Actor and director Gregg Gilmore opened the Gilmore Acting Studio on the first of October 2012. Beneath Ballard’s Market Street a chicly painted windowless studio is snuggled within the Ballard Underground. Teachings based primarily on Sanford Meisner’s repetition exercise are in heavy practice, two nights a week. Just after the first anniversary of the studio’s founding, Gilmore got the itch to produce and direct a play, one that would lift off the stage and into the hearts of its audience. Gilmore selected Stephan Metcalfe’s 1983 play Strange Snow and staged it with three long-time students. The result was truly live theatre and truthful to one of Meisner’s most famous lines: “Acting Truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Gilmore’s performance company was first called The Seattle Immersive Theatre but was renamed The Seattle Subversive Theatre after Strange Snow, which was staged in a house in Sand Point.
Indeed, putting the audience among the performance in atypical settings is a subversive act. The house’s kitchen made way to a small dining room and into a larger living room, where the audience sat along the perimeter with views of all the rooms, but not of every corner and door. Loud knocks or banging footsteps snapped one to attention and the room was electric with intent curiosity as conflict and catharsis unfolded between the three complex characters of Strange Snow, played by Rissa Comstock, Chad Jones and Paul Thomas. The show did not receive much media attention, but favorable word spread within the community and the last performance sold out.
It’s worth revisiting those performances as Seattle Subversive Theatre prepares to launch a new performance this month. Strange Snow begins with a brother and sister, David (Jones) and Martha (Comstock), living in isolated turmoil, sagging beneath a burdensome past toward a forbidding future. There is an unpleasant but hard-won equilibrium in their lives, and when the nest is ruffled by the sudden arrival of a spontaneous and lively man named Meggs (Thomas), what has been too long ignored must be confronted. Meggs fought alongside David in the Vietnam War, but whereas David suffers from demons and depression following their experiences, Meggs brings humor and gaiety (banging at the back door at 5am to rouse David for a fishing trip) and challenges David to combat his drowning alcoholism. Martha—a quiet and shy schoolteacher—gently, then sternly prods David into opening up to Meggs and in doing so reluctantly opens herself up to change beneath the hard veneer she has built to protect herself.
I commend those who take risks to present new ways of seeing, and I must say that I walked away from this performance more affected than I have been in a long time. Gilmore’s direction pushed the story further and pushed boundaries that can be so terribly rigid in theatre, making the play’s material even more accessible and immediate to the audience. It was invigorating for the audience and the actors to participate in a more natural setting, and Comstock, Jones and Thomas were igniting to watch. Comstock has the subtle, smoldering temperance to give depth to Martha, a character whose quiet demeanor belies passionate turmoil as her rituals are disturbed by the arrival of Meggs. Thomas as Meggs was a light in a predominantly somber play, providing most of the wit and a natural ease. Jones as David is the center of the whirlwind, uniting Martha and Meggs by their shared desire to see him escape torment. The change was believable and the process was harrowing.
Friday, May 9 Seattle Subversive Theatre begins its run of Creeps, a play by David E. Freeman. The play features five men with cerebral palsy who are hiding in a men’s washroom. The Studio in Ballard has been transformed into said washroom for the four-week showing. Lauded as a “powerful, harrowing, grimly humorous and altogether absorbing” play, Creeps explores the physical and mental frustrations of the men, and Gilmore’s production promises to be an especially intense approach, placing the audience (seating only twenty attendees for each show) immediately among these men. For theatre lovers that want an immersive experience, The Seattle Subversive Theatre provides a unique opportunity, one not to be missed.
Creeps plays on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 through May 31 at Gilmore Acting Studio in Ballard. Due to graphic content, admission is 21+.