Life-Sentenced Prisoners and the Future of Mass Incarceration

Most Western democracies have few or no people serving life sentences, yet in the United States more than 200,000 people are sentenced to such prison terms. Steve Herbert, University of Washington Professor of Law, Societies, and Justice, will be on Town Hall’s stage on 12/11 with Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project, to discuss the flaws in a life-sentence based criminal justice system.

Herbert’s new book, Too Easy to Keep: Life-Sentenced Prisoners and the Future of Mass Incarceration, shares moving personal profiles of individuals affected by life sentences. He sat down recently with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss regret, redemption, and reform.

JS: What initially got you interested in the prison system?

SH: I have long been interested in the criminal justice system, although I’ve primarily focused my prior research on urban police departments. I have taught about punishment and prisons in my classes, although until 2013 I had no direct experience with prisoners. That changed when I learned that colleagues at other universities had taught courses where they brought their university students inside prisons to teach courses alongside prisoner students. I was motivated by their stories to try and replicate that at the University of Washington. It was that decision that led me down this road.

JS: What was the impetus for your new book? 

SH: I started teaching at the Washington State Reformatory in 2013, and began teaching ‘mixed enrollment’ classes there in 2014. These classes combine students from UW with incarcerated students in classes taught exclusively at the Reformatory. I learned in teaching these classes that there were many people in prison for extraordinarily long periods of time who were amongst the very best students I had ever encountered in any classroom. I must confess that I did not expect this to be the case. That prompted me to learn more about life sentences, and how common they happen to be.

JS: What preconceived notions/prejudices did you have going into interviewing lifers? How did that change after talking to them?

SH: I had enough familiarity with life-sentenced prisoners that I expected them to be thoughtful and interesting. I don’t believe that they necessarily challenged any stereotypes I had. The process of stereotype destruction had already occurred when I started teaching inside.

JS: What are some of the greatest lessons you’ve learned from lifers? 

SH: I think the most significant lesson is that so many of them are deeply regretful about their past transgressions, and that they try as hard as they can, under limiting circumstances, to engage in some form of atonement. I could not help but be impressed by their resilience, and the strength more generally of the human spirit.

JS: Rehabilitative incarceration—is that something you believe in? How can we make it a reality? 

SH: There is no question that many, many prisoners are hungry for opportunities for self-improvement. Efforts to respond to this desire for positive change bring benefits to everyone, both inside and outside of prisons. For that reason, they should be supported. In my observation, many impactful programs are those that are run by volunteers from the outside. For example, my teaching inside could only have occurred due to a partnership with University Beyond Bars, which works to provide college preparatory and college level courses for prisoners. In Washington State, at least, efforts to make it as easy as possible for these outside organizations to do their work can only pay dividends for all involved.

JS: Do lifers have a desire for redemption? In what ways? How, if at all, does this help them in their day-to-day lives in jail?

SH: I cannot speak for every lifer, but there are clearly very many of them that earnestly seek redemption. They manifest this desire in myriad ways, but most notably by trying to be mentors to the younger prisoners in their midst. They try to help these prisoners redirect their lives so that they do not reoffend and thus return to prison. They also try to work a job, to educate themselves, and to involve themselves in various prisoner-run organizations. These activities help provide structure and meaning to their lives, and help them lessen the day-to-day pains of imprisonment.

JS: What are some more poignant stories you have in regards to your interviews with lifers?

SH: One inmate told me a story about how he participated in a dog program at his institution. He described how terrific he felt when he first met the dog, and interacted with it in his cell. He said that it was the first time he had ever been asked to care for another sentient being, and that it was a terrific feeling. He told this story as he was describing his general maturation. This was a consistent theme across many of my interviews. Many of the prisoners, especially those who got their sentences while they were young, discussed how their maturation led them to be more concerned for others, and how this shift was really critical to their more general projects of self-improvement and atonement. Said one prisoner, ‘When I committed my crime, I didn’t think about the consequences or who I was hurting or anything like that. I just wanted some money. So, I didn’t really think about that kind of stuff.  It was just all about me. Me, me, me. But then I realized it really wasn’t about me, and change started happening.’

JS: What fixes would you propose for life sentencing?

SH: The best route forward is to change sentencing policy. Life sentences are too commonly invoked, so a shift in punishment policy is a smart move. This can happen in a number of ways, but a key one is to make parole more widely available. Like many states, Washington no longer allows parole for most prisoners; they all serve fixed sentences. This means that many prisoners who undergo profound change cannot have that reality recognized in a reduced sentence. That, in my view, is a key policy that deserves reconsideration.

JS: Can the public do anything to improve the lives of lifers? In what ways?

SH: I think the public can lessen the distance between themselves and prisoners. The best way to do this is to find a volunteer program for which they can work. Regular encounters with those who are incarcerated will work to dispel the stereotypes that are commonly held. They can also lobby their legislators to shift punishment policy.

Don’t miss Steve Herbert with Ashley Nellis and Katherine Beckett on 12/11 at Pigott Auditorium at Seattle University.

What the Heck is a Sackbut?

Our friends at Early Music Seattle are partnering with Early Music Vancouver to present two performances of Monteverdi’s Christmas Vespers on December 21 and 22. The concerts will include violins, cornetti, sackbuts, theorbos, and voices under the direction of David Fallis.

You might be asking yourself, what the heck is a sackbut? Theorbo-huh? Who was Monteverdi? What’s a vesper? Town Hall is here to help.

Sackbut [sak-buht]:

A sackbut is a type of trombone popular in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. This isn’t to be confused with a slide trumpet (don’t do it) but it did evolve from it. The difference between the two is that the slide trumpet possesses only a single slide joint, while the sackbut has a double slide joint that allows for playing scales in a lower range. The evolution then: slide trumpet, sackbut, trombone. Sidebar: Are you aware that there is an English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble?  There is.

Theorbo [thee-awr-boh]: 

A theorbo is a member of the lute family. It’s a plucked string instrument with an extended neck and a second pegbox. A theorbo player plucks or strums the strings with one hand while pressing down on the strings with the other hand to different places on the neck produces different notes. That gives a theorbo player the ability to play chords, basslines, and melodies. They were developed in late 16th century Italy. You’ll hear theorbo compositions in Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo.

Cornett [cornet]: 

A cornett isn’t a cornet. Cornets are trumpet-like instruments. A cornett is an early wind instrument that dates back to medieval times. It was popular from 1500 to 1650. It’s a wooden pipe covered in leather and has finger holes and has a small horn. They were played frequently in Venetian churches. You’d hear cornetti a lot at the Basilica San Marco, the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice. There were different types of cornett, like the high cornettino, the curved cornett, the tenor cornett, and the bass cornett. Some composers who used cornett, other than Monteverdi, include Johann Sebastian Bach, and Georg Philipp Telemann.

Monteverdi [Mon-tuh-vair-dee]: 

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was a pioneer in the development of opera. He was an Italian composer, string player, and choirmaster who created both secular and sacred music. He was also the Maestro di Capella at the Basilica San Marco, where all that cornett playing was happening. Though most of Monteverdi’s output has been lost to time, his surviving music includes madrigals, sacred works, and three complete operas. His L’Orfeo (1607) is one of the earliest operas ever created.

Vesper [ves-per]:

The word comes from the Greek “hespera” and the Latin “vesper,” meaning “evening.” Vespers is a sunset evening prayer service which has been in existence since at least the 4th century. Several composers have made music based on them, including Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, Giuseppe Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani or “The Sicilian Vespers,” and, yes, Monteverdi.

Take your newfound knowledge of sackbuts and the like and attend what is sure to be a glorious evening of music. Go here for tickets.

What Are People Doing?

Every week the Town Crier blog will look back at Seattle’s near forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening then and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “The Army and Navy Club was the center of much gayety on Thanksgiving day, the decorations suitable for the occasion,” and, “Mr. Bissett is one of the living authorities on Lincolniana and his library of 1886 volumes and pamphlets is sixth in importance in existence.”  In this new series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Today’s entry…

With the holiday season comes children with eyes of wonder and glee, looking towards the skies for Santa and his reindeer, or looking under the hearth for festooned holiday packages. In the November 30, 1918 edition of the Town Crier, there was an ad put out by the Grote-Rankin Company. They suggested parents get wheel toys for their children. “To those who are going to buy practical toys for the children, this announcement is but an introduction to the comprehensive stocks of wheel toys that we have assembled for your inspection.” Among the wheel toys, “moderately priced,” they assembled included automobiles, hand cars, coaster wagons, velocipedes, choo-choo cars, Sam-E-Cars, doll cabs, and more. “The assortments afford countless opportunities to make the little folks happy.”

The holiday season at Town Hall affords opportunities for today’s little folks to be happy, too. Coming December 8th and 9th is Seattle’s beloved kiddy rocker, Caspar Babypants. Caspar—aka Chris Ballew, the former lead singer of the ‘90s rock band, The Presidents of the United States of America—will be playing plenty of catchy tunes, including many off his new album, Keep It Real!.

Performances on December 8th will be at Bloedel Hall at St. Mark’s Cathedral. Performances on December 9th will be at West Seattle’s Westside School. Learn more about the concerts (FREE FOR KIDS) here! Interested in reading an interview we did with Caspar? Go here

Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology

The first robot to walk the earth was a bronze giant called Talos. This wondrous machine was created not by MIT Robotics Lab, but by Hephaestus, the Greek god of invention.

On 12/3, Town Hall will present Adrienne Mayor, Research Scholar at Stanford University, to discuss her new book, Gods and Robots. We’re delighted to bring her to the stage for a first look at the ancient origins of humanity’s timeless impulse to create artificial life. To offer us a preview of her upcoming event, Mayor recently sat down with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss automatons, Medea, and Siri.

JS: How did you first get interested in classics and folklore?

AM: You might say I’m a historian of human curiosity—I’m interested in uncovering historical and scientific knowledge embedded in ancient mythology, legends, and folklore. Much of my work takes place in the borderlands where classical Greek and Roman literature and art meet archaeology, history, anthropology, and science. What I am seeking are the earliest inklings of the scientific impulse in premodern cultures.

JS: What inspired you to combine that interest with robots and AI?

AM: I live in Silicon Valley where brilliant innovators are exploring and producing ways to imitate, improve, and surpass nature, developing Artificial Intelligence, advanced robotics, and other marvels. So I was curious—who first imagined automatons? How deep are the roots of the human desire to make artificial life? Most historians trace the first working automatons to the Middle Ages. But I wondered, could the ideas of making self-moving devices and androids have been imagined long before the technology made them feasible? I found compelling evidence that the concepts of making artificial life were thinkable as early as the time of Homer, in myths first written down in about 700 BC.

JS: To avoid confusion, how do you define a robot? An automaton? Artificial intelligence?

AM: Robot and automaton are interchangeable in informal speech. But a glossary of technical terms is included in Gods and Robots. An automaton is a self-moving mechanical or constructed device resembling an animal or a human. Some automatons perform tasks according to predetermined instructions and some respond to different circumstances. Artificial Intelligence mimics cognitive functions associated with intellect or mind, such as learning, planning, and problem solving; there are complex categories of “narrow” and “general” AI and four ascending types of AI. Robot is a slippery term but usually means a machine or self-moving object with a power source; some robots can be programmed to sense surroundings and process data to interact with the environment and perform actions.

JS: When writing the book, what parallels between the ancient and modern world struck you most about our human want/fear/need/desire/etc of technology? 

AM: It is striking that the ancient myths about the god of invention Hephaestus, the techno-wizard Medea, the fire-bringer Prometheus, and the legendary craftsman Daedalus are really the first-ever science fiction tales. The ancient stories and art works show how the power of imagination allowed people more than 2,500 years ago to ponder how one might create driverless carts, self-navigating ships, and bronze killer robots—if only one possessed the sublime technology and genius of the gods. It is often remarked that where science fiction leads, inventions often follow. And indeed, by the fourth and third centuries BC, a profusion of genuine self-moving devices, animated statues, and automated machines were being designed and built.

Hephaestus, god of metalworking.
Medea, granddaughter of Helios, the sun god.
Prometheus, giver of fire to humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JS: What ethical conundrums did the ancients face in regards to robots/technology/etc?

AM: The myths suggest that as long as the self-driving chariots, golden servant-androids, and automatic machines fabricated by Hephaestus are confined to the realm of the gods, they are charming and benign. But when automatons like the bronze robot Talos and the artificial woman Pandora are sent to earth and interact with humans, then all kinds of troubles are unleashed. Today many warn that technology favors tyranny. Notably, that ethical concern appeared in both ancient myth and in historical times and places: there was a strong link between autocratic rulers and machines of malice.

JS: What’s your favorite mythological story in regards to artificial life? Why? What can it teach us today?

AM: The myth of Pandora is my favorite. She was created as ‘evil disguised as beauty,’ to punish humans for accepting the gift of divine fire, stolen by Prometheus. Zeus ordered Hephaestus to fabricate a seductive femme fatale android ‘programmed’ to open sealed jar of eternal misery for humankind. The story has so many layers of meaning. A cruel and vindictive tyrant, Zeus jealously guarded his divine technology of fire and commissioned an evil fembot as revenge. Prometheus, whose name means ‘foresight,’ tried to warn mortals against accepting Pandora, but her deceptive charms were dazzling. Today, Pandora’s box is often compared to the allure of the ‘gifts’ of AI and robotics. Even the last thing in the fateful jar, Hope, has a double meaning. Philosophers since antiquity have debated whether Hope was the best or worst thing in the jar.

JS: If you were to make a robot, what would you name it? What would you want it to do?

AM: Great question, but ironic for me! I own a smartphone but I have no smart appliances and I never talk to Siri or Alexa. I prefer cars with few automatic features—I like to roll down my own windows and I use printed road maps instead of GPS navigation devices. I’m unlikely to interact knowingly with a robot and can’t think of anything I’d want a personal robot to do.

As for robot names, Tik-Tok is my favorite because it designates the extreme poles of robotics for good and evil. The original Tik-Tok was the rotund and genial mechanical clockwork servant in Frank Baum’s popular Oz books (1907). By 1983, his namesake has become a psychopath robot bent on getting away with murder in John Sladek’s chilling sci-fi novel Tik-Tok.

Don’t miss Adrienne Mayor’s event on 12/3 at Pigott Auditorium at Seattle University.

 

What Are People Doing?

Every week the Town Crier blog will look back at Seattle’s near forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening then and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “It is Captain Edmund R. Bowden now, the word of his promotion having been received by his parents recently,” and, “Mms. Schirmer, assisted by her daughter, Mrs. Hankins, gave the first of her season’s musicales at her home on Capitol Hill.” In this new series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Today’s entry…

It was decided at a board meeting that $100,000 should be raised, according to the November 23rd, 1918 edition of the Town Crier, for the next three years to cover the activities of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. “While it requires more than money to make an orchestra of the first class,” the story reports, “yet it is one of the prime necessities and the Philharmonic has been sadly handicapped during its existence for lack of funds, which meant lack of sufficient rehearsals and, naturally, of a membership thoroughly balanced in numbers and musicianship.” The story concludes, “With the new organization there springs the hope that these grave defects will pass and that we may enjoy to the full an orchestra worthy of this city.”

Seattle Symphony 1903 – Photo Courtesy of MOHAI

Today, we have an orchestra worthy of this city. The Seattle Symphony is now one of America’s leading symphony orchestras and is internationally acclaimed for its innovative programming and extensive recording history. The orchestra has made nearly 150 recordings and has received two Grammy Awards, 21 Grammy nominations, two Emmy Awards, and numerous other commendations.

Their holiday season is fast approaching. Concerts include Holiday Pops, Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Learn more about their coming events here.

Disco Hippos and Laughing Your Head Off with Caspar Babypants

Late nights and ear damage helped convince Chris Ballew that perhaps there was something new in store for him during his run as lead singer of Presidents of the United States of America. The band was a big deal in the 1990s. The Seattle-based Presidents released a self-titled debut album in 1995 and it peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and their song “Peaches” garnered the band their first and only Billboard Hot 100 Hit. “Kitty,” “Lump,” and “Dune Buggy,” were other popular tunes on that influential album.

Yes, the band was popular (they formed in 1993 and dissolved in 2015 since, as Ballew posted on the band’s Facebook page, “we are OLD PEOPLE NOW!”), but there was an itch during their reign that Ballew knew he wanted to scratch.

Enter Caspar Babypants. Children’s music has been Chris Ballew’s bag since 2002. He’ll be performing FOUR SHOWS soon as part of Town Hall’s Saturday Family Concert series.

Ballew recently sat down with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss the Beatles, losing stuff, and dark, dirty, stinky, smelly rock clubs.

JS: When you put out a new kid album, is it focused on a particular theme/idea?

CB: I don’t make themed albums as a rule but I do have a few that fit that description. There’s a holiday record, two Beatles cover albums, and two lullaby records in my library of releases. I grew up on Sgt. Peppers by the Beatles and the way that record took me on a wild psychedelic ride still influences how I make records. I want the families that buy my records to feel that same sense of being on a ride when they listen to them. For me the themed record is too much of a limitation, and I prefer the kaleidoscope of weirdness that a non-themed record can achieve. But in a general sense the theme is always bizarre little stories that I turn into songs that make me laugh!

JS: Are there commonalities between playing shows for kids v. adults?

CB: When I play a show for kids I still feel that thrill of connecting to an audience and the interplay between my music and their happiness. If the parents are paying attention and participating then I get to do some of the same call and response type stuff that I can do with an adult crowd. The fun of the mechanics of doing a show is the same, too. I always feel like I am setting up for the circus during load in and sound check. I love that feeling and I still get to experience it with my shows for families.

JS: Are there big differences then between playing for children and playing for adults?

CB: The first major difference is the time of day. My shows for families happen at 10:30 am for the most part. The days of stumbling to bed at 2:30am after an 11:00pm set time are blissfully behind me! Another difference is the venue. I’m playing in beautiful old theaters or library meeting rooms or YMCA gymnasiums instead of dark, dirty, stinky, smelly rock clubs. That is another change I’m very happy about. This time around I’m booking all of my own shows so another big difference is that that I’m responsible for all of that stuff. We used to have a booking agent and manager in the rock band so I didn’t have a lot of responsibility on that level. Now it’s all on me!

JS: I see you have a song on your new album called Dropped My Lollypop. That sucks for kids. What small things inconvenience you?

CB: I really don’t like looking for lost things (even though a bunch of my songs are about lost things!). I feel like all the time I’ve spent looking for lost things is time I want back. Beyond that I really feel that all my problems and friction is related to making this music which I love so I decided to love my problems as well and now I don’t have any problems.

JS: Your “Disco Hippo” song – quite a hip swaying, toe tapping tune. What genre of music do you think is the funniest?

CB: I think really fast bluegrass music is hilarious. There’s also an electronic artist name Squarepusher who makes it insanely fast music that sounds like synthesizers on speed playing crazy jazz. I put that on the car while I drive around and laugh my head off!

JS: What spurred you to turn from rock music to kid music?

CB: The entire time I was having success in the 90s I also had I got feeling that that success was not my final destination. I spent about 14 years hunting outside the rock band for another form of expression that would scratch that itch. Finally I figured out that simple innocent music for children was what really resonated with me in a way that was perfect. I feel like the music I make now is exactly what I really am as a person. I am way more like a child than a grown-up. The rock band was extremely close but it just wasn’t exactly right. Late nights and ear damage convinced me that I had to find something else. When I figured out I was supposed to be making this music I was incredibly relieved.

JS: What’s your favorite thing about performing for kids?

CB: As an adult I want to live in a state of imagination and wonder. I want to be able to rearrange the world in my mind to be hilarious and bizarre and entertaining. I want to find the innocent perspective necessary to really see the natural world as the greatest show on earth. I think kids have that perspective baked into their innocence. I love being around that energy and I love helping families bond over music that they can all truly love.

Don’t miss Caspar Babypants’ performances December 8 and December 9.

What Are People Doing?

Every week the Town Crier blog will look back at Seattle’s near forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening then and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “Mr. and Mrs. E.F. Blaine entertained a party of fourteen at the Sunset Club…flags were the effective decoration,” and, “Now is the accepted time to take all your silverware that is not necessary to your happiness and have it exchanged into War Savings Stamps.”  In this new series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Today’s entry…

The holidays are fast approaching. “A special three days’ Thanksgiving sale will be featured at the Red Cross Jumble Shop,” the November 16th Town Crier wrote. “Everything that goes to the making of a toothsome holiday dinner is wanted to make this sale a success. Two fine turkey gobblers have already been promised, and the committee hopes others will flock in.” They wanted all sorts of delicacies, including fruits, vegetables, pies, cakes, cookies, doughnuts, jellies, cranberry sauces and more.

The holidays are fast approaching again, 100 years later. One of Seattle’s most beloved events is the Sheraton Seattle Hotel’s Annual Gingerbread Village. Celebrating its 26th year, Seattle’s top architecture firms, master builders, and Sheraton Seattle culinary teams will create immense, elaborate, creative, awe-inspiring, and sweet gingerbread houses.

The event benefits the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. This year’s theme takes their inspiration from Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Celebrating Harold Weeks with Some Ragtime Ditties

Harold Weeks’ name has nearly been lost to history—but Town Hall is here to reclaim it. Weeks (1893-1967) was a Seattle songwriter and a church leader. He was a trustee for Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist. That church building just so happens to be the one Town Hall owns and that we’ve been doing a massive renovation on. We’re set to re-open the historic structure in March 2019.

The building was constructed in two stages between 1916-1922, at the peak of the Christian Science movement. Built in the Roman Revival style by Portland architect George Foote Dunham, it has a large portico with six two-story columns fronting Eighth Avenue, a central dome with an oculus, large art-glass windows, and elaborate window treatments with pilasters and a balcony on the Seneca side.

It was this building that Harold Weeks would attend on Sunday mornings. And it was this time, 1916-1922, that ragtime music was all the rage across the nation. Weeks wrote plenty of ragtime ditties during this time. In fact, he’s mentioned several times in the original Town Crier, where Town Hall’s blog takes its name. In the August 14, 1915 edition it’s noted, “Harold Weeks of this city is the composer of words and music of ‘My Honolulu Bride,’ and Alec M. Malin another of our residents, has written a dance tune called ‘The Alaska Rag.’ This blending of southern seas and northern snows should result in an Elliott Bay temperature.”

In the February 12, 1916 edition the writers praise Weeks’ new tune ‘No Fair Falling in Love,’ saying, “Mr. Weeks is certainly coming to the front as a composer of popular music.” By November 26, 1921, Weeks’ popularity is cemented. In an ad for Youngstrom & Nelson’s new modern music shop, they tout their “complete line of Columbia Records and Harold Weeks’ well-known line of Popular Sheet Music.”

One particularly popular piece of music was his tune ‘Seattle Town’ which Weeks wrote around the time the art glass windows were being installed in the Fourth Church building. President Harding was coming to town with the US Navy Fleet, and Mr. Weeks wrote this piece with a swell of civic pride for Seattle. In the September 1, 1923 edition of the Town Crier, they mention “Tiny Burnett and his men furnished an acceptable music program headed by ‘Seattle Town,’ Harold Weeks’ latest.”

Weeks’ “Fuzzy Wuzzy Bird” performed by the Al Burt Dance Orchestra (1922)

Aside from his activities as a songwriter and church leader, Weeks was associated with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers; Christian Science Publishing Society; and the National Temperance League. He died in 1967. His correspondence, writings, sheet music, scrapbook, and phonograph records are held at the University of Washington’s Special Collections library. Some of the sheet music they own includes such tunes as “Fuzzy Wuzzy Bird,” “My Kandy Girl in Old Ceylon,” Moonlight Makes Me Think of You,” “Mew-Mew Rag,” “Hindustan,” “Love’s Canoe,” and of course “Seattle Town.”

 

You can listen to more of Weeks music here.

Octavio Solis: An Accidental Playwright of Unconstrained Imagination

This interview was conducted by Margaret O’Donnell, Artistic Director and Founder of the Seattle Playwrights Salon. Powered by Shunpike, the Seattle Playwrights Salon is a staged play-reading series founded in 2016. The Salon meets at Palace Theatre & Bar in Seattle from 7PM-9PM the second Friday of the month. It is one of the few regularly scheduled evenings in Seattle where playwrights and actors can bring new plays in development before an audience.

The interview below has been edited. You can read the full-length version here.


Octavio Solis will be on Town Hall’s stage on December 4 at the Rainier Arts Center discussing his new memoir Retablos: Stories From a Life Along the Border.


MO: You’ve been writing plays for nearly 30 years, and have had at least 25 of your plays produced. How have you changed as a playwright in these years?

OS: Oh, I have more unproduced plays in my folders. Theatres may commission works from a writer, but they’re under no obligation to produce them. Sometimes they don’t like the work. Sometimes the work is just not right for the time or their audiences. These works languish away in neglect, but sometimes they get cannibalized by other newer works.

I think my writing has changed quite a bit over time, but it’s because I’ve changed. We all must or else we become stagnant individuals stuck in some idealized time. Some things, however, still hold true. I still cling to the notions of theatricality—that is, the use of all the elements of live theatre to make the story vivid: lights, music and song, direct address, heightened language. I like works that dance across time and space, that bend these dimensions at will in the way Shakespeare did.

And yet at the same time, I think I’ve settled a bit. I like to focus more on people. I’m more inclined to slow the page down to let them talk. Too much effort is directed at moving the action forward, and not enough on moving the action inward. Each character is a kind of maze, and I am drawn to the language that acts as a kind of string that leads us into and out of the maze.

MO: Are the themes that interest you different than they were 30 years ago?

OS: Yes, I think I have absorbed some new themes into my oeuvre. For as long as I’ve been
a playwright of note, I have devoted myself to defining the American experience for Latinos in this country. The complexities, conflicts, and ironies of being an immigrant in America. The love for and struggle against the temptations of our consumer culture. The Mexican culture as it evolves into a new hybrid American society. What it means to live on the hyphen.

But now I am drawn to environmental issues. I think moving to the country, raising goats and chickens, living off our green garden; these new aspects of our rural life have awakened my environmental heart. Now as I see so much of our forests charred by wildfires, I am struck by how much of it is due to climate change. We’re at a tipping point. We have to respond to the dire
circumstances in our planet, even if we’re only the Cassandras and canaries in the coal mine.

MO: Has the way in which you get inspiration for your work changed over the years? How?

OS: Many companies have concerns they’d like me to address, so some commissions come with issues attached. Still, I have to find what matters to me. I have to be inspired to give them the play that they’re looking for. So often I ask, what is my way in? What about the issue or topic is personal to me? I have to care deeply or else I won’t care at all. What I look for is the element that will change me in the writing. I can’t be expected to change people’s perspective if I am not willing to be changed by the writing myself. So it’s always an education, always a discovery, which means there’s always a risk. By this, I mean that I have to be ready to have my beliefs upended by the work I do. I have to be ready to let the play talk to me directly and indirectly about things I have not considered about myself.

MO: Have your writing habits changed over the years? What works best for you now?

OS: I used to write with fervor every day, every chance I could. I used to stand by my writing with a ferocity that permitted no challenges. I was young. There was still so much room to grow. Over the years, especially since writing is all I do, or at least the only occupation I have full-time, I used to demand that I write every day, all day, and when I was wasn’t I punished myself grievously by not going out and enjoying myself. Now, I know that was wrong. I have learned
that when I’m not writing, I am still writing. I am thinking and processing and engaging with my stories in my sleep, in my idle moments, when I’m driving my car; even when I am doing a repetitive physical task, I am writing. It’s the process before applying fingertips to keys or pen to paper. The dreamtime. The digestion of the idea. Consequently, I have parsed out my energies more wisely. I don’t write every day, but when I finally do sit down to write, I sit for six to eight hours and hammer out what needs to be written. Raw and unvarnished, ugly and badly worded. That’s what a first draft should be anyway. This process has become harder to maintain as I get older.

MO: What are you working on now?

OS: I’m working on getting the word out on Retablos, my new collection of memoir stories by doing readings and book-signings. I am working on a screenplay. I am doing the final touches on the rehearsal script of “Mother Road” which goes in rehearsal at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this January for its premiere in March 2019. I am revising a work I had produced earlier this summer in Los Angeles. I am winterizing my farm in preparation for the first big freeze of the season.


Don’t miss Octavio’s event on December 4.

What Are People Doing?

Every week the Town Crier blog will look back at Seattle’s near forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening then and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “Mr. Herbert Webb, whose avocation has been the making of artistic etchings, has gone East to join the tank service,” and, “Down at the Library at Fourth Avenue and Madison street the closing ban has given the employees an opportunity to work unremittingly at setting the books in order.”  In this new series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”

Today’s entry…

“Just off the press,” the Town Crier writes, “is the catalogue of the art collection of Mr. H.C. Henry. It is most attractive in every particular, showing, as it does, some of the noted paintings that are housed in the private gallery adjoining the Henry home on Harvard Avenue.” It is “an excellent piece of work and a satisfaction to have on hand.” The story makes mention of works by George Inness, Alexander Wyant, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and others.

  

Mr. H.C. Henry was, of course, Mr. Horace Henry, the Seattle entrepreneur who founded the first art museum in the state, which is now the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery. In 1926, Horace and his wife Susan donated their collection of 152 paintings along with $100,000 to the University of Washington to construct the gallery. It was designed by Carl Gould, a Seattle architect who was the founder and director of the university’s department of architecture. The Henry opened to the public in 1927 and has since shown the work of such renowned artists as Lyonel Feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Buckminster Fuller, Alexander Calder, Ann Hamilton, Kiki Smith, James Turrell, and many others.

Currently, they’re showing the exhibit Between Bodies, a group exhibition that includes sculpture, augmented reality, video, and sound-based works that delve into intimate exchanges and entwined relations between human and more-than-human bodies within contexts of ongoing ecological change. You can learn about that exhibit, and other Henry showings, here.

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