Island theater lovers have something to look forward to again.
Even in the midst of a pandemic that has dimmed the lights on most performing arts productions locally and nationwide, a group of local thespians has banded together to form a new company, Vashon Repertory Theatre.
For now, they’ll start in a way that is distanced from their audience, and for the most part, from each other, with two new radio plays coming up in October.
The new company, Vashon Repertory Theatre (VRT) will launch with “Home,” a set of seven short radio plays that will have their debut at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 8, at vashoncenterforthearts.org. The production will then be rebroadcast, throughout October, on Voice of Vashon.
The plays that make up “Home,” each with small casts, come from all over the world. Playwrights include two Vashon writers, one from Seattle, one from Olympia, and others from Kentucky, New York and New Zealand.
The show is being produced in partnership with Northwest Playwrights Alliance, whose executive director, Bryan Willis, is Tiencken’s long-time friend.
“I wanted to get a collection of short plays about home, and knew he could help,” Tiencken said, explaining how Willis and his team and put out a call for new plays on the subject of home. In all, the call resulted in 44 submissions.
On Oct. 30, the company will offer another radio drama, “The War of the Worlds” — a play about an alien invasion, based on a novel by H.G. Welles and first directed and narrated by Orson Welles. The radio drama’s broadcast debut, on Oct. 30, 1938, famously caused widespread panic by those who tuned in late to the show, and thought they were hearing actual news reports of a Martian landing.
The company is the brainchild of local theater artist Charlotte Tiencken, well known for her directorial turns in many local productions including, most recently, “The Cyclone Line,” a new play with music by islander Kat Eggelston, that opened in September of 2019, at Vashon Center for the Arts.
For her new company, she’s gathered a who’s who of 36 local and off-island theater luminaries, including such names as Darragh Kennan, Chris Boscia, Trista Baldwin, Mik Kuhlman, Tami Brockway Joyce, Jeanne Dougherty, Cate O’Kane, Paul Shapiro, Amy Broomhall, Kat Eggelston, Marshall and Stephanie Murray and Michael Barker, to name just a select few.
For Tiencken, founding a new theater company on Vashon has been a long time dream — one that she fully visioned during the early isolation of the pandemic.
“COVID has allowed me the time to really think about it and start planning,” she said. “We have incredible music, visual arts, some dance, and now theater on Vashon — many amazing actors live here. I believe the COVID pandemic will not last forever, so I think now is the time.”
She hopes to provide a series of plays, performed by the company in repertory, that will spark discussion and even debate about important topics.
“Theater is an amazing tool for bringing to light issues that are shaping our world — issues of race and gender in particular,” she said. “I hope that we will be able to openly discuss these issues through the power of theater, storytelling and the spoken word.”
An example of this kind of socially relevant storytelling will be found in VRT’s third production, now set to take place In February of 2021, if public health conditions permit, on the stage of Vashon Center for the Arts.
At that time, the group will present “The Exonerated,” by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, in a production co-sponsored by Vashon-Maury Showing Up for Racial Justice. Originally produced for The Innocence Project, the play tells the true stories of six people sentenced to death for crimes they didn’t commit.
And that’s not all Tiencken is dreaming of doing with her new ensemble.
She also hopes to organize a theater festival in the summer of 2021 that would include outdoor performances of “Woody Guthrie’s American Song,” by Peter Glazer with musical direction by Kat Eggelston.and a production of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” directed by Darragh Kennan.
But for now, audiences can partake of the company’s offerings while staying home, and safety protocols for the actors are also in place, Tiencken said. For “Home,” the actors rehearsed on Zoom, then met together in small, controlled groups only twice, on the stage of the Kay White Hall of VCA. Six feet or more of social distancing was in place during these sessions and masks were required except for the times cast members spoke into the microphones, she said.
Tiencken consulted with Voice of Vashon on strict microphone cleaning and safety procedures, as well as personnel at Vashon Center for the Arts about gathering people safely for the rehearsal and recording sessions.
“I think we took every precaution and were really careful,” said Tiencken.