UW Tacoma’s burgeoning theatre community is about to step into the spotlight. Students and community actors will perform two readings of Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue by American playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes. The readings will be held at Studio 3 inside the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts.
The bigger venue is an encouraging sign for theatre at UW Tacoma. Just a few years ago the university had almost no presence in this area. A number of people were responsible for bringing staged performances to campus, perhaps most notably Assistant Professor Michael Kula and Toy Boat Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Marilyn Bennett.
Bennett started Toy Boat in 2011. “The whole point was to do new, less-recognized theater, to do pieces that were not going to be a big audience draw but would hopefully attract a younger audience,” she said. At the time Bennett held performances out of a venue provided by Spaceworks Tacoma. She vacated the space after taking a teaching position with the University of Puget Sound but continued staging shows in places like King’s Books and Tacoma Little Theatre.
Michael Kula’s decision to get involved with bringing theater to campus stems from an experience he had while teaching. “My first or second year here I taught playwriting,” he said. “In talking to my students I found out that only one had been to a professionally produced play and the vast majority of them had never been to a theater.”
Kula and Bennett met by chance during a meeting at the Broadway Center and the rest, as they say, is history. The pair collaborated to bring Elena Hartwell’s Unwritten Women: Five Short Plays Based on Female Literary Characters from History to campus in 2014. They followed that up with a production of Naomi Iizuka’s Anon(ymous) in 2015.
Elliot will be the first UW Tacoma stage performance not held at the black box theatre in Cherry Parks 007. “The Broadway Center has been looking for a way to do local, small scale, grassroots kinds of productions,” said Bennett.
Kula credits the continued success of theater at UW Tacoma to the community both on and off campus. “Everyone up the chain has been supportive of us and our efforts,” said Kula. The support network is vast and diffuse. Kula received permission from Dr. Bill Kunz to use Cherry Parks 007 – normally a video production space – as a theater. Students stepped up to form the Student Theater Acting Guild which acts as a hub for aspiring thespians. The Office of Student Affairs and the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences have chipped in funding to help cover costs.
The evolution of theater on campus comes at an interesting time for the arts. “Theater funding is declining nationwide and productions like this are the first thing to go because they don’t attract thousands of people,” said Kula. This fact may seem like an obstacle, Kula sees it as an opportunity. “UW Tacoma is growing into a community leader on issues of equity and inclusion and these are the types of plays we’re most proud to bring to the community,” he said. “We have the potential to be a really loud voice in that space because our brand can attract an audience that a small theater on its own might not be able to gather.”
Bennett echoes this sentiment. She is drawn to work that challenges the audience to see outside of their perspective. Anon(ymous) told the story of a refugee searching for his family in the United States. Elliot is the first play in a trilogy – the second play will be showcased at UW Tacoma in the spring – and focuses on an Iraq war veteran. “I just feel like these are the stories that need to be told,” said Bennett.
The productions feature a mix of UW Tacoma students and community actors. Bennett believes this model helps young actors learn and grow. “An important part of our philosophy is that partnering with established local, independent or other theater groups like Broadway Center, like Toy Boat, creates this scaffolding for the program and gives students contact to professional working actors and artists,” she said.
The impact of the arts can be difficult to measure. How do you know if a performance is successful, if it has value? Kula points to a specific example. “I went to see a production put on by another local theater company and I saw one of the cast members from Anon(ymous) was in this show,” he said. “Before acting with us she had no prior theater experience and now she’s making connections for herself in the local theater community as an actor and the outcome for her, in a sense, was life-changing.”
Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue runs Thursday, February 9 and Friday, February 10. Both performances start at 7:30 pm. Admission is free. More information is available on the Broadway Center web site.
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or email@example.com