Thursday, August 30, 2012

theatre notes. the hometown boys.

Quite recently I found myself at ACT six times in nine days, mostly due to the Pinter Festival (more on that later), but also for a couple of other events backed by the Central Heating Lab. The first night was another reading by The Seagull Project (more on that later, too), this time led by John Bogar, who read a stunningly heartbreaking short story by Gogol, I think it was. Another story was read by Kurt Beattie, who happens to be the artistic director of ACT, but has also been acting and directing around Seattle for nearly forty years. A few nights later I stumbled - accidentally, it turned out, because I had shown up on the wrong night - into ‘99 LAYOFFS’ only to find myself sitting next to Kurt and his wife, the sublime actress Marianne Owen.

Radial Theatre’s ‘99 LAYOFFS,’ like The Seagull Project’s ‘GREAT SOUL OF RUSSIA’ readings, like the Pinter Fortnightly series that blossomed into a full-on, mainstage festival this summer, were all backed by ACT’s Central Heating Lab. The plays I’ve seen through them - A Lie of the Mind last fall, Jesus Hopped the A Train a few months ago, and countless more - are electric and compelling, amplified by the intimacy of a smaller theater, either the Bullitt Cabaret or the Eulalie Scandiuzzi space. This last one - it only seats about 80 people - was funded last year by Gian-Carlo and Eulalie Scandiuzzi; he happens to be the managing director of ACT. You see their names pop up as arts donors all over Seattle, from the tiniest of shoe-string budget productions to the grand stages of our city.

I think of Kurt Beattie and Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi as the Hometown Boys, having lived and worked in Seattle for decades. The Central Heating Lab will be one of the great legacies that they will leave behind during their tenure at ACT. I don’t know who started it all, but it has created something extraordinary - a space for small theater groups like Collektor or Azeotrope or The Seagull Project, to make art. And this is two-fold: it gives these fledgling companies a stage as well as the full marketing power of a big theatre company, and it introduces a core audience to something new. The theatre is no longer merely a theatre but an artistic ecosystem - I think it was John Bogar who referred to it as a “great reef” - and it creates a community of people who are there because they love it. This is what keeps me coming back, again and again, that keeps me experiencing that ‘riot in the heart’ that is theatre.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

the island of lost children.

In the photograph the three of them look slightly nervous. It is 1982, and the parents seem impossibly young. They are in summer clothes but the child, not quite two, is wearing a blue velveteen dress that must be far too hot. There are tear-stains on her face. They are still strangers. None of them know this yet, but the child has a tapeworm, which explains the skinny arms and legs. In another year the arms and legs will be chubbier, her hair longer and in pigtails; the three of them will be a family. A little while later, after the social worker visits and the untangling of more red tape, the state of Missouri will rewrite her past, erasing the name she was given at birth and changing the parents on her birth certificate. She will be among the first wave of Chinese adoptions, that first generation of lost children swept across the sea. She will not remember anything before the little red-brick house in Ladue, outside St. Louis. Not the first few months in Zhejiang, where she was born, or the year or more afterwards, in Shanghai.

I rarely talk about it but it is impossible to pretend I never think about being adopted. Having Taiwanese parents - we do not look alike, but we are the same race - has made it easier to assimilate, although assimilate isn't quite the right word. It will never be the first thing you assume about me when you see us together. I have been profoundly grateful all my life for being raised in a Chinese-speaking household, although I did not always understand this. But to ask me how I feel about being adopted is like asking me how I feel about having brown hair; it is a part of me that I can’t ever remember being any different, and it is not anything I would ever change. I do not need to see the place I was born to complete my sense of identity. I do not need to ask the woman who gave birth to me why she gave me up. I am complete. I am not wholly Chinese, Taiwanese, or American, but this cultural confusion is not confined to adopted children; it extends to all people raised by immigrants in a foreign land.

To ask someone about being adopted as if it were something strange or exotic is often well-meant but also, I don’t mean insulting, exactly. I remember, when I was quite young, reading a John Steinbeck story about a boy who didn’t understand he was poor and that he should somehow be ashamed of being poor until his teacher came to his home and pointed out to his father all the ways in which he had been failing his son. I don’t mean that there is anything ever to be ashamed of about being adopted or adopting a child, but when I was younger I felt that talking about it somehow gave it more weight, more importance, than it deserved. This was my family, all the family I would ever remember, all the family I had ever known. That is all I have ever had to say about being adopted.

As a child I would sometimes dream about an island of lost children. I had been told that I'd had another older sister, who was also given up for adoption. In my mind she would look like me, only taller and prettier and smarter. I thought I could find her on this strange island. It would be our country, created for those who were born without one of their own, for the other lost children who were like us. I think this idea came from a passage in Roald Dahl’s FLYING SOLO, when Dahl meets a strange bearded man on a strip of desert which would later become Israel. He turns out to be leading a group of Jewish refugees, who have been given permission to live there by a Palestinian farmer. “We need a homeland…we need a country of our own. Even the Zulus have Zululand,” says the man. Somehow these words have stayed with me all my life. I have never had a homeland of my own. During the Olympics I cheered for the athletes that were the cutest or had the prettiest costumes.

What nobody tells you is that biology is not a guarantee of love, of family, of identity, of a sense of belonging. You have to learn this on your own. The truth is, we are all the same. We are all cast upon a strange shore from the very beginning, by birth or by chance, and we must find our way from there. This is the first journey of our lives, searching for a place in our families. This longing, this search, it stays with us all our lives and follows us into the outside world.

Monday, August 13, 2012

theatre notes. hedda gabler

 I gave up on Intiman Theatre a few years before they collapsed in on themselves early in 2011. This made me sad, because I had loved them when I was a teenager. Intiman introduced me to so many things - Shaw, Ibsen, Pinter, Mike Daisey. But they had won a Tony some years back; the running joke was that the artistic director was hardly ever in Seattle, having taken his “One Ring” (as Mike Daisey referred to his Tony award) and gone to New York. There were fewer local faces onstage now. There was that one play which was so unfinished that a (minor) character mentioned in the review and listed in the credits didn’t actually appear during the performance. A new artistic director arrived, hand-picked by the previous one; it felt to me that while her body was here her heart was still back in New York with her husband and child. To be a SEATTLE THEATRE you have to commit, full-on, and that wasn't happening. I was done; I had moved on.

ACT across town had gotten itself back on track after a rocky few years of their own; with Steven Dietz’s BECKY’S NEW CAR in 2008 I found myself at home there again. A friend had introduced me to Strawberry Theatre Workshop; through my ACT subscription I discovered the New Century Theatre Company. The Seattle Rep seduced me with Bill Cain’s EQUIVOCATION in the winter of 2009, a co-production with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. People were making beautiful theatre, mostly with local talent, and my attention stayed on them. Intiman, with its New York actors and Hollywood progeny, lost me completely. Still, I regretted their loss.

Then rumblings came about of a four-play summer festival, lead by a new artistic director, Andrew Russell. Young and ridiculously adorable, like a Labrador puppy but with a longer attention span, he seemed to be onto something good. I was intrigued, but not ready to commit to anything. I was not eager for ROMEO & JULIET (which I hated as a teenager), or a couple of yet-to-be-confirmed works (this turned out out be DIRTY STORY and Dan Savage’s MIRACLE!). But HEDDA GABLER had distinct possibilities, especially after I saw Marya Sea Kaminski’s Bonnie-and-Clyde-influenced theatre piece, RIDDLED, at the Hugo House back in June. She is mesmerizing, beautiful, with a face that opens up with joy and anticipation or draws in on itself with disappointment, fear, anger, or all of the above. Her eyes widen, then narrow; her mouth splits into a dazzling smile, then pulls tight into a bitter line, like a buttonhole stitched with black thread. A chameleon’s face.

Intiman’s HEDDA GABLER is like a huge table-cut emerald; sharp-cornered, the polished surface turns one way to reflect light back at you, turns another to open up its richly colored depths. Like the emerald, it is not unflawed, but it is still something to behold. The murky language of a previous century has been cut to the bone, perhaps not all of it necessary, but it moves more swiftly than I had anticipated. Our lives seem to turn on one moment, it seems to tell us. A world can change in 48 hours. A lost notebook, a misplaced gun, a night’s drinking with the boys, it can change everything. The things which you could or should have said or done, the pages you burned or did not burn, the truths you did not say. This is life, all the turns you made or did not make leading you, inevitably, to the end…