Mik Kuhlman, a well-known island performer, quite literally took a solo show on the road last weekend, performing near the North End ferry dock and Minglement, clad in a giant red canvas cloak.
The purpose behind the performances was to greet Memorial Day visitors to Vashon at the moment they disembarked from ferries and traveled through town, urging them to wear masks and consider the fate of an island community with limited healthcare resources.
The performance, according to Kuhlman, was meant both as an artful welcome to an artful island and also a reminder that Vashon’s population is especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“It’s at least showing everyone when they come on this island, it’s not a normal situation here,” she said. “We’re not in normal times, we’re in a pandemic, and we’re not asking you to not enjoy our beaches. But if you’re going to come in and shop, if you’re going to come into any of our places, be aware that there is a possibility that you’re bringing the virus with you.”
The coat, at 9 feet high and 5 feet wide, engulfs Kuhlman, who stands at a petite 5 feet 3 inches tall.
Created by island designer Patricia Toovey in 2006 for a show by Kuhlman that premiered at Seattle’s Velocity Dance Center, and then traveled on to Bumbershoot and the Victoria and Vancouver Fringe Festivals, the coat is an imposing combination of set-piece and costume. It has been adapted through the years for other shows Kuhlman has performed with UMO Ensemble and at Vashon’s Gravity of Kindness.
On Saturday, the coat traveled down Vashon Highway in a truck supplied by Kulhman’s friend, Joan Hanna. The truck was parked across from the Wild Mermaid Restaurant, directly in the sightlines of drivers getting off the ferry. And then Kuhlman — who said she is afraid of heights — climbed into the truck bed, up a ladder, and into the coat, 13 feet above the ground.
Her masked face, a tiny oval above the collar of the coat, was visible along with one of her hands, which she poked through a crack in the garment and waved at oncoming cars.
In the pockets of the coat were two large signs, calligraphed by Jemma Pereña. One urged visitors to “Mask up — protect our island,” while the other simply declared, in bold letters, “We have no hospital.”
For Kuhlman, an artist sidelined by the closure of theaters, the performance was a chance to return to form.
“I cannot tell you how good it felt to finally have enough headspace to respond as an artist, to do something to help the whole,” Kuhlman said. “It’s like my compass needle has been swirling and spinning and finally lined up and hit true north. This is what I do. This is who I am.”
She also said she was grateful to have the chance to bring her big red coat out of storage and climb inside it again. The coat, she said, has been folded into a suitcase and tucked into a closet for much too long.
“So this weekend, it got some air and brought a moment of magic to our world,” Kuhlman said. “As one friend said to me today, ‘thank you for bringing some theater into the world. Since we can’t go into the theaters, I love that you brought it to the streets — we are so missing it.’”
Kuhlman also expressed gratitude to a small army of islanders who made the solo show possible, including Jason Culp, who rigged the coat to sit tightly in the truck’s bed, using ropes, poles and safety gear supplied by The Backbone Campaign. She also said that she was welcomed by ferry dock neighbors including the Wild Mermaid Restaurant, Hita Von Mende, Karl Craine, and another neighbor named Dean. It was Dean, Kuhlman said, who brought jumper cables to restart Hanna’s truck after the battery died because she had left the lights on during the offloading of four ferries. Island photographer Jeff Dunnicliff was also there to document the entire experience.
Kuhlman also made sure to mention Sally Sykes Wylie and Charlotte Teincken, who had collaborated with her to create “Split Second,” the 2006 show that marked the coat’s debut.
“Oh the plight of a solo artist, who is only the tip of the iceberg,” Kuhlman said, in acknowledgment of the long history and many collaborators who had helped her create a costume that had now suddenly reappeared, dramatically, in the midst of a pandemic.