A political protest took place last Wednesday night at the Glenn Hughes Penthouse Theatre. It was not a demonstration for or against your favorite presidential candidate, yet, in our current political climate, it was just as relevant, and there was a fart joke or two thrown in for good measure.
The UW School of Drama just finished a short run of Taylor Mac’s “The Walk Across America for Mother Earth.” The show follows friends Angie and Kelly as they join a ragtag group of larger-than-life activists (their “chosen family”) on a journey across the United States to stop a nuclear testing site on what used to be indigenous land. Things don’t go as expected. Revelations are made, and they realize that defining yourself by the set of causes you believe in can end up limiting personal growth.
Described by the playwright as part “commedia dell’arte,” a style of theater that employs physical humor, part beauty pageant, and part Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” the vast array of influences came together to create a visually bizarre and outlandish show, seizing every opportunity to tell a crude or vulgar joke. This peculiar brand of lowbrow comedy may not have appealed to some of the more refined tastes in the audience, but I thoroughly enjoyed the gross spectacle and the cast’s audacious performances. It was provocative, but completely charming.
“The Walk Across” is part of the School of Drama’s 75th anniversary season, celebrating the department’s history and connection to greater Seattle’s theater community. Executive director Todd London set out to collaborate with local theater companies that have grown out of the UW by way of alumni. Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET), founded by graduates from the UW’s Professional Actor Training Program (PATP), was one of these companies. London was familiar with WET’s unique vision and style of production and was eager to bring them in as collaborators. He gave WET’s Ali el-Gasseir and Samie Detzer a list of about 30 plays to choose from, among which was “The Walk Across.”
“They like to do things that feel unproducible, that are big and unwieldy,” London said. “Ali said they do dessert, not the main course, so I wanted to give them something that was kind of outlandish, really big, really messy, kind of anarchic, and funny. It’s raucous and raunchy in a lot of ways, and it’s very youthful, which I thought would be good for them. It’s not a Seattle Rep play.”
The show was billed as a workshop production, meaning the cast and crew had only three weeks to rehearse, opposed to the usual five. Despite time constraints, the cast was confident that “The Walk Across” could’ve been billed as a full production under the strong, yet encouraging direction of el-Gasseir.
PATP student Jessica Moss played Flower, the loudest and most enraged hippie I’ve ever seen, and credited her bold acting choices to el-Gasseir.
“What I love about Ali is that he creates an atmosphere where I felt very confident in being able to make choices,” Moss said. “He set that up by changing his own directorial choices, too, just being so flexible and letting things roll off. It allowed me to just throw a bunch of stuff out there and do crazy things without being scared that we were going to ruin the play. It would have been a disaster if someone had wanted everything to be perfect right away.”
Equally as inspired by collaborating with the UW on “The Walk Across,” el-Gasseir reciprocated the praise.
“I have really enjoyed coming back to a collegiate atmosphere,” el-Gasseir said. “There is a sense of stakes and dedication to the school that is different from the professional world, and I appreciate it. I see that the students care very much, both the undergraduates and the graduate students, and I love that. This isn’t something they’re doing while they’re working their waiting-tables job. This is what they’re here to do, and I love that sort of energy they bring.”
Most of the characters in the show are boisterous, exaggerated, and just a little eccentric. For example, the unofficial leader of the activists, King Arthur, struts around on stage cradling his large beer belly in one hand and Flower, his “muse,” in the other. PATP student Tatiana Pavela (King Arthur) enjoyed being able to inhabit a personality so different from her own.
“I think what’s beautiful about King Arthur is that, for a good portion of the play, there’s no shame,” Pavela said. “He’s just all pleasure, and he lives in this very body that he feels no shame about whatsoever. There’s such confidence in that. We as women are told not to take up space, and King Arthur is someone who revels in his space.”
Freshman Annie Willis, playing the wide-eyed turned disillusioned Angie, is one of two undergraduates performing in “The Walk Across.” Having performed in children’s theater before coming to the UW, she also had the freedom to inhabit a character that was very different from what she’s used to playing.
“With children’s theater, there are definitely boundaries,” Willis said. “You have to act a certain way, you’re around young kids, it’s not cool to curse, and I couldn’t have done anything that I do in this show. Butt grabs? No. But here, it was just a free for all. It was still professional, and we were still working toward a goal, but it was a huge shift for me, yet very fun.”
“The Walk Across” seems like an anomalous addition to the School of Drama’s 75th anniversary season. It’s a bit grimy and gross, going to great lengths to make its audience squeam. Yet, according to London, that’s entirely the point. The student actors pushed the boundaries of theater, exploring more avant-garde, writerly works they wouldn’t necessarily get to experience while in school.
After talking with some of the actors, they seemed to be in agreement that this play would not have been possible without the collaboration with WET. The opportunity to work with such innovative industry professionals brought out lively and free-spirited performances from the cast, and allowed them to forge a closer bond with the Seattle theater community. London hopes the UW can continue to connect students with resources and ideas outside of their current classes to better prepare them for performances after graduation.
“What I see for the future is to continue these lab experiments, which are both about who does the work and with whom, and how we use guest artists, permanent faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates to create a whole experiment of training,” London said. “We don’t really know what we’re training our students for. What are we going to be celebrating in 75 years? The goal is to put them in touch with the people who are asking the questions that will be generative and exciting, and train them to keep asking questions.”
Reach writer Yasmeen Busse at email@example.com. Twitter: @marie_busse