Long-time collaborators — and spouses — Mary Ewald and John Kazanjian are among Seattle’s hardiest theatre-makers. Their company, New City Theater, was founded in 1982 and has cycled through four venues, interspersed with plenty of seasons without a dedicated physical location. The company’s most recent space was in the storefront theatre now home to 18th & Union. New City’s commissions and partners include some of the most recognized names in theatre; meanwhile, Ewald and Kazanjian have made names for themselves in acting and directing, respectively. (Read more detailed bios here.) Together, they received the 2013 Gregory A. Falls Sustained Achievement Award, a top recognition presented by Theatre Puget Sound at the annual Gregory Awards.
The duo’s latest project is a collaboration between New City and ACTLab at ACT Theatre, in which Ewald performs and Kazanjian directs. It’s a two-show sequence (of solo shows featuring Ewald) under the joint title of The Master Works, comprised of The War in Heaven (by Sam Shepard) and The Waste Land (by T.S. Eliot). It runs through June 30, in ACT’s intimate black box theatre, the Lalie.
Ewald and Kazanjian talked with NWTheatre about their current show at ACT, and about the fascinating arc of New City Theater.
Interview content is condensed and edited for clarity.
What is the relationship of these two shows (The War in Heaven & The Waste Land) to each other, thematically or otherwise? And how do these pieces speak to our current time?
John Kazanjian: Both works paint through language a portrait of our human experiment upon our beautiful natural world — Earth. And both works illuminate the power, both creative and destructive, of human spiritual life in multiple, powerful poetic voices. The War in Heaven is the singular voice of an Angel who has crashed to earth and needs our help.
Mary Ewald: For me, all the references to drought and water and lack of water, and “hordes swarming over endless plains” have a strong resonance for our time. But, of course, there are so many threads woven through these rich works. I’m hearing new stuff all the time!
What is New City’s history with these two pieces? No doubt some stalwart fans will be returning to see them — what’s new in the vision for them this time?
Kazanjian: We began our work in Seattle with Sam Shepard’s The Unseen Hand and The Tooth of Crime, and later Angel City and the musical The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill. We saw two of Joseph Chaikin’s Winter Projects at La MaMa [the storied Off-Off-Broadway experimental theatre club], and the first two Chaikin/Shepard collaborations, Tongues and Savage Love, at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York City. Chaikin was in his prime then — a brilliant artist.
They were creating The War in Heaven in the early ‘80s, and Chaikin had a severe stroke that impaired his speech and movement. In the late ‘80s, Jan Shaffer and I brought Chaikin and Jean-Claude Van Itallie to the New City, and he read/performed War and a few years later he did War at ACT. In our basement first go at Waste Land, we approached the text as a poetic text and only scratched the surface of the text’s beauty and power. This time, we approached the text as if it were one of the theatre plays that he composed, bringing to life the many voices and characters in the text.
Practically speaking, what’s the secret to doing so much work with your spouse and not winding up hating each other (especially with your husband as director)?
Ewald: A lot of people ask me that. It is a complicated experience, being directed by your headstrong husband when you’re a headstrong woman. But we’ve developed a working relationship that just gets stronger over the years, built upon trust and respect for each other. Not surprisingly, we also have very similar artistic tastes, and are drawn to the same kinds of work. As with any longtime collaboration, you develop a shorthand, a common vocabulary, so that you’re not starting over with each project, you just keep building. It’s a very tight collaboration so that I get to have a lot more say in every aspect of the project than is possible when I’m just hired as an actor. When we do ensemble shows, I’ve served as an assistant director so that we can hold simultaneous rehearsals. It’s very satisfying.
Kazanjian: Secret to long-term collaboration:
Numerator: long-term artistic collaboration in all disciplines
Denominator: spiritual connection + respect & admiration
Mud is a special piece of theater, and your performance in it in 2015 remains one of the most gripping pieces I’ve ever seen. Can you talk about performing Mae? And New City’s relationship with Maria Irene Fornes?
Ewald: Well, thanks for the compliment to start with. Mud is a very special play for me, and Irene Fornes is one of my very favorite writers. I grew up in West Virginia, and Irene called this her “Appalachia play”. From my first reading, I felt I knew these characters and had grown up around folks in extreme poverty and lack of educational opportunity. I always wanted to perform the role of Mae because I felt I could find a deep connection with the character’s plight. I also love the sparse, stripped-down language of the play, and having had the wonderful opportunity to be directed twice by Irene, I understood how little she wants actors to do.
John and I had a long relationship with Irene. We produced four of her plays, three of which she directed. John commissioned her final major work with us (Enter the Night); she wrote the role of Tressa with me in mind. (That was a thrill to hear.) John also invited Irene to offer her nationally lauded playwriting workshops on each of her visits, so she had a major impact on the community.
I think people assumed when New City Theater shut its physical doors and transitioned the space to 18th & Union, that was it for the company, too. But you’ve always been a nimble theatre company. What’s in store for New City next? Over the next few years?
Kazanjian: In the early 1970s I stumbled into the NYC downtown, Off-Off-Broadway experimental theatre. I thought I was attending Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime when I went to The Performing Garage on Wooster Street and watched the Performance Group’s ensemble, environmental production, with Spalding Gray as Hoss.
Throughout that decade, I saw work made in found space, by small groups of extraordinary artists working together to manage all tasks: mopping the floor, operating the box office, collaborating together one project at a time, and showing the work. This is a very different method and model of making theatre than the regional theatre model.
Mary, Nina Moser, Lindsay Smith, and myself have been together since 1982, and Eve Cohen joined us eight years ago. We have moved through four found spaces: the 13th Avenue renovated 1904 apartment building; the First Christian Church on Broadway; the SODO Warehouse on Airport Way; and the two storefronts on 18th Avenue. We have never run a deficit. Back in ’92 I saw the collapse coming — remember all the theatre that went down and the big ones that are still on unsteady ground — so I thought, the time will come for us to be spaceless. In advance of that day, while hunting for a new found space, I thought, let’s experiment with living room theatre or the salon model and see if people will come. People came — Wallace Shawn’s The Fever ran for four months and a wealthy donor would not let us close, so he bought out two weeks more. And then The Waste Land in the basement with Mary; and Alan Ginsberg’s Howl with Kristen Kosmas upstairs; lastly, another one of poetry with Mary, Elizabeth Kenny, and Heidi Schreck.
The future? Maybe Fefu and Her Friends, environmentally as Irene conceived it, or Beckett. I don’t know — one step at a time.
(Bonus question) What excites you in theatre right now? What do you hope to see more of?
Ewald: What excites me is work that can only be realized in the theatre in the present moment with people in the room. Fourth wall and naturalism is often better left to film.
Specifics of what excites me and what I’d like to see more of are:
[Director] Ivo van Hove’s work
[Playwright] Enda Walsh
Oklahoma at St Ann’s Warehouse
The Ferryman in London
Mike Bartlett plays and Earthquakes in London
In the Blood and The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks
[Director] Thomas Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People (Ibsen)
A season NOW of Sam Shepard plays
The Waste Land and The War in Heaven (combined ticket) run through 6/30 at ACT Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets $20, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom on the second floor near the elevator (far away from the Lalie space, where these shows are held). Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.