Of all the places one would think one would encounter daring, rigorous and experimental theater, it is likely that Port Townsend, the charming Victorian harbor town on the Olympic Peninsula, would not be the first town to come to mind. It would be even more unlikely for anyone to think of Chimacum, WA, a tiny little burg ten miles South of Port Townsend, as anything other than an unassuming hamlet. Yet it is here that one could find The Paradise Theater School, an organization that is perhaps Washington theater’s best kept secret.
How the Paradise’s co-founders/co-Artistic Directors, married couple Pattie Miles Van Beuzekom and Erik Van Beuzekom, found themselves at such a remote location is something of a story itself, even if its origins are innocent enough: The couple simply started out looking for a house to move into. “We started by looking at houses in West Seattle,” Ms. Miles Van Beuzekom recalls, “and as possible houses kept falling through, we kept going further and further out. Soon, we were looking at places on Bainbridge Island, Poulsbo–we looked East and South of Seattle as well, but Erik has family out here.”
Then, in 2000, while traveling through the area, the couple spotted a ‘For Sale’ sign in front an old building, pulled over, inspected the property, and before too long they were the owners of a plot of land, and an abandoned church in serious need of repair and remodeling. It took three years’ worth of work, and in the Spring of 2003, The Paradise opened its doors to the theater going public, and has been blazing a trail ever since.
It isn’t that the work done at the Paradise is representative of the bleeding edge of the theatrical arts, it’s that the work they do does not pull any punches in the presentation, regardless of whether the production is an original play or an adaptation of a centuries old poem. It is an approach as direct as their mission statement: “To train artistic leaders to create and tell stories that address the problems and possibilities of our time.”
This has often meant presenting works that would be considered challenging to Seattle audiences, let alone an audience from the seemingly homespun community around Port Townsend: Neil Labute’s The Distance from Here, a story about disaffected teenagers behaving in typical Labute fashion; the pairing of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking with Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis; an evening of short plays by Samuel Beckett; a production of I Am My Own Wife that took place before the one at Seattle Repertory Theater.
Instead of having the community stay away in droves, the Paradise found an increasing amount of support for their efforts, and along the way, developed an appreciation for the less mainstream aspects of the artform within the community. While that was going on, the Van Beuzekoms opened their doors to their colleagues from Seattle; having spent the majority of the 90s embedded within the local Fringe theater movement (the couple are perennial participants and Mazen Award winners at 14/48), this meant playing host to the likes of Maria Glanz, John Longenbaugh, K Brian Neel, Jennifer Jasper, Stephen Hando, the members of One World Theater, among others.
This aspect was further amplified when, in 2009, they embarked on a new way to approach a production: Week long “theater camps.” Beginning on a Friday, the cast would meet for the first table read of a play, then began rehearsing and blocking on Saturday, attacking individual acts in this fashion until the play would be performed in front of an audience the following Saturday. Their first attempt at using this approach was a full length production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard; to compensate for the length of the event, they informed their audience that the play would begin in the middle of the afternoon, and progress into the early evening, with a lengthy intermission in the middle to allow for a community potluck to take place.
The theater camp production of Orchard proved so successful, the Van Beuzekoms used the format again the following year with Chekhov’s Three Sisters, this time inviting a few of their Seattle colleagues to participate. This production attracted an overflow crowd, and so the next year, 2011, the couple decided to do an entire year of theater camps: a new documentary theater piece entitled The Milosevics curated by Pattie Miles Van Beuzekom (later performed at Fremont’s West of Lenin in December 2011); Lord Byron’s Don Juan adapted by Erik Van Beuzekom; and Chekhov’s Ivanov. A list of Seattle theater artists that have participated in these camps not already mentioned above would include Shawnmarie Stanton, Ryan Higgins, Alyssa Keene, Megan Ahiers, Shawn Belyea, Peter Dylan O’Connor, and Rebecca Olson.
Unfortunately, the attention of Jefferson County’s administrative arm was raised along with the success of these events, and late in 2011, the Paradise was notified that they would need to perform a number of upgrades to their facility before they were able to hold public performances again. Since then, the Van Beuzekoms have stopped holding classes and developing future productions in order to focus on meeting the County’s requests, and undergoing the process of re-zoning their property. This is a costly operation under any circumstances, and so they have launched an ongoing fundraising campaign in order to help them meet the costs of remodeling and the submission process.
Despite these obstacles, the Paradise will be mounting a production of Mark Jenkins’ Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles in September, for their grand re-opening.
The Star sat with Pattie Miles Van Beuzekom and discussed in detail their approach to programming for their space, the worth of meeting one’s own artistic expectations, the value of believing the audience will be open to more than what would normally be expected of them, and how the rebuilding process has progressed thus far.
Seattle Star: You’ve been in the space for how long?
Pattie Miles Van Beuzekom: We bought the space in 2000 and lived in the sanctuary for one year while we remodeled the basement into an apartment. We’ve been operating since March 3, 2003. That’s the date we had our first public event.
SStar: I notice on the webpage listing Paradise’s prior seasons that, among a number of first run shows from out of town artists, there are a few published plays on the roster. What was the first Paradise production after Lysistrata?
PMVB: We started with Yasmina Reza (grimaces). It’s actually a very good play (laughs); it’s called The Unexpected Man and is about a woman who ends up sharing a train compartment with her favorite writer, it had two characters, so it was just me and Erik, and Jim (Pargulski), Paul (Shipp) and Brian (Neel) came up to do tech for it. It’s a nice little play.
SStar: How did you come to select it?
PMVB: I read about the production in London with Alan Bates and Eileen Atkins and it sounded like a smart fit for me and Erik. And, well, I tend to be attracted to more European playwrights than American because I’m a fan of wordiness and maybe because I’m an American and am looking for something outside my experience, I suppose.
SStar: How would you hear about the plays?
PMVB: I spend a lot of time researching online, so I would go to the Guardian (U.K.) , and I’d read their reviews. Because of that, My Name is Rachel Corrie was on my radar right away— and as for American plays, The Exonerated was on my radar right away, both of which we ended up producing. Neil Labute as well, we both like Neil Labute quite a lot, he’s quite popular in Europe, less popular here, I think. We end up waiting a long time for the rights to do these plays.
We try to do plays that we think our local audiences would not see, and could either open their eyes, or make them a little uncomfortable, possibly. Hopefully. We try to do shows that aren’t being done in Seattle. Not for any particular reason, but just to keep it different. Unless, there is a piece that matches one of our actors well, like Rachel Corrie or a writer we adore like Scot Augustson.
SStar: Doing shows that aren’t generally done in Seattle gives you more opportunities than one would think. I assume that part of this approach came from a desire to continue to challenge yourselves.
PMVB: Well, we’d both been involved in the start up of other theater companies, and we’d both been involved in catering to someone else’s artistic decisions. Without really talking about it, we both found that we just loved contemporary socio-political plays. That’s what we wanted to do the most. And, in terms of being challenged, I think we both get bored quickly if we are not a little afraid of a script.
SStar: How did the local audience react to that?
PMVB: It was mixed. The more liberal-minded, progressive audience members were very enthusiastic about us; and there were some who did not get it and were very uncomfortable. But they kept coming back and their minds were changed over time. There were also some who didn’t attend much because they assumed our work would not be uplifting. We think, no matter the subject matter, a well-written play is inspiring. When we did I Am My Own Wife–a play about a transvestite that survived the Hitler and Stalin regimes in Germany–there was a poster for the show up at our local QFC, this guy called me and said, “can you please take that poster down? Can’t you keep that kind of stuff in Port Townsend, where it belongs?”
So, there’s been some of that.
When we did Scot Augustson’s A Very Lesbian Nutcracker, it was, overall, well received, especially by the gay and lesbian community. Although, some people were quite offended by it, even some lesbians were offended by it. Because, I think, they were unhappy that the play made fun of lesbians, even though it was supposed to make fun of lesbian relationships in a way and it was a lesbian theater company that had asked Scot to write it.
SStar: That was Pulp Vixens, right? Jennifer Jasper’s–
PMVB: Jennifer Jasper’s company with Shawnmarie Stanton, Mia Levine, Keri Healy, and Meg Hill, right. We’ve done a couple of Scot’s other plays, [Lesbian Nutcracker‘s companion piece Hung by the Chimney, and Intelligence. -ed] those were also very well received.
SStar: You said earlier that some of the audience kept coming back, that the folks who were offended would still come and check it out. Is that true of the entire Jefferson County community?
PMVB: Well, I’ve found that, when we did The Exonerated, we had a much harder time finding black actors/audience than I had thought.
It wasn’t because there’s a small black population in this county, there’a actually a fairly large one, but they’re all holding down two jobs, essentially, they don’t have the kind of free time that I had hoped they would have.
But there is a large lesbian population, there’s a large gay population here. I initially, and will, continue to do plays for them. I know that’s the one minority that I know we could stage plays for; we think that’s important to do. We also have some inroads into the Native American population and the Latino population.
SStar: Does that sort of programming happen elsewhere in the county. Do the Key City Public Theater folks, or any of the other theater companies in the area do those plays?
PMVB: No, though Key City does produce new plays sometimes, they did Mara Lathrop’s Garden of Monsters recently, but they have a pretty hefty overhead at this point because they have a lot of salaried employees. So, I’m guessing they have to pick shows that are going to have box office success on some level. Again, I’m guessing, I’m not sitting in the room with them as they make these decisions.
We, quite frankly, don’t think about this consideration that much, because we’ve been in companies in the past that have and…when we first started Erik said that “we’re no longer sucking on the tailpipe of other people’s dreams.” (Laughter.) Which is a good way to put it. The uniqueness of the work we do is what keeps us motivated. We wouldn’t do it, otherwise.
Not that it’s been financially easy to make unusual choices for plays, especially over the last couple of years; we’ve been dependent on his construction company to pick up the financial slack, and when that kind of work started to decrease, along with the economic downturn, it made things even tougher.
SStar: You’ve had to work other jobs to keep the place going too, right?
PMVB: I had a few retail jobs at antique stores when we first moved here, and then I ran the education programs at Centrum. [Centrum is a highly respected Arts organization, located in Port Townsend, that hosts Arts workshops, performances, and residencies. Ms. Van Beuzekom ran the education program for 3 years. -ed.] One year I was the assistant, and then for two years I managed the programs. And, now, managing the theatre is a full time volunteer job.
While I was at Centrum and working retail, we were only producing two plays a year. Which freed us further–we didn’t even, like, pick a season or do any of that.
SStar: That had to change eventually.
PMVB: Yeah, but just because we started to need to line up people’s schedules. But at the time, I didn’t want to have to know too far in advance what we were doing. I just wanted to be as flexible as possible, just in case something new popped up, then we’d be able to jump on it.
SStar: When did you start teaching classes at the Paradise?
PMVB: It was after I had left Centrum. I started teaching playwriting classes, and as a result, I got excited about teaching theater again. I had burnt myself out on the study of theater, after being in college, and then teaching college for so long. But, a lot of our students here didn’t have a lot of knowledge in theater history, they didn’t know the breadth of it, what was possible, why it was created or how it’s changed or how to engage with it.
They knew who Neil Simon was, they knew some of the very basics of theater history; many didn’t know who Samuel Beckett was, and even more didn’t know anything about Greek dramatic history. But this is a community of learners and they were willing to show up for what we had to offer.
SStar: What was the age range of your students?
PMVB: From their late teens to their eighties.
So, I became excited and created a whole curriculum that covered playwriting, improv, directing, acting and stage combat. We had up to eight classes a week at some points. It’s a small population, so we couldn’t maintain that kind of scheduling for long, but I know we’ve made an impact on the community.
It was really important to me to help people become a discerning audience–if they like a particular farce, to have them be able to look back and see where that kind of comedy came from.
SStar: Have you seen the results of that filtering through?
PMVB: I’ve seen people excited to have that knowledge. Like we’d be presenting scenes from Ibsen, doing them in class, and then I’d hear that they’ve never read an Ibsen play before, that they did not know that he was a feminist. You know, the kind of things you learn as a freshman theater student that would get you excited.
Anyway, it excited me to create this program. I’m teaching the history of East Indian dance drama, Greek theater and Italian Renaissance, Medieval Theater, just taking them through the whole thing, and the students dug getting all of that info as well. As it developed, we set a curriculum that was all contemporary theater one quarter, classical theater for another quarter, and then it was alternative or experimental theater after that. All of the students’ desires dictated that kind of education model.
SStar: Meanwhile, in the community, the Paradise gained the status of being “that theater.”
PMVB: Right, that we’re edgy or something like that, which is cool! I mean, there’s this little community that has a big music scene, for its size, a huge visual arts scene, for that matter. The fact is that it had a pretty tiny theater scene when we got here, and now it’s gotten much bigger.
SStar: How many companies are working out of Port Townsend now?
PMVB: Let’s see; Key City and ourselves are the two primary companies. There’s a guy named Joey Pipia who focuses 100% on children’s classes and improv classes, he does a few productions a year.
The high school is kind of a huge deal, we actually can’t produce shows while they’re running, which I think is kind of great. One of the facilitators for Theater of the Oppressed lives in Port Townsend, so he has a whole company focused on that. So, a lot of energy has grown around theatre in this community.
SStar: When did you start focusing on original productions?
PMVB: We did our first original play somewhere around 2005 to 2006. It was one I wrote, A Maid in Bedlam, and Erik adapted an Indonesian themed short story. Having done that, I then wanted to write two other plays [The Banks of Maryanne, a meta crime caper/deconstruction of entertainment; and Blood Orange Bakersfield, an original noir story taking place between Seattle and Bakersfield, CA. -ed], to see if it was what I really wanted to do, and we ended up producing those as well. Now I feel like I can call myself a playwright. (Laughs.) I promised myself I wouldn’t call myself a playwright until I had written and produced three plays.
Then, my playwriting students started really turning out some really interesting stuff. I told them, “if you turn this into a full length play, the least we would do is to have a public reading of it.” Later, we decided to open it up to a sort of competition; two of those plays were selected, and we produced them.
We’re still very much open to producing student work, or finding a way for it to get a lot of attention, even if it’s just workshopped or whatever. I believe that original plays should be every company’s priority.
SStar: Let’s talk about the “theater camps,” how did those come about?
PMVB: I had read about this theater company near Lake Lucille in upstate New York, who did weeklong rehearsals of a Chekhov play, in the New York Times; I got in touch with them, told them that I was interested in using their approach and wanted to ask some questions. They were totally generous, even after I asked a ton of questions.
SStar: Like what?
PMVB: Like, “how do you feed people at intermission?” Small things like that. I mean, I didn’t know how to do any of that, I hadn’t thought about how to do that. So, they gave us a lot guidance.
We did The Cherry Orchard first, which I found to be such an exciting process! I had directed something like thirty plays at that point, and the traditional approach of doing it was becoming old hat to me. “Okay, we’ll do Act I Scene One through Scene Two tonight, and then we’ll focus on Scene Three tomorrow,” That kind of four-to-six week rehearsal approach that didn’t scare me anymore, it felt rote.
This one week process really scared me! It was exciting and everybody was scared. It just had a level of excitement that hadn’t been there for me in a while. Plus, it seemed to fit with our actors from the community, because everybody’s got a day job, everybody’s got a busy life; to be able to just set a week aside, and just focus a play for that entire week, it makes you feel like you’re a real theater artist for a while. Your attention isn’t split between the project and all these other real life distractions.
So we did it again the next year, with Three Sisters, on top of two original plays and a Shakespeare production. Frankly, I became fairly burned out after all of that, and I knew that we’d need to really focus on fundraising, and Erik and I–we both needed a change. We decided to do a Chekhov slot every summer, and then thought, “why don’t we see what else we could do with the theater camp approach?” That’s why this last season we just did The Milosevics, Byron’s Don Juan and Chekhov’s Ivanov using the weeklong rehearsal model.
I know there will be plays that I’ll want to do that won’t fit into the weeklong process. I wouldn’t mind directing a show for three to six months, for example, depending on the show. Like I would love to direct a small, intense version of The Who’s Tommy, like a dark edgy, 12 person piece, while tying it into some kind of educational model for the participants.
SStar: Will you guys continue doing that after you get the Entertainment and Tourism designation?
PMVB: My guess is that we’ll end up morphing into a combination of both. I could see the week-long thing branching off into more experimental rehearsal models–I could see doing week long rehearsals and then maybe having longer runs.
SStar: Why are the production runs for the camp weeks kept to just one performance?
PMVB: It’s because we have people coming in from out of town. If people from out of town want and can find the time, we could have longer runs. During Ivanov, I asked Alyssa Keene if she’d be willing to do a full run, and she said, “yeah, I’d come out for it.” If there are people who could find a way to come out every weekend for three or four weekends in a row, then we’d find a way to do it. In some ways, the rehearsal and performance schedules depend on the people’s schedule.
What I’d really like to do is to have it be an option for Seattle companies. If they’re developing a piece, or trying out a script, they could come up here for a weekend or a week, with their own actors–maybe they could partially fill some roles with actors from here–rehearse it, put it up in front of an audience as a workshop, and then bring it back to Seattle for later production. Or they could use the space for a week before putting it up on its feet for real back in Seattle.
I just think that could be fertile ground for people. Jennifer Jasper and Stephen Hando came in last year for a weekend, rehearsed a show she was working on [Middle, a solo performance piece. -ed] and did two performances here, so I know that the set up gave them both rehearsal, performance time and audience feedback, which are valuable.
PMVB: They did bring Keefee up here, they’ve both been here and directed each other’s work. We loved having that happen.
SStar: Even though you and Erik have been making adjustments, both big and small, to the building since you moved in, you’ve spent most of 2012 dealing with the remodel and the designation process. Could you fill me in on what led to the county’s becoming involved with your business status?
PMVB: Well, when we bought the building in 2000, and we naively–maybe not naively, maybe we “wisely assumed”–that we would be grandfathered as a public use facility, because the building used to be a church.
We applied for commercial licensing, and they turned us down. They said we would have to go through a whole designation process, which might have included a public hearing. At the time, we felt like nobody in the region even knew who we were; we hadn’t established any kind of track record as a theater company or anything. It seemed to us that for us to think that the county was going to grant the ability to operate commercially to a couple of young artsy kids from out of town, we felt that was a lot to hope for.
So, I did some research on the county website, and I found that you could have classes of specialized instruction in your own home. We thought we could have classes, and because you had theater classes, you had to have performances. So, we ended up applying that logic–our shows end up being cast with students, they had participated in classes, so it felt like a natural kind segue for them to perform.
We emphasized the educational element, we plan Q&A sessions after every performance. The focus is always on education. Then the shows became very popular, which we didn’t anticipate, actually. As a result some shows would have overflow parking, that kind of thing. I think what ended up happening is that someone in the community complained, and if the county gets a complaint, they’re obligated to look into it.
SStar: That happened during one of the Chekhov productions–
PMVB: The overflow parking happened during Three Sisters. So, the county tagged us, inspected the place and said that we can’t have any public assembly here, because it’s zoned residential. We stopped doing shows in the building and we contacted our local community park, HJ Carroll Park, and they were thrilled to have us do performances there, because the state parks are suffering and they need all the exposure they could get. That has worked out beautifully, except we can’t do that all year round because you can’t count on the weather.
SStar: Both Balagan and Theater Schmeater brought their park shows to Chimacum this summer. [Sally and Thor Save The World (at Summer Camp) and a Hansel & Gretel adaptation, respectively; both performed at HJ Carroll park.-ed]
PMVB: They did.
SStar: How’d that turn out?
PMVB: Good! People came and enjoyed the show, the weather was wonky for the Balagan show, but overall, I think everyone was happy they made the trip from Seattle to perform.
SStar: Where are you guys at on the designation effort?
PMVB: It’s going well, but slowly. Jefferson County’s Department of Community Development is moving forward with approval processes to change the language of the options for having a Small Scale Recreation & Tourist use property. In the regulations it states this can happen “Unless, a larger parcel size is specified, minimum lot size shall be five acres.” They want to add to that, “except that no minimum lot size is required for parcels that include a historic site, structure, or landmark.”
This goes through a volunteer planning commission and then through the county commissioners with a possible public hearing. I’m to hear back soon what the expected timeline is for all this. But, for now, we are moving forward with productions and shows, in different venues and outdoors, and touring productions. I expect the building and property will officially reopen fall of 2013.
It’s a long and very costly process; the permit process and the hours that the building department, the land use department and the health department put into putting all that together, and getting it in front of the commissioner…All of that is fee’d. We are looking at thousands of dollars just for the permit process, let alone the remodel and upgrades to the building.
SStar: When you say costly…
PMVB: It costs $71 an hour for the time of the staff to research the options, and it is difficult to predict what kind of time the rest of the process will take. We are trying to stay upbeat about the costs.
SStar: So the fundraising is to help with this, yeah?
PMVB: Yes. We’ve been fundraising for upgrade costs and maintaining the building. We’ll be experimenting with a Facebook fundraising campaign to have the walls insulated and a ductless heat pump installed to replace the quaint, but not efficient, wood stove.
SStar: How has the response been?
PMVB: It has been going well, and we are learning a lot.
The main thing we’ve learned it that we have a small donor pool; too small to achieve what we need over the next year. We’ve enlisted a friend of The Paradise, who also happens to make a living working in the donor development field, and has decided to help us–pro bono–over the next several months to retool our fundraising strategies.
We’ve also applied for two grants, which we should hear about soon, and more will be written over the next six months.
It has been an great opportunity for us to step back and look at where we need to make changes.
SStar: With the end result being?
PMVB: A quality public space for youth and adult classes, performances, rehearsals, retreats, as well as a rentable venue for performers and organizations.
SStar: You’ve also mentioned Kickstarter campaigns in passing. Is that related to the building or to the Orson Welles project?
PMVB: Kickstarter seems repetitive for our building needs since we would be reaching the same people we’ve been asking all along for something not very sexy. So, we will be doing a straightforward and need-specific campaign through an event page on Facebook for a large amount of small donations for the ductless heat system.
PMVB: Yes! Classes and productions. We know our local community is anxious for us to start producing and offering classes again.
I recently spent a week and a half mapping out our schedule of classes and productions through next August. But we will be back with the Chekhov week and many performance opportunities for beginners and pros.
SStar: When does the new schedule begin?
PMVB: The schedule is from September 2012 through August 2013.
SStar: What other productions do you have in mind, after Rosebud?
PMVB: I know we will be doing all seven of Chekhov’s one-acts next summer, Erik will be doing another new combat script, along the lines of Don Juan; probably based on William of Orange. There will be another new play, not sure which. Finally, whatever comes out of the advanced performative writing class and the advanced acting class.
There are more ideas — The Mikado Macbeth:1888, Love’s Sweet Thrill (my latest play), and others — a long list. And, hopefully, more Seattle artists coming out to develop new work.
SStar: Well, now that word has spread throughout the Seattle theater artist community about the Paradise, that will continue to take place, hopefully.
PMVB: That has turned into a whole unexpected energy that we just didn’t anticipate at all. For the last year and a half, I’ve been going to shows in Seattle, and having strangers come up to me, ask me about the theater camp weeks and say they want to get involved and things like that.
I would respond, “Oh, really, we were just asking our friends, cuz, you know, you have to sleep outside, maybe, and we’re not paying anything.” (laughs)
That attention and desire to come up here was unexpected, considering we are not paying anyone. So, I do want to make it possible for as many performers to do so as logistics allow. But, we can’t cast everyone in the Chekhovs, so the more weeks we have like this, whether it’s Chekhov, or not, the better.
SStar: Sounds sensible enough. Last question, should everything you’ve got in the works right now–the remodel, the designation application, etc.–should all of that succeed as planned…what do you think the Paradise needs to do in order to remain as vital as it has been. Both for you and for Jefferson County community?
PMVB: I think the quality of our work has been really important for us to maintain, for us and the community. We’ve had, and will continue to have, really high standards. I’m not going to sacrifice those standards around play selection and we want to maintain the professionalism of the artists we choose to work with.
Ultimately, the priority is for us to stay flexible and for artists we work with to feel valued, to not say “this is the only way we do things.” Also, I don’t think we would ever have a season subscription. I just don’t want to get into a position where I’m selling a season. I’m not interested in that, it is too restricting. Erik and I have been at it long enough that we have an adverse reaction to some traditional models and our mission reflects that.
I mean, what we want to do, seems to please a lot of people. We’re not really going to get rich doing this, so why do something we don’t want to do, you know? (Laughs.)