Homebody: John Kazanjian on Ronald Reagan, market forces and the business of art

New City's stripped down staging of Tony Kushner's intimate one-act reminds us of the power - and perils - of theater.
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Ewald as Homebody

New City's stripped down staging of Tony Kushner's intimate one-act reminds us of the power - and perils - of theater.

A bare red brick wall. A table of colorful hats. Space enough for 15 audience members to watch a woman reveal her fantasies of escaping to Kabul, Afghanistan. Theater does not get more intimate than New City’s current production of Homebody, Tony Kushner’s 1997 play.

Now in its 31st season, New City Theater brings us another gift. Mary Ewald delivers the hour-long monologue, infused with Kushner’s linguistic acrobatics and wicked humor, proving that the deepest essence of the theater is the connection between actor and audience. We do not need sets, lights, costumes or even a stage to create this connection. We just need a superior text and actor.

Kushner wrote Homebody in 1999 as a one-act. In early 2001, he expanded the deeply thoughtful political text into a three-act play, Homebody/Kabul. In a revised 2004 edition of the piece, Kushner gave theaters permission to perform Homebody as a separate production.

New City is an alternative, artist-run theater, which has been producing contemporary work in Seattle since 1982 under the continuous leadership of artistic director John Kazanjian and performer Mary Ewald (who are married to each other). In the tradition of experimental directors Peter Brook and Andre Gregory, New City’s productions have pushed the art form in new directions, broken boundaries and challenged the assumptions of the culture in general.

Funded by federal and private grants in the 1980s and early ‘90s, New City collaborated with such prominent avant-garde playwrights as Maria Irene FornesRichard Foreman, and Suzan-Lori Parks. Since that time, New City has presented scripts by Wallace ShawnSamuel BeckettCaryl Churchill and others in its SODO Warehouse residency, and Kazanjian's living room. New City Ensemble is now settled in a new home, a storefront space converted into a theater at the far edge of Capitol Hill (18th Avenue and Union).

I met with John Kazanjian recently to discuss his vision of what theater can be, the current state of theater in Seattle and how New City Theater has managed to remain afloat. 

Jean Tarbox: What is the mission and value of the arts, the theater especially, when it comes to tackling important, relevant and uncomfortable issues?

John Kazanjian: I’ll invert that question. For me as an artist, I know what I’m doing is totally subjective and that’s the way I want it to be. The New City Theater is a home for artists who think out loud in public through their artistic expression. Audience members and artists alike all share a social responsibility to decide what each feels the world is about and what each may want to say about it. The artists compose, create and give the theater a recognizable attitude. The theater’s chosen playwrights and plays possess a social conscience that supports the writing, but the writing never dictates a response from its audience. The alternative theater intends rather to investigate a multiplicity of points of view within the world, aiming to precipitate reflection and shared discussion.

JT:  Has Seattle’s theater scene succeeded, or failed, to address relevant and uncomfortable issues?

It’s very difficult to talk about the Seattle theater scene without talking about the national cultural landscape. We are now experiencing the glacial effects of 30 years of neo-liberal policies of free market economics, privatization and decreasing size of the public sector.

Nearly 45 years ago the American regional theater movement emerged as a reaction against the growing commercialization of Broadway. Supported by the newly-established National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and innovative funding by the Ford Foundation, theater arts were decentralized, with artists making a living in their own communities and ticket prices subsidized so that everyone had access to the art. This was the situation in Seattle from 1962 through the mid-1980s, and theaters of every size and type flourished.

JT: What changed in the cultural landscape to alter the theater scene in Seattle?

The ability to present different points of view on difficult issues diminished once the funding structure for not-for-profit theaters was altered. What do the arts do? They open up multiple points of view. There was a political strategy that occurred through the ‘80s to shut down controversial voices — whether individual artists or alternative theater venues.

President Reagan proposed eliminating the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Congress refused. Still, Reagan argued that the arts should be in the competitive marketplace like any other product, and by 1988 that position slowly gathered energy and exploded onto the landscape. The NEA rescinded its “special projects” grants, and politics came into the funding process.

The size of a theater’s operating budget and not the quality of the work was the formula that determined how much money a theater received. The commercial criterion was a subtle form of entrapment for the theater companies because it forced them to make themselves bigger. The “business of theater” started upstaging the creative side.

JT: How did this pressure on not-for-profit theaters to become more market-driven affect the type of art they presented?

It was progressive. The main stage Seattle theater companies invested in building larger theaters with multiple stages to attract larger, more prosperous audiences. Needless to say, these expansions also competed for resources that the small and mid-sized theaters depended upon. Those original small and mid-sized theaters presenting different points of view have disappeared from our landscape. [Editor's Note: Seattle theaters that have closed their doors include Empty SpaceGroup TheaterPioneer Square Theater and the Alice B. Theater.]

Rather than being a means for producing art, institutions became ends in themselves — the art now serving the institutions rather than the other way around. What went away? Support for playwrights, actors, directors and designers. Worse, development of new plays and vital production of existing plays dwindled.

If theater is thrown into the commercial marketplace, it is disproportionately dependent on ticket sales and people making donations. So the theater has to start thinking commercially, and this changes the palette of what can be done. It is very difficult for art that makes you think to survive. On the contrary, the goal of the commercial market place is primarily entertainment — make the audience feel good, make them walk out happy. The seasons become conservative, audiences homogenous and the production of new work is inadequate to sustain a theatrical future.

JT: What was the specific impact of these changes on the quality of theater in Seattle?

Once the multiplicity of arts organizations disappeared, the employment base for artists living and working in Seattle was dramatically reduced. Many left the theater altogether. The population of working actors in their 50s and 60s is radically diminished. When you look at other cultures that have subsidized arts [e.g. Great Britain or France], the actors that are working on the stages show the full breadth of humanity. So you will see actors in their 60s and 70s working next to a teenager of 17, and the power of humanism that is present on the stage in the art form is there.

Regional theater is arrested with a diminished cultural voice because of the way the system works. Actors are hired, they rehearse for four weeks, are on the stage and then gone arranging for the next job on another stage, or in another city.

The artists on our stages, including my own, are as talented and have the same capability of brilliance as artists performing at the Seattle Symphony or Pacific Northwest Ballet. Yet, these latter art forms provide a more powerful experience than the theater in town. Why? Because the quality of the play, its density and its cohesion are not as fully realized with the same integrity as what you’ll see in the Symphony or Ballet. The theater operates with short-term artist employment and a standardized, inadequate four- to five-week rehearsal period.

When artists live where they work, they are mentoring, working on new material and developing together all the time. Theater artists aren’t allowed to do that here. So the quality of the theater is lower than what our playwrights and our actors can deliver.

JT: How has New City Theater survived when so many of Seattle’s small and mid-sized theaters active in the 1980s have disappeared?

We opted out of the institutional path in the mid-1990s because we wanted to maintain an artist-based theater. I saw that with the decrease in funding, we could not continue to do the kind of work we did because it had a small audience base. We sold the original New City building that now houses Hugo House so that we could continue to pay artists. We have never embraced subscription, never tried to get big. I was always committed to working with an ensemble of the same people. That was something I wanted to do from 1982 on, and we’ve done it. Today we operate as the New City Ensemble, with just four of the original members: Mary and me, and designers Lindsay Smith and Nina Moser.

JT: Why produce Tony Kushner’s “Homebody” now?

The Homebody is a charming, eccentric woman who makes me laugh, self-reflect and have hope. We are still in Afghanistan. Gore Vidal once called the U.S.A. the “United States of Amnesia.” I don’t want to forget our place in Afghanistan’s history, nor the plight of the Afghan people, or the plight of the soldiers fighting there. And it is world class dramatic literature by a living American playwright, who blends the personal and the political, the real and the fantastical into a rich theatrical tapestry.

If you go: Homebody plays Friday and Saturday nights, 8 p.m. through June 22 at The New City Theater (1404-06 18th Avenue at Union Street, Seattle 98112). For info: newcitytheater@comcast.net or 206-271-443. Tickets $15 through June 8, $20 after that. Cash only at the door. For advance tickets visit www.brownpapertickets.com, or call 1-800-838-3006.


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