quiet: Breaking through theater's fourth wall in the name of justice

An up-and-coming Seattle theater company, quiet is using conversation and unconventional partnerships to get audience members talking about social justice.
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quiet co-founders Josh Hornbeck, Roxy Hornbeck and Matt Hornbeck.

An up-and-coming Seattle theater company, quiet is using conversation and unconventional partnerships to get audience members talking about social justice.

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. 

Co-producing special events with like-minded arts groups has also been an effective way for quiet to increase its visibility. In May 2011 quiet, local theater troupe Rainy Night Productions and creative production team The Heroes presented “Barnstorm: The Cabaret Re-Imagined,” a downtown storefront three-night arts happening that drew over 650 audience members.  

The company also hosts quiet 101, a monthly conversation about art and social change held at the Roy Street Coffee and Tea every third Saturday. The gathering is a chance for participants to learn more about quiet, get updates on projects and find out where they might become involved.

Roxy concedes that quiet’s approach is not for everyone, but she believes that the company will continue to add a valuable voice with the Seattle theater community.

The company models its work after two visionary Brazilians: philosopher and educator Paolo Freire and artist-activist Augusto Boal, who saw theater as a dialogue and an opportunity to act out social change. 

Friere proposed a critical way of thinking and knowing, both of which are inextricably linked to each other. He fervently believed, above all, that it is through the exercise of tolerance that we discover the rich possibility of doing things differently and learning different things from different people. He considered it to be every citizen’s duty to be tolerant — an ethical duty, a historical duty, and a political duty. quiet beautifully reflects these tenets.

Drawing on Friere’s ideas, Boal developed the Theater of the Oppressed during the 1950’s and 1960’s in Sao Paolo. He took his theater to factories and farms throughout Brazil and developed plays around the experiences of people silenced by poverty and oppression. Decidedly not didactic, Boal wanted the impetus for change to come from within the target group. In similar fashion, quiet works with its partner organizations to help marginalized or disenfranchised citizens find the voice to reflect on the past but invent new futures for themselves.

Has quiet’s work made a difference? The answer is a resounding yes. Social organizations have seen an increase in volunteers because of heightened awareness after attending a quiet event. After quiet partnered with the NWMP for its first production, “Pick Up Artist: The Musical,” the entire cast and a few audience members volunteered in NWMP’s 2010 event titled “Opening Doors: Exploring the Roles of Men in Ending Violence.” The volunteers helped run various booths and engaged the attendees in conversations about masculinity, society and violence.

Emails frequently arrive from audience members letting the quiet team know how a play has affected their own thinking. After attending “The Beating of a Warrior’s Heart,” a play about returning soldiers dealing with the guilt of survival and the trauma of war, audience member Eric Christensen wrote, “The show on Saturday was incredible. I brought 15 soldiers from my unit to see it so that we could have a conversation around what it means to be a leader in the Army and taking care of our soldiers. We had an incredible conversation.” 

Anitra Freeman, the poet who read at December's quiet Speaks, appreciates the common goals that quiet and Real Change share. She was particularly impressed with the response to quiet’s presentation at Seattle’s Arts and Social Change Symposium this past October. “Quiet provoked the longest discussion with the biggest aha moments. They wrote a play incorporating interviews with Real Change vendors and other homeless people," she explains. "I’ve seen other such aha moments from audience members at quiet’s post-play discussions, mostly in a new understanding of the realities of homelessness and class issues. I think the most important aspect of the discussions is to build a feeling that you aren’t alone, that there are other people talking about these issues, doing something about them, and proving that change is possible.”

Participating in one of the post-play panels can be a wake-up call for some. “I became aware that the issues I care about are still not commonly understood," wrote King County lawyer Leslie Gilbertson after participating in the conversation about "A Time for Butterflies." "Lack of awareness creates a perfect climate for injustice. I am acutely aware of the importance and challenge of simply being available for dialogue to expose things that people don't ordinarily see from my vantage point. This is how seeds of change get planted.”

Two years in, return audience members are starting to expect a call to action after attending one of quiet’s plays. For example, as audience members filed out of the theater after “Pippin,” resource bags were available from the Bridge Care Center to take and pass along to someone in need. According to Roxy, “We really want to be that little reminder to do the things that are already in most people’s hearts.”

In all that quiet undertakes, it seeks to challenge the orthodoxy of current social attitudes. Whether igniting internal “Pippin”-inspired reflection or spurring conversations among cast and audience members, as other of quiet’s productions have done, Matt, Roxy, Josh and the rest of the energetic young team aim to recast public conversation in Seattle.

If you go: This February quiet hosts its first New Works Festival, a day of new plays written by new voices. The first three full-length plays of quiet’s 2013 season will reflect on race and the ways we dehumanize “the other.” Rebecca Gilman’s "Spinning Into Butter" will open in March; a new play by Josh Hornbeck, "Heavy Lay the Chains," will open in June; and Shakespeare’s "The Merchant of Venice" will open in August. All performances will be at Seattle Central’s Broadway Performance Hall. To learn more about these productions and other quiet events, check the quiet website www.quietonline.org


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