Solo performer Matt Smith reflects on a disappearing childhood in a long-gone Capitol Hill in the film My Last Year with the Nuns.
The evolution of Capitol Hill involves a history far deeper than whiplash condo-fication and the Pike/Pine corridor. In 1966, Matt Smith was in eighth grade at St. Joseph’s School, part of the mammoth horde of “feral children” who lived in the heavily Catholic part of north Capitol Hill, segregated by bank lending practices. Back then, if you were a black family and you wanted to buy a house south of Roy Street, you could get a bank loan. North of Roy, you could not.
In 1966, the world was changing. The ink was newly dry on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Stonewall Riots were only three years away. The graduating class ahead of Smith’s at St. Joe’s would be the last class drafted into the Vietnam War. They were also the last to learn the Catholic mass entirely in Latin.
This is the world of My Last Year With the Nuns, Smith’s autobiographical one-man film premiering at SIFF. In it Smith captures a year of massive political and social upheaval in America, as seen through his own 13-year-old eyes. He spins a love story for the community that shaped him, but he also gives an eye-opening look at a side of our city’s history that’s romanticized by younger generations. It’s easy to see the pleasant side: the safe streets, the children running free for hours until heading home for dinner. Smith lays bare the realities of the day—accepted racism, aggressive homophobia—by revealing the idiocy and cruelty of youth.
My Last Year with the Nuns is a coming-of-age story surging with teenage grandiosity. Kids have nicknames like Rat and Syphilis. Loogies and dirty jokes are social currency. The film is broken into chapters marked by animated chalkboard placards and its stories aren’t necessarily linear but are progressive, building on characters and concepts. The stories are full of typical kid stuff (a rude noise antagonizes the nuns and interrupts choir practice, for example) but they take on increasingly darker tones. Friendships between black and white kids degrade, fights break out, kids go “queer bashing” in Volunteer Park.
Sporting a Carhartt cap and a dark grey Seahawks jacket, Smith, now 60, exudes a rumpled charm with abundant crystal-blue eye contact. We’re sitting in the shadow of St. Joseph’s Church on 19th and Aloha, two blocks from Smith’s childhood home where he and his wife (playwright Elizabeth Heffron) now live with his 92-year-old mother—“the patron saint” of this project. Smith has been an actor and improv teacher for years, and his easy way with stories and riffs makes him a natural fit for his other job as an auctioneer.
Smith didn’t start acting until he was 31. Before that he was in a holding pattern: Wait tables, make money, go travel. “I thought I was living an interesting life,” he says. “Then I turned 30, and I saw all the bullshit behind it. I thought, ‘Every time you go somewhere you’re just running away from what you really want to do.’”
Smith really wanted to be a comedian. He gave himself six months to experience living as an artist in Seattle, which ended up lasting much longer. He became artistic director of Seattle Theatre Sports, co-founded Seattle Improv and Stark/Raving Theatre and began performing regularly around town.
Along the way, Smith met Bret Fetzer, an accomplished writer and director in the local theatre scene. Smith was interested in shifting his focus toward solo material and asked Fetzer to direct it. Their first collaboration was called Helium, based on Smith’s years living in Japan. “It’s basically about chasing women, getting venereal disease and a man that’s out of control in an environment that allows that,” Smith says.
Helium was a success, but Smith wasn’t done with solo stage work. The idea of creating a piece about growing up on Capitol Hill had been percolating since college at Western Washington University, when Smith took a course on African-American literature that required him to write an autobiographical story. He chose to write about the “paper shack,” where he and other junior high schoolers used to pick up copies of the Seattle Times for their paper routes. The shack was one of the few places where black and white kids interacted (little league baseball being the other). It’s a central location in the Nuns story, along with St. Joseph’s, Volunteer Park and the wooded ravine that runs north toward Seattle Prep.
Storytellers that Smith and Fetzer are, they take liberties with historical facts. “In every autobiographical piece, there’s what actually happened and there’s what really works as a story,” Fetzer says. “It’s combining stories to make them reverberate off one another, combining characters to make them more potent. It may not be strictly what happened, but the emotional truth of it remains the same. That’s how our memories work—they’re already editing things as we remember them.”
On both stage and screen, Smith plays narrator to his own story, as well as his teenage self, his best friend, the tough kids who got blamed for everything, the black kid who picked on him at the paper shack, the black kid who came to his defense. The nuns. A man the kids called “the hetero priest.” Everyone. The distinctions are often subtle but the characters are discrete. Smith’s casual clip and steady, bombast-free tone are reminiscent of the best storyteller at a dinner party. He’s so confident in his material that he has no need for shouting or misplaced silliness. He can say as much with a shift in his brows—raised and wide-eyed as his younger self, furrowed and suspicious as a nun rooting out nefarious children—as he can with words.
Smith performed the show for the first time in 1997 at Capitol Hill’s New City Theater, a former Catholic mortuary where he’d once attended his grandmother’s rosary service before her funeral. He’s performed it intermittently since, in Seattle venues like Theatre Off Jackson, Market Theatre and Bumbershoot. He’s also performed it in New York and London. Catholics and Seattleites are always big fans, but parents, and especially parents of teenagers, also love the performance.
Over their many years of working on the stage production of Nuns, Smith and Fetzer toyed with the idea of turning the story into a movie. Smith lobbied for a simple three-camera taping of his stage performance, a typical format for filming standup comedy. But Fetzer was determined to make a feature-length film—while keeping it a solo performance.
Producer Michael Seiwerath finally made the movie happen. The executive director of the Northwest Film Forum from 1996 to 2008, Seiwerath left NWFF to lead the Capitol Hill Housing Foundation. He thought Nuns would make a great re-entry into producing films.
“I’ve always thought [Nuns] was one of the most profound and uncomfortable pieces of theatre I’d ever seen,” Seiwerath says. “It was remarkably brave.” Brave, he explains, because in it Smith cops to his own teenage complicity in racism, homophobia and bullying.
One of Seiwerath’s first moves as producer was securing cinematographer Ben Kasulke, which he did in part by scheduling the shoot immediately after Kasulke wrapped Lynn Shelton’s Laggies in Seattle last summer. My Last Year with the Nuns shot for less than $250,000 in three weeks, with a crew of about a dozen.
Nuns moves fluidly from one Capitol Hill location to another, gaining momentum as it’s intercut with scenes of Smith performing on stage. One place they didn’t shoot? In a Catholic church. When they approached St. Joe’s about shooting there, “the answer was either silence or no,” Seiwerath says. “But we learned something new, which is that an Episcopalian church looks almost identical to a Catholic church, and they’re happy to take your money.”
Early in the movie, Smith sets the scene with a map, marking the neighborhood’s major Catholic institutions, along with the paper shack and the Roy Street “red line” that divided Capitol Hill and the Central District.
Smith navigates the sensitive topics as the kid he once was. “Jokes were our main means of communication,” he tells the camera. “Three kinds of jokes specifically: nigger jokes, queer jokes and filthy jokes.” Then the film cuts away to another shot of Smith, explaining his racially charged language. “Not everyone used that word,” he says, “but it was common, especially among those of us who grew up on Capitol Hill and whose parents referred to the valley over the red line as ‘Coon Hollow.’”
From 15th to 23rd streets, Galer to Roy, his neighborhood was home to hundreds of kids. Everyone went to Catholic school and everyone was connected. If someone wasn’t in your grade, they might be friends with your oldest sister or classmates with your best friend’s youngest brother. Relationships made the world seem bigger than it was. “Most people didn’t have the cohesiveness of one neighborhood, one people from which they came,” he says. “There was something beautiful about that kind of connection.”
Though the Nuns story is rooted in Seattle, it resonates more broadly. “I don’t think fidelity to the specificities of the neighborhood make it a regional story,” Fetzer says. “The trueness to what happened in those moments is what makes it a universal story.”
This is a story that goes far beyond its few square blocks. Watching My Last Year With the Nuns is like opening a time capsule, unearthing layer upon layer of colorful, controversial history about a place that you thought you knew. What had been lost? What had been gained? What had it been and what would it become? Gawping at how much things change is entertaining; understanding why things must change is a slipperier issue.
Evolution is inevitable. We don’t get to define where we’re from. We don’t get to decide when a neighborhood has reached its zenith and freeze things there forever. If we did, who would be allowed in and who kept out?
Nearly 50 years have passed since Matt Smith closed the door on his last year with the nuns of St. Joe’s, but their impact is swirled indissolubly into his schema, and ours. And that is a good thing. Even last years stay with us for a very, very long time.
Photo by John Jeffcoat