that time 2015 was already well underway… uh, now.

February 15, 2015

Sharon Barto in The Lower Depths. Photo by Robert Falk.

We are already deep into this year. Projects have been completed and new projects are already replacing them, my work schedule has been turned topsy-turvy and back right again, I’ve lost relationships and started new ones, and I still have yet to create a consistent routine because I don’t feel quite settled. It’s irrelevant if I’m settled or not though, because the year’s going to keep churning away whether I’m ready or not.

Last month, I had the opportunity to see The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky, produced by Melissa Fenwick’s Theatre Machine. Theatre Machine is a newer company, and The Lower Depths was Fenwick’s second production. Although the production has been closed for a month now, the show itself and the discussions I had after seeing the play stuck with me for days and days. As I struggled to find a response, I was repeatedly struck with how much this production has made me think about theatre in new and complicated ways. I appreciate this opportunity to examine my own work and the work of others in Seattle theatre.

Despite my frustrations with the play, Melissa as adaptor, director, and producer was willing to speak with me about her choices with the production. Since seeing The Lower Depths, I’ve also seen other plays at semi-professional and fringe theatres and houses around town, as well as direct two short pieces for a new works play festival and start laying the ground work for a project I’m producing/directing/writing this summer. It’s left me thinking constantly about what choices other artists have made, and the choices I must make as director due to restrictions in terms of production, time, and actor energy and capability. We should always be proud of what we create, but at a certain point a process hits a wall and you have to stop and develop where you are. There is no longer room to keep adding or altering the piece as it is. Take a risk, make a decision, move on. It’s harsh and it’s scary, but without decision there are no accomplishments.

I asked Melissa three long questions about the overall tone of The Lower Depths, the role of women, and the use of modern music in the adaptation of a play written in 1902. The most important response I received from Melissa was what she intended to portray with the play:

The cycle of poverty and the apathy towards those stuck inside of it; as well as an insensitivity to violence and tragedy.

The Lower Depths takes place in a halfway house with several characters constantly moving in and out, with a loose plot around the tragedy of a love triangle between the landlord’s wife, her sister, and a thief. Although that was the most interesting part to follow in the play—and my modern sensibilities latched onto the plot only to be disappointed by the play’s lack of structure around it—it is ultimately about catching a glimpse into these characters’ lives who we do not pay attention to much at all in our everyday lives because we dismiss them as people who live on the street and are not making much out of their existence.

But that’s what we want out of our modern theatre! I am constantly hearing from my fellow theatre artists that they want to see new plays about underrepresented characters and situations, because our art should reflect our lives and experiences. That seems contradictory: a play was significant to me because it portrayed elements we are insensitive to while the common desire I hear is to make art about what we see every day, but it is actually one and the same. What we are insensitive to is what we experience everyday, so it doesn’t always occur to everyone to use it in our art. Is everyone around you a rich, white, and male? Then why would that character’s story dominate our art? We are surrounded by people of different shapes, sizes, backgrounds, colors, etc. so we can include what we see every day on our stage. Art can open our eyes, enhancing our perspective using detailed storytelling, portraying universal themes, and giving voice to characters who are not heard as often.

The Lower Depths is an attempt at art reflecting life, using that reflection to imbue a dismissed part of life with importance. Although the production itself did not stir me emotionally, it certainly reminded me of why I love theatre. Melissa transformed the Satori space at INScape by creating an environment of large sheets to make the maze of a halfway house (reminding me of a large co-op house I visited 8 years ago in Madison, WI); she brought together a large cast of actors and musicians to bring their talents and insights to a project she’d been working on for years (an admirable feat); and she highlighted an older Russian playwright to show that his themes are still relevant over 100 years later.

I am inspired. It inspires me to look at art with an open heart despite criticisms I might have. I want to be intensely passionate about the projects I create from start to finish, being a strong leader and engaging in trusting relationships exchanging ideas. I want to make sure that new stories are being heard, and that there are new opportunities to learn and share with audiences. Even though this year is already moving at a breakneck pace, I am excited for the many projects I have in the works for 2015, so stay tuned.

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