Thursday, February 5, 2009

Seanjohn Agonistes

Seanjohn Walsh is a local treasure - an actor, performance artist and theatrical jack-of-all trades who has set fire to Seattle-area stages for 20 years. After a long run of being everywhere all the time, a few years back Seanjohn disappeared from large scale productions. This month, he's appearing in a new show called "Blind Spot" at Annex Theatre, which is running until February 14. I had the good luck to track him down and get him to answer a few questions before he disappeared into a cloud of dubiously-legal smoke.

Hi Seanjohn. What's shaking?
Well, very happy we have President Obama, he’s the first President that’s younger than me. I hope to be invited to dinner, since there’s all that noise about the arts. I could recite some poems for my supper. And I’m still glad I sold my car, turned off my landline and my laptop was stolen. Very glad to not have a cellphone, either.

How do people get in touch with you?
There’s a pencil on a string outside my window, hanging on the wrought iron, and a pad of paper under the windowsill brick. We call it Phony Express. That should impress the White House.

How long have you been working on the Seattle stage?
My first play in Seattle was for a now-defunct family company called World Mother Goose, a show called "The Blue Bird" in the fall of 1989.

We haven't seen you in a main stage production in years. Where have you been hiding yourself?
I’ve been focusing on cameos and appearances for a few years, in cabarets, festivals and almost anywhere performance art wasn’t tolerated. I like to cause a commotion, you know. It got to be too difficult showing up night after night in productions I didn’t feel particularly connected to, or for audiences and fellow thespians that would hold artists at an arms length, you know: entertain me but please don’t be real in a conversation. I had to reassess who, when, and where I could trust to cultivate expression and not be compromised into “politeness.”

Tell me about the new show, Blind Spot?
It’s a wonderful ensemble show, written by Juliet Waller Pruzan and Bret Fetzer. A little girl does NPR style reports about civilizations that live under the bed, in the china cabinet, the lighting fixture. It’s very imaginative in both the writing and staging. Annex has consistently produced these awesome shows in small spaces without much of a budget. I wear an Andy Warhol wig! And there’s always the Act II villain, which is a major reason I signed on.

What's coming up?
I am scheduled to do a reading of Woody Allen’s "Don’t Drink the Water" in April with Our American Theater Company. Their season this year is ‘Americans Abroad’ and it is a very funny play that starred Jackie Gleason back in the day. It was the first community production I did after high school in 1979! I grew a beard to be the communist secret police; nowadays, I’m sure secret police have shaved heads and ex-wives. In May, I’m playing a dirty old Frenchman in Steve Martin’s "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," at Balagan on Capitol Hill.

Are we ever gonna see that long rumored one-man show?
We’re talking to producers, we want to tour colleges and coffee houses from Bellingham to Portland with “Jupiter Dash’s Stationary Caravan of Literary Wonders.” We’ll see.

How does the current Seattle theatre scene compare with what you think of as the glory days? Are things getting better? Getting worse?
In the 80’s and 90's, artists were moving to Seattle in droves, from all corners and all categories: theatre, music, film, comics, you name it. And there was money, low rent for apartments, rehearsal space, backroom bars, underground cabarets, storefront galleries and theaters, great cheap cafes. When regional people like Sky Cries Mary met Kultur Shock, the Northwest Film Forum was about to start, Annex and The Compound were at their peaks, Wayne Horvitz, Bill Frissell, and Eyvind Kang were playing down the street; New City was bringing Richard Foreman and Marie Irene Fornes to town on original commissions. The do-it-yourself atmosphere was fostered and nurtured and promoted.

We lost most of that after some of our rockers died, the stadiums got built and the WTO brought the polite fascists into the woodwork. So for a lot of the arts, it is worse now than it was; artists migrated to other cities out of economic necessity, and Seattle stopped being the faraway magnet. There is a dearth of eclectic, independent voices sprouting here; it’s not enough to get some training, you have to breakaway from society a little and contribute back to the over-all dialogue. There are a number of polite, unchallenging companies producing in Seattle now, it’s really almost community theater. If art doesn’t matter, really, in that way that screams “I’m Alive Dammit!”, why bother?

Any new performers/directors/playwrites/events you're excited about? Any who really piss you off?
The Native American theater artist Gene Tagaban has done some great performances for the community. The Seattle International Children’s Festival is one of the most vital organizations in the country. Catch Queen Schmooquan whenever you can, because she will belong to the world one day. Paul Mullin is a playwright that has combined science and literature in a very imaginative way; he too is going to be creating ground-breaking literature come later in the century. My favorite dancer nowadays is Monica Mata Gilliam. I miss the Typing Explosion and the Rollvulvas. Paul Gasoi, truly the epitome of a genius artist, is now living in the woods, surrounded by his family, painting 25 hours a day. And I’m very glad that even though Curtis Taylor isn’t producing for the stage much, he’s making great films and paintings. Britta Johnson has done some very cool shit, stop-motion animations. And Specs! Specs is great, we met while working in a refrigerator magnet factory years ago. We have the same birthday, and he creates fabulous comic books and still leads the way with his hip-hop recordings. I enjoy all kinds of artists, I guess.

What’s started to excite me is this new ensemble we’re creating, a new iteration of the Lab at Freehold. We have at least four playwrights, a core of wicked actors and directors. The idea is to kick some major ass. Because art and theater matter, every day and every night. It’s vital.

Give us some words of wisdom, man. We need some wisdom.
Seattle theater has experienced a stock market-like decline, and we need our own spiritual bailout. We’ve lost some great performers, like Richard Waugh, Glen Mazen, Anthony Lee, and recently Douglas Paasch. I am confident that their spirits will band together at the foot of Queen Anne with giant jumper-cables to charge the scene and wake-up Prometheus. Theater started out as religious experience, and if it’s dead or dying, it might as well go out with a vengeance. And let it rip.


Anonymous said...

Incredible interview! Incredible man.


Paul Pauper

Anonymous said...

Hey Sean-John, explains alot of what you can sense,feel, and smell in Seattle arts. You want to say at times it is bitter sweet. Blind Spot opens the eyes, and senses. Great insight on what was, is, and to be. see ya around my friend. Don Romine [PA]

jcprud said...

Sean John, I remember your performances at the New City Late Nights. Particularly, I remember when you came out as the Earth, with a silver balloon attached as the moon, and you rotated so slowly, and then you fell over, and Anthony Lee came and picked you up. Then I got to work with you a couple of times. Watching you work, was education for me, and I thank you.

With love, Julia Prud'homme (Los Angeles)