A Path to Shakespeare

They meet in a room called “Faith” at the Recovery Café, around the corner from Cornish College of the Arts and a stone’s throw away from the offices of Amazon.com. They range in age from young adult to senior citizen. They come from women’s shelters, get referred by therapists and case workers, or sometimes a friend tells them, “Hey, you might just like this Shakespeare guy.”

For eight weeks teaching artist Nikki Visel is taking students through A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Shakespeare Troupe class is a partnership between Seattle Shakespeare Company and Path with Art, and it is unlocking Shakespeare’s plays for people recovering from homelessness and other traumas.

“We wanted to try to find material that people across classes could identify with,” said Path with Art Program Director, Adam Doody. “We thought Shakespeare would be an interesting place to start.”

Path with Art offers a variety of arts-based programs to help people by combining the powers of creative engagement and community connection. “Many, if not all of us are recovering from some sort of trauma in our lives,” said Doody. “Recovery can take many different forms and be from many different things. We think that creativity is an essential part of that healing process.”

This is Seattle Shakespeare Company’s second collaboration with Path with Art. A four-week pilot project class in the fall helped to test the waters to see if studying Shakespeare would be popular. It was a hit. To keep the momentum going, a longer version of the class was created.

Up On Your Feet
Believing that the best way to learn Shakespeare is to get up on your feet and do Shakespeare, for each session the Path with Art students dive right into the text. They start in a circle and perform warm-up exercises, bending and stretching their bodies; and then they get their mouths ready with tongue-twisters to prepare for Shakespeare’s complex language. The class will culminate with performances of scenes from the play, so this is not just an exercise, it is actor preparation.

“What I’ve gotten is the delight of giving ownership of all this great literature,” said Visel. “I had a student say she took the class because she didn’t get to go to high school. She felt that if she had gotten to go to high school she would know these things, but she didn’t get to, so this was her chance.” Visel described how one day the student’s face suddenly lit up in recognition as she was reading out loud. She got it. “That’s letting someone in on something that we should all own together.”

This is Melodie Clarke’s second time around with the Shakespeare Troupe. With her wheeled walker and beaming smile, she is among the first to the class. “I love Shakespeare,” she said. “I love the drama. The comedy. Someone is always after someone else. The kinds of creepiness sometimes, like the ghosts or the witches.”  As a performance poetry artist Clarke says she took the class to become well-rounded and help out with her nerves and memorization. Her goal is to be able to easily whip out a poem without having to read it off the page.

Clarke and her husband had been evicted from their apartment and were living in the Nicklesville camp. “I couldn’t stay there because of the weather, so they sent me off to Angeline’s women’s shelter.” A case manager told Clarke about the classes at Path with Art. “It helped me deal with being at Angeline’s, because Angeline’s is not…I was thankful for having a place to stay, but it’s not the most pleasant of places to be. So it helped me deal with that.”

Are You Sure This Is A Comedy?
Exile. Loss. Confusion. Death Threats. “Are you sure this is a comedy? Because that doesn’t seem so funny,” was one of first questions Visel had to contend with when discussing the early scenes of Midsummer where Egeus drags his daughter Hermia before the Duke. “We’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about the difference between comedy and tragedy,” said Visel.  Determining how something so seemingly tragic can be funny wasn’t the only challenge with the play. “The hardest thing that we’ve encountered with this play is that the mechanicals, the working class people, are portrayed as idiots.” They asked her if Shakespeare thought that people like me are stupid and that only the nobility are smart. “We talked about that and how this is the only play that he really does that,” said Visel. “Usually the common people, the fools, are the brightest.”

It’s not just studying the play that has been a challenge.  Getting to class has been a struggle. Some come every week and others can only make it to the class when the rest of their difficult life doesn’t interfere.  Jonathan Agnew likes the structured nature of the class. “I’m really bad at self-motivation, which is part of the therapy stuff,” he said. When he expressed an interest in writing and acting to his therapist at Seattle Counseling Services, they turned him on to Path with Art.

Agnew had performed some stand-up and sketch comedy prior to the class, and really gravitated to the physical comedy of the play. “We were doing a scene a few weeks ago and I was Lysander. I thought it would be funny if I fell down. It was a great thought in the moment, but when you have to fall down four or five times, the shoulder gets a little sore.” It turns out the falling down has been his favorite part.

“The creative act is a fundamentally vulnerable thing to do,” said Doody when asked if he thought the class was a success. “That in and of itself breaks down barriers between people and builds community. And community builds stability and connection to yourself and to others.”

The Shakespeare Troupe actors still have a few more weeks of study before they have to present their showcase performance. Until then it’s more text work, more laughs, and more connections as the group unlocks Shakespeare in their unique way.

Bluff Your Way Through the Play

Tartuffe at a Glance

Impress your friends! Wow your neighbors! Show off your smarts! Here is a handy guide for getting up to speed on Tartuffe.

Um…how do you say that?

The first step in sounding like you know what you’re talking about is to say the title of the play correctly.

Pronunciation: Tar-tuf

Um…what’s it mean?

The name Tartuffe means “truffle,” but not the chocolate kind. A truffle is an underground fungus prized by foodies for its delicious aroma (and it’s thought to be an aphrodisiac).

Read more about the meaning of Tartuffe

Kind of like Madonna or Cher

Molière, the author of Tartuffe, is a stage name. His given name is Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. It was common practice for French actors to assume a stage name. And, since his prominent father disapproved of his profession, it was likely Molière’s way of saving them him embarrassment of being associated with an artist for a son.

Pronunciation: Mole-yair (rhymes with airfare)

Just who was this guy?

Playwright. Actor. Legend. Molière is one of the greatest masters of comedy. His best known works in addition to Tartuffe are The Misanthrope, The School for Wives, The Miser, The Imaginary Invalid, and The Doctor in Spite of Himself.

Molière and his acting company were in tight with the court of King Louis XIV. They created the official court entertainments and wowed Parisians with their productions.

Ironically, Molière bit the dust while playing the main character in his final play The Imaginary Invalid. He was done in by a coughing fit that led to bleeding. He finished the performance, but died a few hours after the show.

Read more about Molière’s fascinating life

So…what’s the story?

Orgon, a father and gentleman, has taken a boarder, Tartuffe, into his household. Tartuffe claims to be a holy man, but seems to have only convinced Orgon and his mother. The rest of the household thinks he has ulterior motives, mainly taking Orgon for all he’s worth.

Orgon gets so caught up in Tartuffe’s charms that he disinherits his own son and breaks his daughter’s heart by promising her hand in marriage to the swindler. Even though Orgon is blind to Tartuffe’s shenanigans, the family hatches a plan to expose Tartuffe and catch him red-handed. They do. Orgon sees Tartuffe for who he is and orders him from the house. Tartuffe turns the tables and threatens to evict the family. It’s only after the king intervenes at the very last minute that justice is served.

Want more? Here’s a longer synopsis

Character Lowdown

Orgon – Father of the house, seeking spiritual instruction
Tartuffe – An imposter posing as a holy man
Madame Pernelle – Orgon’s mother
Elmire – Orgon’s wife
Damis – Orgon’s son
Mariane – Orgon’s daughter, fiancé of Valère
Valère – fiancé of Mariane
Clèante –Elmire’s brother and Orgon’s friend
Dorine –Mariane’s lady’s maid
Flipote – Madame Pernelle’s servant
Monsieur Loyal – a law officer
Officer – A representative of the king

The Offstage Scandal

If you can believe it, this famous comedy was banned after its first public reading in 1664. The clergy thought Molière was attacking religion. Molière insisted he was mocking religious hypocrisy, not religious belief. Who are you going to believe? Under pressure, King Louis had no choice but to outlaw performances of the play. Molière wasn’t down yet. He re-wrote, re-named the play, and tried again. No luck. The play got shut down after a single performance. It took five years of begging the king for permission to perform the play before he finally relented. Once opened the public was crazy mad for Tartuffe and it has been making folks laugh ever since.

Read more

A Poet and I Know It

Tartuffe was originally written in 1,962 twelve-syllable lines of rhyming couplets. Crazy, I know! Who thinks of doing something like that? Um…rappers do that. You’d think it would be tough to listen to, but you get used to it pretty quick.

Hey! Where are the powdered wigs?

No lace and powdered wigs here. Our production of Tartuffe is set in 1947. This post-war period was a time when several new fringe religions appeared in the US. Tartuffe in this production belongs to an undefined religion, with a made-up symbol drawn both from religious icons and currency symbols.

Orgon’s home is inspired by Los Angeles mid-century modern architecture. This house is swank.

The play takes place over the course of one day, beginning in the morning and running late into the night. Watch how the lighting in the play changes over time (bright, sunny morning) and as Tartuffe meddles with the family more and more, the light begins to take on the feeling of film noir, with long shadows creeping across the stage.

Up Your Smarty-pants Game

  • The most famous film version of Tartuffe was released in 1984, directed by and starring Gerard Depardieu in the title role.
  • What Shakespeare is to the English, Molière is to the French. Both were men of the theatre, both were actors as well as playwrights, both had incredible insights into human life and behavior, both showed mastery over language.
  • With this production, Molière becomes Seattle Shakespeare Company’s second-most produced playwright.

Shakespeare’s First Folio in Seattle


Big news! One of the most famous books in history is coming to Seattle in 2016. The Folger Shakespeare Library is sending us one of Shakespeare’s First Folios as part of a national tour marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Only 233 copies exist of this first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, and Seattle Shakespeare Company is excited to partner with the Seattle Public Library and other community groups for this once in a lifetime event. More information on when the First Folio will be in Seattle will be announced soon.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays, which were written to be performed, were not published during his lifetime. The First Folio is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. It was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. Two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors compiled 36 of his plays, hoping to preserve them for future generations. Without it, we would not have 18 of Shakespeare’s plays, including Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra, The Comedy of Errors, and As You Like It. All 18 appear for the first time in print in the First Folio, and would otherwise have been lost.

A Slippery, Seductive Swindler

False gurus get their comeuppance in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of Molière’s Tartuffe directed by Makaela Pollock.  Translated by Richard Wilbur, Tartuffe runs at the Center Theatre March 17-April 12, 2015.

In Tartuffe Orgon’s household is under the influence of a seductive swindler named Tartuffe. This cunning con artist, masquerading as a holy man, plans to dupe the gullible Orgon out of his fortune, his daughter, and his reputation. The pious grifter can do no wrong in his host’s eyes, yet everyone else in the household smells a rat. Just when the jig is up, Tartuffe ups the stakes and the charm.

“Can you trust the people around you? How do you know who they are? Who they purport to be?  And that applies to families as well as religious leaders,” said director Makaela Pollock when discussing Tartuffe.  “As I started looking at the play, I remembered that there is this moment around the late 1940s where everyone is searching for the next thing to believe in.” During this time L. Ron Hubbard first circulated his beliefs in Dianetics and Scientology, the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were formulated, and the first UFO sightings were reported. Pollock and her design team have reset Tartuffe in 1947 and Orgon falls under the influence of huckster who has fabricated his own religion. “The people in the play have wealth and are coming out the confidence and swagger of winning World War II, but they’re also sitting at that fearful moment of ‘what do we do next?’ that sparked the fear-mongering of McCarthyism.”

Pollock directed Seattle Shakespeare Company’s 2012 Wooden O production of Twelfth Night. She recently staged The Addams Family in Coeur d’Alene.  She is an adjunct faculty member of Cornish College of the Arts, and a graduate of the Trinity Rep/Brown University MFA Program in Directing. She currently is the New Works Associate at The 5th Avenue Theatre.

Hamilton Wright (Pygmalion) returns to Seattle Shakespeare Company to play the title role in Tartuffe. He joined by Peter Lohnes as Orgon, Christine Marie Brown (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) as Elmire, Bhama Roget as Dorine, and Suzy Hunt as Madame Pernelle.

With this production of Tartuffe, Molière becomes Seattle Shakespeare Company’s second most produced playwright.

Auditions for Wooden O 2015 Productions

George Mount, Christopher Morson, and Kevin Bordi
George Mount, Christopher Morson, and Kevin Bordi

Seattle Shakespeare Company will hold general auditions on Monday, February 23 from 4PM to 11PM and Monday, March 2 from 8:30AM to 4PM for its two Wooden O summer 2015 productions: As You Like It directed by Annie Lareau and Henry IV part 1 directed by George Mount.

Please email casting to schedule an available slot. To solicit a time for this audition please include a headshot and resume in your email message.

Where: 3317 3rd Ave. South, Seattle, 98134 (between Horton and Hinds near Spokane St in the SoDo district).

Audition requirements: Please bring a hard copy of your headshot/resume.  We will schedule auditions in 3-minute time periods. Please prepare two heightened text pieces (90-second maximum per piece), and at least one of them should be by Shakespeare. The second piece will only be seen at the auditors’ request, so please be ready but don’t assume that both pieces will asked to be heard.

Call-backs for both shows will be held in March. You WILL NOT be notified if we do not need to see you for any further for consideration this summer.

Please Note: Rehearsals for both shows start June 8, 2015. The shows rehearse weekday evenings and during the day on weekends. The Seattle area performance dates for both productions are July 9 through August 9.  As You Like It will perform in Walla Walla for a week and close on August 16.


Schedule Audition