Three keyboards are click click-clicking inside a beige-on-beige, low-ceilinged apartment in Issaquah, where theatre artists Justin Huertas, Kirsten deLohr Helland and Sara Porkalob sit around a kitchen table, in various shapes of human origami, occasionally murmuring snippets of dialogue or hints of melody. Village Theatre associate artistic director Brandon Ivie, feet tucked up on an armchair, sits observing and asking questions. Pages and pages of presentation-grade butcher paper are taped to a nearby wall, covered in multicolored writing: Commodification of sexuality. Evolution of witches’ sexuality. Double standard. Why are sex workers bad but lawyers/politicians aren’t? How does the label “bad” empower the labeler? The assumption that you are what you do.
Across the wall, the train-of thought ideas and lists evolve into clearer charts and themes for the brand-new musical they’re creating together, as part of Village Theatre’s inaugural Village Originals Writers Residency program.
For one week in February, the trio was paid a stipend to begin making something. They got dedicated rehearsal and office space, administrative and dramaturgical support, and professional actors were available to read or sing material, if necessary. They spent the first few days of the residency just tossing around ideas. Things they love? Magic and witches. During a later discussion about the darkest times in their lives, Porkalob described putting herself through college as a phone sex operator, which led to a conversation about sex workers and their exploitation.
Slowly, they dreamed up a musical about three witches, in a world where magic is illegal; the witches operate a pot shop as their legal front and do their magical dealings in the back. In this world witchcraft is a social corollary for sex work.
“People have assumptions and expectations about both of these professions, and they’re mostly negative, but people are also really uninformed and uneducated,” Helland says. “What constitutes bad? Who defines it, and why do they have the power to?”
The goal of the residency is to generate material toward completing a first draft, but there are no specific deliverables at the end. The artists’ brief presentation to Village staff could’ve been a sketch of their ideas, a musical motif, a snippet of song—whatever they wanted.
“If it’s just an outline or they just present their notes, that’s totally OK,” Ivie says. “It’s OK if they just talked for a week or fought for a week or conceived for a week.”
The importance of giving artists time and space to breathe can’t be overestimated—to create without worrying about an audience, about meeting any production parameters, about filling a slot in a season. That kind of creativity is often relegated to after-hours. Unless you’re one of the lucky artists working on commissions (a process that often comes with its own set of limitations), you only get paid for something once it’s made and you find a buyer.
Ivie, a dedicated supporter of new musicals and original work, launched the Writers Residency this year, his first as a Village staff member. Other participants in this first year are Michelle Elliott and Danny Larsen with their musical Hart Island, and Psalm by Seattle writer Orlando Morales, all of whom have worked with Village before.
Ivie has worked closely with Huertas and Helland for years, most prominently on Huertas’ original musical Lizard Boy. Porkalob recently appeared in Pump Boys and Dinettes at Village, which Ivie directed. This is the first time that Helland, Huertas and Porkalob are all working together, but Ivie thinks the contemporary artistic sensibility they share makes for a good fit. “I’m all about unique voices; anything that is generic makes me wanna die. I respect them because they’re unabashedly the people and performers that they are, and they all have a unique point of view.”
As with anything this nascent, this musical idea might never see the light of day. It could also grow into a full show, or evolve into something entirely different over time. The project has already been green-lit for another workshop in June, and the Writers Residency program has been green-lit for a second year, so who knows what they could generate?