My favorite flowers are dahlias. I love their magnificent colors, variety, and the fact that they bloom at the end of the summer just when we start to lament summer’s fading. Using nature’s metaphors is a unique way to see ourselves, particularly those individuals who blossom late in life—like dahlias, like me!
In April 2017, through the Seattle art program Path with Art, I learned that the Seattle Repertory Theatre (The Rep) would offer free acting workshops during the summer. These workshops were the finalization of a three-year process, beginning in 2014, by The Rep’s associate artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski and artistic engagement coordinator Simone Hamilton. Their goal was to showcase Public Works Seattle—The Rep’s first participatory theatre program.
The Public Works program model—”theatre of, by, and for the people”—began in New York City. The original concept and direction were developed by Lear DeBessonet, with adaptation, music, and new lyrics by Todd Almond.
Public Works Seattle would present the west coast premiere of The Odyssey—a musical adaptation of Homer’s epic poem, one of the oldest surviving stories in the western world.
Many Seattle organizations were invited to participate by offering acting classes and workshops, including Sound Generations’ Ballard NW Senior Center, the Boys and Girls Club of King County, Centerstone, and Jubilee Women’s Center. The Rep’s goal was to invite individuals from diverse backgrounds and ages. No acting experience necessary—good words for me!
In The Rep’s theatre rotunda, Mayra, Simone, and education associate Jason Sanford expertly guided our group in acting techniques, including tools that would help us expand our instrument—our bodies, voices, senses, intuition, and imagination. We were encouraged to acknowledge our life experiences and reminded that we are “already experts on so much—heartache, loneliness, wonder, joy, fear, courage. These are essential ingredients to be able to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”
Workshop students were taught how to perform monologues, beginning with Hamlet’s well-known soliloquy (“to be or not to be”). Our instructors gave gentle commands—be in character, pronounce words with clarity and simplicity, sing loud, dance strong, and have fun, which we did! In late July, we learned audition tips, how to do headshots, and how to complete an acting resume.
For my audition, I recited a musical piece I hold dear to my heart—”Besame Mucho”—in Spanish. It was my mom’s favorite song, which I heard her sing throughout my youth. When I received a call back for an additional audition, I was in seventh heaven—whoo-hoo!
By August 1, rehearsals began for The Odyssey—two nights a week plus Saturday afternoons. Saturday rehearsals included a delicious community meal provided by The Rep.
Our first rehearsal began by expressing shared values—creativity, joy, transparency, equity, and equality. Once we received our rehearsal schedules, we understood that we were making a serious commitment to the staff, other cast members, and ourselves. Three large sheets of butcher paper were posted to express our ideas, suggestions, and kudos throughout all rehearsals.
We were taught singing techniques by an exuberant music director, R.J. Tancioco, and choreography from a talented, patient, and kind choreographer, Tina Mills. Our fabulous costumes were fashioned under the guidance of expert costume designer Nephelie Andonyadis. Once we were fitted for these costumes, we learned how to put them on and off, how to style our hair and makeup and, of course, how to take a great bow on cue. Our always calm and very knowledgeable stage manager, Stina Lotti, kept us organized and aware of rehearsal dates.
In addition to learning from top-notch acting instructors, it was delightful to meet cast members from throughout Seattle. By mid-August, the cast was informed that the play would be free to the public. We received priority tickets for our families and friends.
Little did I know in April that, by September 8, I would perform on the stage of the Bagley Wright Theatre, along with over 80 individuals ranging in ages five to 80 from local organizations.
One moment I would be an Ithacan townsperson. And the next, I was a seductive siren suited with bright orange/red hair and a lovely green snake-design, flowing gown. Well, that’s show biz—with a great deal of learned flexibility thrown in.
Opening Night was incredibly exciting! Of course, I came down with a humdinger of a cold that morning. I also forgot my contact lenses, and wondered how I was going to see my entrances, particularly as I needed to step quickly up the steep stairs to the platform for the three-siren debut.
But the show must go on, and I willed myself to dance and sing with gusto, without running into anyone on stage. Taking our bows to a standing ovation was sheer “pura vida”—pure life, as they say in Costa Rica.
After our first performance, I perused the play’s program and was inspired by the words of The Rep’s artistic director Braden Abraham: “Working deeply with community-based organizations, Public Works Seattle invites a stunning diversity of people to participate in workshops and classes, attend performances, and then join some of the finest actors from around the country in the creation of this ambitious work of participatory theatre.”
Indeed, that was the way it was.
A week after the play, several of the cast members, including the 12 Sirens, got together for a fun potluck at one cast member’s home. Reflecting on our time together, I asked each member for one word or phrase that best described their experience of being in The Odyssey. Here’s what they said, “Wow, Blessed, Community, Opening new worlds, Pride, Alive, Humbling, Emotional, Exciting, Life-changing, Transformative, Expanding, New Voyage, Fun!”
In the words of Simone Hamilton, “There is a certain joy in experiencing something for the first time that you never forget, and that joy becomes amplified with everyone in the room.”
For me, the experience was indeed incredibly joy-full! From beginning to end, the whole production at the Seattle Repertory Theatre was first class! We received water bottles with The Odyssey logo and our names handwritten on them, teal Odyssey T-shirts (my favorite color) and snacks to energize ourselves during all those long evening rehearsals. Even before opening night, when were told to “break a leg,” we were gifted individual bouquets of flowers—of course, they were dahlias!
I thank Seattle Repertory Theatre, the professional and kind staff and volunteers from the bottom of my heart for this once-in-a-lifetime experience of acting in The Odyssey. And, who knows, maybe we’ll see you as a first-timer next year when Public Works returns to the Rep.
Contributor Dolores Maria Rossman is a consultant for Rossman-Guerrero y Asociados, creating elegant designs for a global aging population. She is a member of the Healthy Aging Partnership and the Age Friendly Communities Task Force. Dolores hopes Seattle residents of all ages will have opportunities to thrive, live safely, and engage socially in the multicultural arts of our beautiful city.
Header photo: Sirens (back row L to R) Rose Dorbin, Paige Wheeler, Melanie Fries, Yvonne Silva Benavides, Amy Erickson, Cassie Powers, Toni Myers, Laura Knight (front row L to R) Rose Kidane, Misty Doty, Lynette Douglass, Dolores Maria Rossman. Photo credit: Odyssey Ensemble Member.