For the past dozen years, local actor Kevin Joyce has specialized in a particular sort of character: the slightly sinister emcee. That's not to say he hasn't created a wide range of other parts. As one of the founding members of Vashon's UMO Ensemble, he's played otherworldly characters of every particular stripe, from a gargoylish buffoon to a fairy-tale king. But it was the Charmer, a friendly man with an occasionally sinister side, that made his solo show at ACT, A Pale and Lovely Place, so intriguing a decade ago. And there were echoes of this character in the more flamboyant emcees he created for Teatro ZinZanni, including Mr. Z. and Maître d' Demonio. These characters welcome you with friendly eyes and wide, white smiles, but you aren't entirely sure that they mean you well. Their hospitality, you expect, comes at a price.
Now Joyce is hosting again, but it's a television show called Big Night Out, and this time he's plain old Kevin Joyce, without any of that scary, smiling subtext. (More or less.) He made this decision based on lessons learned during an ill-fated television pilot called Survival Skills a few years ago. "I had a host based on the Charmer for that show, and the reaction I got was that people would kind of recoil. It just didn't translate to television," he admits. "With this show, there's no need for such theatricality. There's so much going on that I don't have to do as much."
Big Night Out is one of the programs in the Seattle Channel's Art Zone project, a series of 12 hours of weekly arts programming funded by a grant from Comcast. It's a new experiment in one of the oldest of television formats: the variety show. Joyce, the producer, uses some of his friends but has also tried to open up his own idea of what's entertainment. "Once you do that, you're aware of things you never were before. A high-school mariachi band? There is one? Of course we want to have it! Performance poetry? You bet! These are things that are happening in high-school pep rallies or in small music venues or fringe theaters, where their exposure to the larger culture is minimal. I want to change that."
The monthly production is shot live to tape at the Columbia City Theater and shown throughout the following month (check www.seattlechannel.org for air times and Web archives). The first six months have featured everything from aerial acts to stand-up comedy, Cuban dance to magicians and hypnotists.
The October edition that I attended featured a monologue from Seattle solo genius Matt Smith, an Iranian music duo, Tenko drumming, a magic act, and a brief quiz show with members of the audience. Acts that can be a bit much to take for a full evening's entertainment, such as Scot Auguston's Sgt. Rigsby and his Amazing Silhouettes, shine as slight and amiable turns.
The Seattle Channel isn't beholden to advertisers, sponsors, or Nielsen ratings, and Joyce admits that it's hard to judge its success. "Really, like any live show, I have to go on what it feels like in the house. I think that's what translates to television." Whether or not that's true, I have to say that as a live-theater junkie, I'll be making the trek to Columbia City again. Shows this fun are almost too good for TV.John Longenbaugh