Over sixty arts enthusiasts arrived at the Q Café in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood for the mid-December quiet Speaks, a quarterly artist showcase of music, poetry and other short performances. The crowd settled into a deep silence as poet Anitra Freeman, one of the guiding lights at Seattle’s Real Change newspaper, read a subtle and moving short story about the isolation experienced by those guarding the artistic flame.
Later, a college student dazzled with an animated recitation of a poem he had presented at Seattle’s World Aids Day. Musician Nick Sandy, who performed an original piece, commented after the show about how rare it is to be listened to with such attention. These, along with many other offerings that night, illustrated what quiet Speaks aims to provide — art shared in an environment where every voice is received with respect.
Founded in 2010, quiet (the q is lowercase on purpose) is catalyzing a new kind of cultural conversation in Seattle that uses performance as a vehicle for reexamining social and political assumptions. Quiet is primarily a theater company but, unlike other organizations that may on occasion produce a socially conscious play, explores one unifying theme each season as a way to ask multiple questions about an issue. In the past two years, the group has explored gender dynamics and class and in 2013 plans to examine race dynamics. All of this with one goal in mind: that each of its audience members walks away with an intention to act on what they've seen.
Quiet is, in all senses of the word, a family affair. The troupe was co-founded by husband-and-wife team Matt and Roxy Hornbeck (Executive Director and Managing Director, respectively) with Matt’s older brother Josh Hornbeck, the group's Artistic Director. The full twelve-member leadership team is a dynamic group of mid-twenties to mid-thirties artists with seemingly boundless energy. The group’s motto: Love art. Love others. Do good.
In December, quiet's main stage production of “Pippin,” Stephen Schwartz's 1972 Broadway musical, opened to positive reviews. The play addressed class issues, illustrating how privilege can often blunt empathy and isolate us from a sense of the common good. The title character, a wandering hero, constantly chases a set of ideals that remain always out of reach. Pippin finally finds satisfaction with the woman he loves, but the stark ending provides a powerful lesson about desire, as the woman's young son begins his own quest for more. For audience members, Pippin’s insatiable wanderlust served as a window onto consumer culture: the continuous desire for the next best thing and failure to appreciate what is right in front of us.
Beyond theater productions, quiet also produces quiet Speaks each quarter and publishes quiet Shorts, a twice-yearly arts journal. In 2012, quiet held its first writer’s workshops; a series of 3-hour-long sessions, usually with 6 – 8 participants, hosted by volunteer writers.
Part of what makes quiet unique in Seattle’s arts community are its many partnerships with local social service organizations, which help frame the discussions that surround its theater productions and other projects. To date, quiet has partnered with Real Change, Casa Latina, Eastside Domestic Violence Program (EDVP), Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Northwest Men’s Project (NMP), Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) and The Bridge Care Center.
“The art gives our audience a concrete example of some of the issues and challenges we face in society today," Josh explains. "Our partner organizations are able to speak to how they see those issues playing out every day in the work they do in the community."
Since quiet believes that dialogue is the best way to start social change, the group looks for different ways to help its audiences engage with issues that most of us are intuitively familiar with — issues of injustice, unfairness, inequality and immorality — but have forgotten how to talk about. Whenever possible, quiet tries to create a dialogue between its audience and cast members, the artistic team and representatives from its partner organizations, often in post-play panel discussions. During the rehearsal process, quiet runs sample panel discussions with the actors to heighten their sensitivities to the issues addressed in a play.
One of the more inspired exchanges took place this past August after quiet’s production of Josh Hornbeck’s original play, “A Time for Butterflies,” which examines the difficulties faced by a Mexican immigrant family as they struggle to achieve the elusive American Dream. Themes of police brutality, prejudice, green cards, love and family were familiar to many in the audience.
Actor Sandra Ponce, herself of Hispanic background and also a member of the quiet leadership team, was inspired by the post-play conversation. “I think the most important facet of post-production exchange is creating questions that inspire dialogue," she says. "The best part for me was talking with teens from our partner organization Casa Latina and realizing that so many of them could see themselves or family in this story. I hope the discussion continued at home. That is the goal, to have our audience go out and start a dialogue with those around them. Ignite the spark of change.”
During an evening of one-act plays performed last May, both of which centered on family secrets, quiet had the audience members write anonymous confessions and deposit them in a box in the lobby. "These confessions," Josh explains, "were then compiled into a poem that was read at the following quiet Speaks performance night.”
Still, with a mission to promote community conversation, the name confounds – quiet. As Roxy explains, “The organization is establishing a way to speak about the company, and the lower case ‘q’ suggests that quiet is only a part of the community conversation, not the dominant leading force.” In other words, quiet is interested in facilitating an exchange with as many voices as possible, giving equal weight to each.
As a young company, quiet has so far operated on project grants from 4Culture (formerly the Cultural Development Authority of King County) as well as Kickstarter campaigns and patron donations. They’ve also partnered with Shunpike, a non-profit organization that offers business assistance to small to mid-size arts groups. Their first priority is to make sure that all artists and crew for any quiet production are paid, even if just a small stipend. Later, as they continue to grow, they will add more production elements, such as much-needed mics for the actors.
The company's work has been well-received, but the group is still building its name in the city. Though many Seattle actors have sought them out for their socially meaningful productions, the group runs auditions through Theatre Puget Sound to attract new faces.
So far, quiet’s audience has drawn primarily from first-time theater-goers, which it has reached out to through its partnerships with social service organizations. This group is bolstered by a combination of more traditional arts patrons interested in making a difference and a strong student audience. (Both Matt and Roxy teach at Seattle Central Community College; he as a Sociology instructor and she as an English instructor.) Quiet’s work is modestly priced too — never more than a movie ticket — a decision the organization made to ensure that all nature of theater-goers find quiet’s art is accessible.
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