They were in a yurt and had 12 days to rehearse a play about fascism. Dedra D. Woods, a local actor, arrived nervous. This was her first production with the Williams Project, a Seattle theater company that pressure cooks ambitious work into existence. A few months before, she’d gotten an email from Ryan Purcell, the company’s director, asking if she’d like to be in Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day, set mostly in Germany as Hitler rose to power. On the first day, Purcell had a caveat: They’d rehearse in the yurt, but back in Seattle the group might decide it was all wrong and change everything on the spot.
Woods stayed on, and the actors and the company’s small crew began their work at the retreat in Copalis Beach, Washington. Nights they ate dinner together. Days, they rose, went to that yurt, and rehearsed from the top. “It’s almost like you get this amnesia,” Woods says. Hearing her and other actors describe the theater-as-commune process recalls psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of “flow,” an ideal state in which your sense of time, self, memory is suppressed; you move fluidly through work.
Fittingly, this August, the Williams Project will produce two plays set in bars—a place where, as in that yurt, memory blurs, time suspends, and emotions come raw. “The Bar Plays” are Small Craft Warnings by Tennessee Williams and The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan. The first is in line with past productions (the company is named after Williams): Barflies in a 1970s Southern California dive monologue lushly about their lives, about life. The second play is a departure: a 1930s comedy, set in a San Francisco saloon, that ricochets like a cartoon bullet between so many characters and conflicts that it less discusses life than is life.
Both will be staged in a bar-like set at Washington Hall, the storied Central District venue. Audience members will order drinks, sit at tables—just like they might in a neighborhood dive—and watch the play around them. One bar will remain open throughout. Especially during The Time of Your Life, Purcell thinks, where the action is already scattered, the lines between audience and actors, stage and seating, will erode. There won’t be crowd work, but you’ll be in the midst of the play—something the company has done before.
Last August it staged Frederico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Before the show, a street stand slung paella and drinks; then the audience became the wedding crowd. It felt a good bit more convivial than most theater, then a good bit more harrowing when the play’s action turned murderous and blood-spattered actors moved among us.
For Purcell, this free-form method is one way to break down some of the barriers that theater represents, to foster community, even intimacy—you see actors in closeup. It’s also a way to engage, and struggle with, the canon.
In 2014, when Purcell was finishing his MFA at Brown University, he wanted to put on Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams. He’d tried directing it before but wasn’t happy with the results. So when he got a grant, he put it toward great actors and gathered them in a house. After a couple weeks rehearsing, they invited friends to see the show. One, Andrew Russell, was running Seattle’s Intiman Theatre at the time and he liked the piece so much he asked Purcell and company to perform it the next year at Intiman. With that the Williams Project became an ongoing company and a clear mission developed, to make great theater “accessible to diverse and engaged audiences, while paying our artists a living wage.”
The Williams Project matches the pay at significantly larger theater companies—say the New York Public Theater—even while its ticket prices are “pay what you can” (they suggest $50). That disrupts the idea, says one actor, Lee LaBreton, that “theater is something that only people with spare time and spare cash and spare emotional energy get to do.” The company achieves this through donor support and DIY frugality: Designer An-lin Dauber made the Bright Room Called Day costumes from $800 worth of clothes from Aberdeen thrift stores. The actors didn’t look like they’d stepped out of pre-war Germany, just as the Bar Plays won’t look like the ’30s or ’70s, but they weren’t supposed to. “I’m very rarely interested in trying to represent another time on stage,” Purcell says.
The company has hewed mostly to classics like Shakespeare and Williams. Purcell is drawn to their honesty and their “epic poetry.” He’s also quick to mention their problems: Williams “was a racist—there is no doubt about that.” But he and his cast see this as a chance to examine this country’s troubled legacy and, in doing so, its troubled present.
Purcell thinks the Bar Plays ask something just as pertinent as more explicitly political works. “What is the human cost of this alienation?” Bars welcome most anyone—in these plays: an alcoholic doctor, a gay screenwriter, a nurse, a longshoreman, sex workers, a young rich man. “That’s always been the spirit that I want to create in theater,” Purcell says. It’s also the spirit he wants people to leave with. As they filter out of Washington Hall, into the gentrifying Central District around them, as they pass those displaced, he hopes they walk the world newly vulnerable and, like a neon sign burning in some window, open.
► The Bar Plays, Aug 7–25, Washington Hall, Free–$50 (pay what you can)