Older, Wiser, Louder

These Streets reclaims forgotten history and sets the stage for a new generation of female musicians.

It’s early December and the rehearsal space at ACT Theatre in downtown Seattle is teeming with a chaotic energy. The vibe is similar to being backstage at a rock show right before the headliner goes on.

Five actors—four women and one man, all in their late 30s and early 40s—are huddled in a semi-circle for a debauched poker game. They’re jovial and sentimental, talking like old friends who once shared art school aspirations, punk rock principles, a fondness for dangerous vice and the sense of camaraderie that comes from surviving your 20s together. In the background, a handful of musicians loom over their amps and instruments.

Suddenly a quarrel breaks out between two of the women about misappropriated song royalties. It’s an old grudge, uncomfortable, ugly and—for anyone who was part of the Seattle music scene during the major label feeding frenzy of the ’90s—eerily familiar.

Director Amy Poisson motions to bandleader Gretta Harley, a petite but powerful figure with a guitar slung across her body. Harley launches into a rock number. Sarah Rudinoff steps up to the microphone, throws back her head and unfurls the vocals for “Muscle,” a song by old-school Seattle band Danger Gens.

“Muscle” is one of several grunge-era songs reprised in These Streets, a new musical theatre project Harley and Rudinoff created with playwright Elizabeth Kenny that opens Feb. 22 at ACT. Back in the early ’90s, Harley played lead guitar in Danger Gens, alongside a slew of other female-fronted bands that were written out of the grunge-era canon. These Streets tells their story for the first time.

“I mean, what is rock music?” Harley asks after the rehearsal. “It’s aggressive and loud and sexual—things women aren’t encouraged to illuminate. Even if you think you’re cool with women rocking out, all you have to do is pick up a magazine to see how far women really haven’t come.”

* * *

Rudinoff sings from the soles of her feet. Her booming alto brims with as much bravado as vibrato. She first made a splash locally back in 2000 alongside Nick Garrison in a long run of the gender-bending, punk-minded musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, bringing a brilliant balance of bawdiness and melancholy to the role of Hedwig’s lover and bandmate, Yitzhak. She has since performed on stage in various plays and solo shows and worked with filmmakers Lynn Shelton, Wes Hurley and Dayna Hanson. In 2004 she won a Genius Award for theatre from The Stranger.

Harley had her boots on the ground of the early Seattle music scene, playing in the band Maxi Badd (which became Danger Gens) and co-founding the feminist self-defense organization Home Alive. She eventually moved on to academia and theatre, joining the faculty at Cornish College of the Arts and serving as musical director for an array of productions at the Intiman Theatre and Hugo House.

Given their overlapping worlds, it was only a matter of time before the two women connected, which they finally did in 2006. Theatre director Sheila Daniels introduced them while Rudinoff was searching for a performer and musical director to help develop her one-woman show Last Year’s Kisses. After collaborating on that project, Harley and Rudinoff formed the band We Are Golden a year later. We Are Golden mixed Rudinoff’s big, brassy vocals and magnetic stage presence with Harley’s refined compositional skills and punk-rock songwriting approach. They released their debut EP in 2008 and began exploring more ways to meld the worlds of theatre and music.

“Sarah and I love to joke that I’m a theatre person in a rocker’s body and that Sarah is a rocker in a theatre person’s body,” Harley says.

In late 2011, the pair retreated to a friend’s house on Vashon Island to focus on writing material for their next record. They went to separate corners of the house and wrote for an hour, coming together later to find they had both written abstracts with the same theme: a woman in her 40s who had a career in music in Seattle 20 years ago trying to place herself back into a scene designed for the young. Questions arose.

“As an artist, how do you stay relevant in a media machine, and within a culture that is predominantly focused on youth?” muses Harley. “How do you keep your artistic passions alive as you get older?”

The women also talked a lot about what they called “the fulcrum effect” of reaching their 40s. “We see our mortality for the first time in a very specific way,” Harley says. “We feel our bodies being affected by the years for the first time. We begin to notice the years ahead of us are finite. And we ask, Why didn’t I start my retirement savings earlier? Shit, I forgot to have kids! Or What the fuck is next and can I change the course of this snowball?”

A storyline unfolded around these questions: A female singer who got her start in early-’90s Seattle is releasing a new record in the present day. For years she’s been artistically dormant, raising children. Friends come together at her record release performance and are interviewed for a radio show promoting the concert. Over the course of the play, past and present characters’ lives collide with their past and present music. The radio show would serve as the play’s de facto narrator, with a backing band providing a platform for flashbacks and a soundtrack for present-day events. It was an ambitious, non-linear construct, but the women found it irresistible.

The title song for These Streets was written that night in the cabin. But the hook to hang the story on emerged after a chance encounter with mutual friend and visual artist Susan Robb, who played in bands at the same time as Harley.

“Susan and I started talking about the old days,” Harley says. As Rudinoff listened to them reminisce on the sidewalk, she had an epiphany. “Sarah said to me, ‘That interaction you just had with Susan—the energy, the nostalgia—that is our play.”

That night, they called a slew of old friends from that era, including Flood guitarist Amy Stolzenbach, Hammerbox frontwoman Carrie Akre, Lazy Susan leader Kim Virant and Robb herself.

“We made this great meal [at Rudinoff’s house], had lots of alcohol and pressed record on our laptops,” Harley says. They documented four hours of stories and saw a desire to recognize the lives and experiences of these overlooked artists—experiences left out of Seattle music history.

The dinner party inspired them to start formally interviewing people in a one-on-one context, both to generate more real-world inspiration for their fictional script and to document their work. With the assistance of Jess Van Nostrand, curator for the interactive Capitol Hill gallery the Project Room, they asked nearly three dozen female musicians a series of focused, personalized questions: Why rock ’n’ roll? When did you fall in love with music? How did you learn to play? What did you think of your hometown becoming the center of the universe for a brief moment? What has Seattle lost? What has it gained? Where are you heading?

The Project Room documented the process online and hosted the oral history interviews in early 2012. Those efforts will culminate in the presentation of the interview films and an audio and visual display in the space, along with vintage show flyers and instruments loaned by many of the participating musicians. Filmmaker Wes Hurley captured the interviews, which will be archived in the University of Washington Library and made available to the public.

In many ways, it’s a classically feminist approach to artwork, marrying a creative endeavor with the political act of recording the untold stories of women. Harley and Rudinoff saw a gap in history and chose to make an addendum.

“I was Googling ‘grunge bands’ and realizing how little information was online,” says Rudinoff, who moved to Seattle in the mid-’90s. “When we looked at back issues of [defunct local music publication] The Rocket on microfiche, you could feel the history, and there were plenty of interviews with women, but what’s risen to the top? Women have been left out.”

The recent flurry of 20-year retrospectives about Nirvana and Pearl Jam was initially a concern. With a mixture of dismay and ambition they realized that women were written out of those histories, an unfortunate reality that reinforced the need for These Streets, which features under-recognized works by 66 Saints, Hammerbox and 7 Year Bitch.

Adds Harley, “If you weren’t here in the early ’90s and just got your information postmortem, you wouldn’t think women played in this scene at all.”

The women worked through various drafts over the next year, holding workshops and bringing in actors to read the work in progress. Eventually they realized they had reached unexplored creative territory.

“Neither of us had done anything like this before,” Harley says. “Sarah has written solo shows. I’ve written articles, poetry and abstract monologue for my avant garde music stuff. We were outside our comfort zone in some ways, and we thought it would benefit our project to get another set of eyes on the writing.”

Rudinoff invited actor and award-winning writer Elizabeth Kenny to meet with them, and the trio hit it off. Kenny was an active participant in Seattle’s early punk scene and had the chops to whip their script into shape, having recently found success as via her original play Sick.

“Within the first 10 minutes we were talking, I knew this was something I wanted to do,” Kenny says. “At its core, it’s a play, but it feels more like a rock show in terms of the unpredictability and the energy. I liked the idea that the audience would lean forward in their seats and almost stand up, as opposed to the more passive kind of watching that happens in the theatre.”

“She’s one of the most interesting theatre makers in the city,” Rudinoff says of Kenny. “Her theories on collaboration fly in the face of what workshops and collaborating look like in the larger American theatres. She likes to work with everyone there, making changes in the moment, figuring things out, failing and trying again together. It’s vulnerable and shakes up your insides, but it’s also where the magical moments happen.”

One of those moments happened when they cast 25-year-old hip-hop artist and producer Hollis Wong-Wear, who was pulled into rehearsals shortly after she returned from a tour singing with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Wong-Wear and Rudinoff first met through a musical theatre mash-up revue at City Arts Fest in 2010. Rudinoff interviewed her a few months later, asking about her experiences on the current Seattle music scene. As the script developed, Rudinoff began to see Wong-Wear in the role of Kyla, the younger version of her character.

“I was thinking about the trajectory that a lot of these women were on,” Rudinoff says. “Hollis was experiencing the morphing of her own small [hip-hop] scene into a scene that was getting more national prominence.” In These Streets, Kyla finds herself in a successful grunge-era band almost by accident and is pitted against her bandmates by a major label that envisions her as a solo star.

“Bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were a soundtrack for me growing up, but I’ve been so immersed in the hip-hop community that for me that is Seattle’s sonic identity,” Wong-Wear says. “This is like visiting a scene [from the past]. I knew the Gits but I wasn’t well versed. I’m glad that I’m seeing it through this lens.”

* * *

As the 40-something version of Kyla, Rudinoff echoes the powerful presence of Selene Vigil, frontwoman for 7 Year Bitch, a muscular and melodic punk rock band that was active in Seattle for most of the ’90s. Strong but vulnerable, Rudinoff evokes the complex history of women and music that propels These Streets.

Vigil was disarmingly pretty with a subversive edge, often sporting a roughly hemmed leather skirt, scuffed combat boots and the sort of believable, Tank Girl-channeling carriage that terrified and enchanted men and women alike. Many of 7 Year Bitch’s songs were overtly feminist (titles like “Dead Men Don’t Rape” aren’t open to misinterpretation) and Vigil’s vocals were compelling, guttural howls.

Vigil and her bandmates bristled with an awareness of women’s struggles, most vividly on 1994’s Viva Zapata!, a vengeful rebuke and heartbroken homage to their close friend Mia Zapata, the Gits’ vocalist who was raped and murdered in 1993. Drummer Valerie Agnew was a proud, outspoken feminist and a founding member of Home Alive, the self-defense organization formed in the wake of Zapata’s death. She made a point of articulating her discomfort with the media’s instant alignment of her band with the riot grrrl movement that emerged from the political, all-ages underground scenes of Olympia, Wash. and Washington, D.C. Riot grrrl bands were garnering major media attention at the time, as much for the brash feminist statements written across their bare midriffs as for their musicianship. 7 Year Bitch was different. It was a classic, hedonistic bar rock band that often shared bills with hard-drinking, masculine bands like Alcohol Funny Car and Gas Huffer.

“There’s a stigma our band has been dealing with forever, as fallout from the riot grrrl thing,” Agnew told author Andrea Juno in the 1996 anthology Angry Women in Rock. “[The idea that] ‘we’re just girls, and since we’re girls we don’t really have to be good, because we’re women and we’re angry and we’re saying what we need to say.’ But we’ve never had that attitude. It’s been pinned on us.”

The narrow concept of the riot grrrl dogged female musicians in Seattle; similarly, the idea that every Seattle band was a grunge band was a common grouse for the guys. Pop cultural analysis has affirmed that the Seattle scene was more than Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana. But little illumination has been given to the stylistic and political variations of female artists of the era, whether it was the heavy, beer-soaked swagger of 7 Year Bitch or the subversive, gleeful fury of queercore bands like self-described “lesbionic” punks Team Dresch.

“Many of the women [in Seattle] had a harder, less femme manner of presentation than the riot grrrls,” says longtime Seattle-based musician and entertainment attorney Jacob London. “They weren’t looking to champion the innocent, unencumbered joys of being a girl. They wanted to be women.”

Women with a wide range of voices and styles: Hammerbox’s Carrie Akre was a stunning vocalist with pitch-perfect pipes and diva-level delivery. The fearsome Shannon Funchess fronted IMIJ, a post-hardcore, funk-punk group. (Funchess eventually moved to New York City and has since fronted Light Asylum and worked with artists like TV on the Radio and the Knife.) Kim Virant could bring a house down with her cerebral-siren stance. Pint-sized guitarist Lisa Orth had one of the most distinctly adventurous sounds of the time, creating a Sonic Youth-esque clatter in bands like Parini and 66 Saints. Even Jesse Sykes—now known more widely for her work with Phil Wandscher and the Sweet Hereafter—was honing her brand of country-noir on a songwriters’ circuit that included other less rock-oriented artists like Kristen Barry and Sheryl Wiser. None of them fit neatly into the categories of grunge or riot grrrl.

“The net result of being stuck between these two ‘movements’,” says London, “was that it made it even more difficult for the work of Seattle women musicians to achieve visibility.”

* * *

Kurt Cobain once said, “The future of rock ’n’ roll belongs to women.” That future remains unwritten.

Today Seattle is a supportive environment for feminist art. The impact of riot grrrl torch-bearers Sleater-Kinney in the early ’00s and the subsequent popularity of rock camps for girls have provided an encouraging platform for women to work toward higher standards of musicianship and claim their share of the stage. There are standouts among them: Family Curse/Bad Powers’ Megan Tweed and the Redwood Plan’s Leslie Wood perform with a formidable presence not dissimilar from figures like Vigil and Funchess. Charismatic divas such as Fly Moon Royalty’s Adra Boo and the cool-headed, graceful ladies of THEESatisfaction command a high caliber of respect within the Seattle hip-hop scene.

Yet a deficit of female voices lingers in Northwest music and the gender balance of our musical landscape remains unevenly sloped toward male artists. In this context, These Streets offers both a restorative history lesson and a galvanizing source of inspiration for the next generation of female musicians.

“I don’t think it’s in the best interest of women to bitch,” Harley says. “We have to be proactive. We are just making an addendum to history. And the men are going, Oh yeah…I remember them. They rocked.”

Photo by Alice Wheeler.