Eli Steffen, who grew up on Vashon, is one of the creators of “Propaganda for the Self.” (Erin Burrows Photo)

Eli Steffen, who grew up on Vashon, is one of the creators of “Propaganda for the Self.” (Erin Burrows Photo)

Theater: Big questions for a small island

  • Tuesday, May 22, 2018 2:17pm
  • Arts

What would happen if a talented child of Vashon grew up, moved away to become an accomplished writer and performer, and then returned to debut a new work that directly addressed the cultural and historical presumptions of the island?

Audiences will find out this weekend when Vashon Center for the Arts premieres “Propaganda for the Self,” an interdisciplinary theater piece, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 26, and 5 p.m. Sunday, May 27, in VCA’s Kay White Hall.

The show is the co-creation of Eli Steffen and Corinne Manning, who developed the show as a “community-specific” work aimed directly at Vashon — a place they both know well.

Manning, a widely-published writer, performer and literary organizer, resided on Vashon from 2014 to 2017.

But Steffen grew up here, raised by Maryam and George Steffen, islanders who were active in many community causes during their lifetimes.

Still remembered by some islanders for directing an acclaimed local production of “The Laramie Project” as a teenager, Steffen is now 33 years old and has forged a career in the arts, performing up and down both coasts in work that explores the intersection of community, culture and identity.

Steffen said the experience of directing “The Laramie Project” — a play that deals with the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming — was formative, in that it showed how theater could provoke a “community conversation.”

“Propaganda for the Self,” explained Steffen, is also meant to engage audience members in examining their own collective and personal histories, identities and experiences — and is specifically about Vashon.

“It was made for Vashon,” said Steffen. “If we perform it anywhere else it will have to be pretty radically adjusted.”

The show is not a typical play, Steffen said, but rather, a “braided essay” in three parts: what Steffen calls “utopian queer love stories” told by the performers, audience interaction and dance. A press release describes “Propaganda for the Self” as aiming to “excavate white America’s obsession with numbness in search of the radical possibility of desire.”

The duo won a $4,500 grant from 4Culture to develop and present the work, and Steffen said they were happy to have the chance to perform it at Vashon Center for the Arts.

The VCA artistic staff, Steffen said, are committed to “bringing in more exciting work, and they are also doing some exploration about what VCA’s role in the community is. They’ve been so generous with their time and space.”

Audiences, Steffen said, can expect to be challenged by direct questions posed in “Propaganda for the Self,” including “What is Vashon’s colonial history? What does it mean that two white artists got a grant to come to this predominantly white community to do a piece about whiteness?”

Another question islanders will be asked during the piece, Steffen said, will be, “What does it mean that we spent $20 million on [an arts center] in a community that has a housing shortage?”

“We’re inviting people to address the problem, and I think some people will find this piece to be confrontational, triggering and upsetting.” But, Steffen added, “Vashon has the potential to do so much good in our region, and it is my hope that this story is a part of that.”

In keeping with the activist bent of the show, tables in the lobby will have information about local groups including SURJ (Stand Up for Racial Justice), Backbone Campaign and Vashon Youth & Family Services. The work of these groups will also get shout-outs during the show, Steffen said.

Tickets for “Propaganda for the Self” are available at vashoncenterforthearts.org: $8 student, $10 member, $12 senior, $14 general. For more information, visit elisteffen.com/propaganda.

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