Playwright Justin Huertas talks myths, music and octopus wrestling

In a new play, the Seattle polymath looks at the many arms of love.

Man playing guitar

Justin Huertas during rehearsal for his production of ‘The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion’ at Arts West in West Seattle on May 30, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Arts West)

To accomplish everything Justin Huertas does in one day, he may as well have eight arms, like the very cephalopod that inspired the title of his new musical.

A typical day for Huertas, the playwright, actor and composer, begins at Arts West in West Seattle, where he sits in on all the classic brouhaha from production and rehearsal.

A week before opening night, Huertas attends rehearsals, watching and listening intently.

One minute he’s joking about his partner, Tyler Rogers, who is part of the cast. Next he is fine-tuning Porscha Shaw’s score about falling in love. Then he’s taking suggestions from his crew on tempo.

In no time 6:20 p.m. rolls around, and Huertas calls a Lyft. Like a true polymath, he sheds his composer role and becomes one of the many actors in the theatrical adaptation of Tiny Beautiful Things at the Seattle Repertory Theater.

Since December of last year, the 32-year-old’s life has revolved primarily around the production of his second highly anticipated musical, The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion, which is an original script, music and lyrics. Like his widely lauded first musical, Lizard Boy, the new production spins together a coming-of-age story with comic-book-like elements, Seattle culture and lore, and queer identity.

Crosscut sat down with Huertas to talk about the new show, his upbringing, the quick rise to stardom, and — of course — octopus wrestling.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Why octopus?

Knowing that I wanted to write another Seattle myth, I was trying to think of Seattle myths that I know and grew up with. One of them was that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed; I remember hearing it was because of a giant octopus that lived in the Puget Sound. On Google [I found] this total real thing that happened called “The World Octopus Wrestling Championships.” People would come over from all over the world to compete to wrestle the heaviest octopus out of the sound.

You wrote everything — script, music, lyrics — where do you even start?

I always start with the magic first. That's what excites me the most. This story is about a wrestler who participates in this contest, wins, brings up an octopus and, instead of throwing the octopus back, she keeps it. We catch up with her 18 years later and her daughter is now exhibiting octopus powers and she doesn't know why.

With Lydia and the Troll (third musical production) I just want to tell the story of how that troll got there. It always starts with the magic, and then I find like the awesome human emotional elements eventually.

The Lydia and the Troll play was scheduled then postponed. What happened?

My director, Ameenah Kaplan, got an offer to be the resident director on the national tour of The Lion King. Braden Abraham at the Seattle Rep came and watched our run-through of all the work we had done. The next day he calls us into meeting and says, “I can’t split you guys up. I can’t put a new director in Ameenah’s place when you made this thing, so we’ll just move it to next year.” I was just like,”That’s an option? What?!” I had never heard of that before. It had already been announced, they were already promoting it, I was already promoting it. That was the best thing ever.

Do you prefer writing the music or the narrative?

I love writing songs. One of my favorite things to do is figure out how to tell a story through music. Storytelling is always the core.

Why's that?

Music doesn't really exist out loud. In life we don't burst out into song; in life we have thoughts and we contemplate. We have these moments when we make choices and those choices are really hard, but it’s internal or we talk through them with a friend. Those internal choices are really a huge deal and it’s fun to find the music to tell how huge of a deal those choices are.

How long has it taken you to write Octopus?

We are building something new and I’m still making little tiny script changes and challenging the actors to memorize brand new things. Something I remind them about is that musicals take years. This one was created probably in less than eight months. Commissioning a musical that hasn't been written yet is not something people do. Artistic directors aren’t usually that trusting. I didn’t start heavy-duty writing until December.

Was there anything you learned from your first musical, Lizard Boy, that changed the way you approached this production?

When I was writing Lizard Boy, which was a very imaginative, crazy, kooky story, there were some magic moments that I couldn't envision how [Brandon Ivie] could possibly stage it and he said, “Well that's not your job; your job is to write the story the way you want, to write the story the best way to tell it and then my job is to figure out how to put that on stage.” I love magic and putting magic into my plays, and now I know I’m allowed to do that because it’s my story and, if I have a director I can trust, I can trust they can make it happen.

Do you have a theme that ties together Lizard Boy, The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion and Lydia and the Troll?

I'm kind of seeing it as a series. I’m going to give [the series] a title at some point. I feel like I’m creating this series of modern myths set in Seattle because I have a really strong connection to myths. I grew up with comic books and cartoons and I learned a lot about myself through the superheroes. And coming out of college it was very clear to me that I didn't really see any plays that were set in Seattle. This is where I came from, this is where I grew up, and I love Seattle and I want Seattle to have stories on stage. People in talkbacks would say, “If you take this to New York do you have to delete all the Seattle references?” And I’m like, “No, absolutely not!”

Favorite superheroes?

X-Men. I really connected to them because they were outsiders and “othered” by society. They were created in the ’60s as an allegory for racism and homophobia. When I was a kid I was like, “Oh, I feel like I’m one of the X-Men. I feel like I have special powers and no one likes that I have powers.”

Power Rangers was my favorite show and that was also because they could be anybody. I watched it a lot when I was superyoung in elementary school, and then I remember being in high school and thinking to myself, “This is the age that they were when they became Power Rangers. I’m at the age now where I can be a superhero.”

Why do you focus on coming-of-age stories?

Well, I'm super into Joseph Campbell, who theorized a lot about hero stories and why we tell these kinds of myths to each other. I feel like a lot of hero stories are coming-of-age stories because that's the moment we as humans tend to reach for, moments where we get to see ourselves overcome or meet a problem or trauma head on and find a way through it.

Like Lizard Boy, is this new musical semi-autobiographical as well?

I didn’t think it was and then it turns out that it superduper is. I knew I wanted to write with Corinna Lapid Munter in mind, who’s playing the title character. The more I wrote, the more I can write Filipinx culture into this play and then, as I kept going, I was like, “I think I'm writing about my mom.” It’s also a queer love story, which is also a part of my identity. I really thought I was going to be at more of a distance from this one than Lizard Boy. After some time I realized I’m putting myself into every one of these people.

How so?

This is a musical essentially about love and acceptance and it’s my point of view. It’s been really cool and I cry all the time now. The first time we had a stumble through one of the songs, they sing “Sleep Well Love,” and it’s about getting that one text from someone that changes the way you see your relationship with that person in the best way possible and the text is, "Sleep well love." The first time I saw them perform that song … I just immediately started crying. I was taken right back to that moment in my life.

Is it your favorite score? Could you sing it to me?

Yeah. Basically she gets this text on her phone and sings:

This isn’t just anything is it? All I saw was your name on my phone/

A tremble a shiver a flutter and nothing has even happened/

I open your text and somehow a new seed is sown/

all it says is sleep well love/ and that’s all you need it to say/

not that I knew that I needed it at all/ sleep well love/

and suddenly I'm here to stay/

not that I wasn’t aware I was starting to fall.

What do you love about this musical and hope people appreciate?

I think this is going to be so lame but it's true: I’ve realized that this musical is a compilation of love stories that I’ve collected in the past three or four years that I’ve either lived through or observed of other people. There's a lot of love in many ways in this story. One particular story is told through Christian’s character, Todd, who had a really bad breakup. His mother immediately showed up and helped move him out of an apartment with his toxic boyfriend.

Where did you get that story from?

On Valentine’s Day my parents upended their plans and came and moved me out of an apartment. I think the thing that surprised me the most was the welcome mat. [My mom] saying, “Did you buy this? Is this yours?” And me saying, “Mom, it's just a mat,” and she's like, “Yeah, but if you spent money on it we're taking it.”

Lots of love stories, including that one, are just mine and I hope people recognize their own love stories in them, too.

First musical you watched?

I didn't really get into musicals until high school. I was actually going to go to college for cello. I was going to be the next Yo-Yo Ma, and then I got cast in the spring musical, Pirates of Penzance. I was the major general. I had fake mutton chops, a drawn-on mustache with this crazy colorful uniform with badges and a rainbow parasol. Every time I walked on stage I was such a sight to behold that I got an entrance applause every time and that was probably the moment I was like, “I wanna be an actor.”

Then I told my parents I was going to go to Pacific Lutheran University and study acting instead of cello.

How did they react?

Not happy. They had just bought me this beautiful cello and they were like, “You're going to do what?” [But] I got cast in all these different shows that asked me to play cello and my mom was like, “'Oh, OK, phew. OK, he’s still doing it.”

Are you performing or playing cello in this musical?

I'm not playing cello in this and actually not doing any performing in this. One of the reasons is I'm currently acting in Tiny Beautiful Things at Seattle Rep, which runs until June 29. It’s past the opening date of this, which means I don't get to watch my musical until after Tiny Beautiful Things closes. [The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion] opens on June 20; I’ll get to watch them on June 30. It is so sad.

How are you dealing with that?

I'm not, it's so sad. I love Tiny Beautiful Things. That play is so beautiful; I'm learning a lot about being human. It's a wonderful experience, and when they said it was extended a week, I was like, “No! I'm not going to watch my play for even longer.”

What from your culture primed you for theater and musicals?

Every time there was a Filipinx family gathering someone had a karaoke machine and someone was always picking the songs that were in Tagalog and singing in the language. I didn’t understand anything of it, but I was just like, “Singing!” My dad is also a singer.

How do you feel that the media frames you as some kind of wunderkind?

It feels good. Truly, all I set out to do was be myself and bring myself to everything I do. My identity has many folds. A lot of that is being queer, having grown up gay in a very heterosexual and heteronormative upbringing, and growing up Filipino in a predominantly white place. All I could do [is create] space for other people who maybe grew up queer, Brown or Black and give them a story they can identify with. Maybe see themselves as the hero of the story instead of the best friend or hilarious sidekicks.

Why do you think that approach has been so popular?

I seem to be creating things that have never existed before. Like there never was a musical about a gay Filipino superhero where his gayness wasn’t a source of conflict or struggle. I’ve never seen [Corrina Lapid Munter] be centralized in a story as a hero before, where there’s a love story between two women.

Do you ever see yourself leaving Seattle?

Yes and no. For a while I thought the goal was to move to New York. A lot of people [think] if you've made it in New York, you've made it. I've worked in New York as an actor for small projects. It was really cool; it's just not the same. The theater community [in Seattle] is really vibrant and diverse. We're interested in telling really unique stories. I didn't get that vibe in New York.

If I leave it will be for a project and I’ll come right back. Lizard Boy has a team of producers trying to put it up in New York. I'm super excited to do Lizard Boy in another city, but as soon as it's done I'm coming right back and writing more musicals set in Seattle.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Agueda Pacheco Flores

Agueda Pacheco Flores

Agueda Pacheco Flores is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where she focused on arts and culture.