Seagull Project presents Chekov's play "The Three Sisters" at ACT Jan. 20 to Feb. 8, 2015.

Correction 1/26/2015: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to a U.S. military base in Uzbekistan. The U.S. does not have a base in Uzbekistan, according to the U.S. Department of State. The Air Force stopped using an Uzbek base there in 2005.