Spring Arts: Keyed to the City

Novice Seattle playwright Sonya Schneider finds a mainstage showcase for big ideas at Intiman.

It’s rare to see local playwrights get their work produced on a Seattle mainstage—and even rarer if that local playwright wasn’t already famous and established before arriving here. And yet, there on the Intiman 2010 schedule is a brand-new play, one still being written by its virtually unknown author: a 31-year-old Washington Park resident named Sonya Schneider.

The Thin Place, set to open in May, takes its title from Celtic spiritual tradition. In certain wild landscapes, the divide between the Earth and the great beyond is said to be collapsed, and there we can have a closer experience of the divine or otherworldly. Schneider’s play will explore ways in which people metaphorically arrive at that place (or what the existentialists called “boundary situations”)—often through an event that’s painful, shocking, or mysterious. It’s a story, Schneider says, of “people wrestling with, and coming to, faith.”

Her source material will be true and of local origin. KUOW’s Marcie Sillman has recorded more than a dozen interviews with people in and around Seattle who’ve had such experiences. They include a survivor of the 2006 Jewish Federation shooting and a Cambodian man who was imprisoned in Vietnam after the war. Says Schneider, sitting over coffee at Stella Caffé downtown, “It’s surprisingly easy to find people with these stories in a place we often call a godless city.”

Her task, she adds, is to “thread these stories into a larger web.” In keeping with the new austerity of local theater, the play will have a cast of one (Gbenga Akinnagbe, best known for his work on The Wire). Schneider says she will be taking a single character from her imagination, someone who is himself undergoing a crisis, and will have him “try on these different stories” that people have offered him in order to help him get through his own trauma.

“I’m still working it out,” she says. The biggest challenge, she notes, is staying “loyal” to the recorded narratives while still creating a dramatic piece: “How do I bring my voice to this and create a through-line?”

As only the second show in the debut season of Intiman’s new artistic director, Kate Whoriskey, Schneider’s script will be getting an extremely high-profile showcase. It’s an unlikely development for a playwright whose only previous production was 2008’s Wake at Capitol Hill’s Little Theatre. Schneider and her husband (a venture capitalist at Paul Allen’s firm, Vulcan) produced that show themselves with another couple, and it “went OK,” she recalls. “The critical reception was extremely mixed.” Nonetheless, they were able to sell out the 49-seat venue two weekends running.

But while Schneider may not have a long production history, she is very much a familiar face at Intiman. She started there as an intern shortly after moving to Seattle seven years ago. Eventually she became “literally Bart’s assistant,” she says, referring to Bartlett Sher, the celebrated director who just ended a 10-season career as Intiman’s artistic head. She would do everything from “booking travel to setting up auditions, and eventually began dramaturg-ing some plays,” says Schneider, who speaks in the clear and measured cadence that’s an interviewer’s dream. “But I always knew I wanted to be on the other side.”

She was tapped for The Thin Place by Andrew Russell, a young director who worked alongside Whoriskey in New York, and who is coming to join her on the Intiman staff this spring. It was Russell who first conceived the play after hearing a segment on This American Life in which Dan Savage recounted how the loss of his mother affected him and his views of religion.

Russell and Whoriskey “were interested in creating something unlikely that would bring in the local community,” Schneider says—and a theatrical piece about confronting faith, here in the most famously “unchurched” part of the country, seemed like a way to do it. Intiman also wanted to use “a local voice,” says Schneider, “someone relatively new.” Indeed Whoriskey’s priorities, according to Intiman, include “a commitment to exciting early-career artists.” Says Schneider: “Andrew and I talked, and it seemed like a good fit.”

She turned in her first draft just a day after our recent chat. The show will be workshopped in March. She’ll have another month to write. And then it’s into rehearsal.

So what’s this boundary situation like for Schneider? “I feel very, very lucky,” she says. “And like I better not fuck it up.”