Teresa Thuman was an experienced theater artist in her mid-40s when she arrived here in 2001, fresh from Portland. She quickly found that Seattle is a great theater town if you’re working. If you’re not, it can be hellish. “Demoralizing, and you feel a little lost,” she says.
She found work as a teacher in actor training programs, but the directing opportunities she sought failed to materialize, so she decided to produce her own work.
“Actors who struggle and can’t find work do one-act plays. Directors, they start companies,” explains fellow theater artist Valerie Curtis-Newton of the University of Washington School of Drama and the founding artistic director for The Hansberry Project, a theater laboratory with a focus on the African-American perspective.
In 2006, Thuman birthed the Sound Theatre Company, its moniker reflecting Puget Sound as well as the aural nature of language and music. She also envisioned experimenting, which Sound Theatre did right from the start by staging a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in an unusual venue: on Lake Sammamish.
“I had a friend who had written some plays set in a pool, and it seemed like a logical thing,” says the affable Thuman. Photos from that inaugural production show actors on a ship and immersed in the water throwing a beach ball. One actor is in flippers and goggles arriving on shore. “I wanted to shake things up, not do just another Shakespeare in a park, but do it on the water, and I figured something fun would happen.” The company did six free shows for a total audience of about 600.
Shaking up Shakespeare was just the start for Thuman, who faced an eye-opening moment years ago while she was considering whose works she gravitated toward and she realized they were all written by white men: Shakespeare, Stoppard, Shaw. “I’d left out culture. I’d left out diversity,” Thuman says, who credits her daughter, a teenager and social activist at the time, for helping her to see more clearly through the “lens of racial equity.” Thuman vowed to do better, including bringing more diverse theater artists into the fold.
Fast-forward 11 years. In local drama circles, Sound Theatre is now highly esteemed as a tiny and mighty theater company that delivers exceptional and exciting works. Twice it’s nabbed the celebrated local Gregory Award for Theatre of the Year (in 2014 and in 2016). The company has won 12 Gregory Awards in total, including the People’s Choice Award for Best Director, which went to Thuman for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, produced in 2016.
Sound, an itinerant theater company without a dedicated performing space—which is common in Seattle—is also gaining traction as a group that consistently puts women and artists of color front and center on stage and behind the curtain.
This year, Sound Theatre is devoting its entire three-production season to amplifying the female voice. Each play has been written by a woman (Nadeshiko by Keiko Green; Hoodoo Love by Katori Hall; and Goblin Market by Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon, adapted from the poem by Christina Rossetti), and is being directed by a woman (Kaytlin McIntyre, Malika Oyetimein and Thuman herself, respectively). The themes within Sound Theatre’s “Amplify” season also focus on women: two generations of Japanese women in Nadeshiko; a love story about a black female blues singer in Hoodoo Love; and an ambiguous, possibly taboo relationship between two sisters in Goblin Market.
“I’d like to think we’re risk takers and we have a social justice awareness,” Thuman says of her company, whose mission is to both empower artists and to create theater “that makes you think.”
“She’s been especially a champion of artists of color. So many people have had a chance to work on her stages,” says Curtis-Newton, whose Hansberry Project was a coproducer of Sound Theatre’s July production of Hoodoo Love.
For Goblin Market, which opens this month, Thuman is upending the notion that fictional sisters need to look like one another. Her cast includes white, Asian and Asian-American artists and she’ll cast the siblings across race.
She also has plans for Sound Theatre to continue the conversation about diversity and representation by including artists with disabilities. “When we talk about love and romance, we just assume it’s a story about a beautiful young white woman falling in love with a young white man. Able-bodied. Height and weight proportional,” says Thuman. Having physical limitations is something she knows all too well: Thuman has mobility issues and uses canes. Expect this artistic director to keep positioning her Sound Theatre Company as a theater group to watch.
Times and prices vary. Seattle Center, 305 Harrison St.; 206.216.0833; soundtheatrecompany.org