Young artist Natalie practicing a short play from the Climate Change Theater Action Festival. Photo credit Katrina Filer.

"Revisiting Joy and Play in Theater": Penguins Kick Off Bonfire Collective

Written by Katrina Filer | October 11th, 2021

On Saturday, October 2 and Sunday, October 3, Penguins met at UHeights for the fall Artistic Retreat, produced in partnership with Seattle Rep. With 10 young artists, Seattle Rep Associate Director of Arts Engagement Alex Reed, Seattle Rep Teaching Artist Sara Albertson, and Penguin’s own Shana Bestock, Annika Prichard, and Anna Klein, we kicked off Bonfire Collective—a season of new works written and led by our youth. 

In just 3 hours on Saturday and 3 hours on Sunday, so much was accomplished! With all the creative energy in the room, this retreat could have gone on much longer, but even in the short time we had, everyone left with new ideas ringing in their brains and a fresh feeling of community. 

The first thing I noticed was the beauty of this old space. My boots clopped around on the creaky wood floors. Huge windows gave it a light, warm feel, and I could see the Saturday farmer’s market bustling below. A deep red curtain finished the look, assuring us that we were finally back home in the theater. “The UHeights auditorium was the perfect combination of urban retreat, open creative space, and theater. It was terribly conducive to all good things,” Penguin’s Producing Artistic Director Shana Bestock said. 

I was there to take photos, predicting I would be a fly on the wall (my usual spot during event photography). I’d circle around, searching for laughing faces and playful moments to capture. Here, there were many—for most Penguin teens, this was the first time they had seen each other since our performance of The Tempest in July. 

It was clear to me that these young people shared that special bond that only artists who co-create with each other truly share—and that bond is timeless, as Shana pointed out: “Good grief – we came together as a group after not having seen each other for 2 months, 6 months, 4 years, only on zoom… Does time matter at all? Or is it really how you frame the space once people are there?”

For a few, it was the first time they had met in person at all. “I discovered that Penguin truly is a family with open arms. I feel like warm chocolate chip cookies inside!” said Kyle Gerstel, who joined the Penguin Advisory Council in January 2021. After the long months of pandemic isolation, everyone was eager to reconnect with other human beings—including myself.

My fly-on-the-wall spot didn’t last long. Shana, Alex, and Sara launched us into games to practice storytelling and character developing, and their energy was infectious. I particularly enjoyed one character game: we folded a piece of paper into 3 sections and began to draw a head on the top. We passed it to a peer and drew a torso. Then, passing it again, we finished with the legs and feet. We named these randomized characters, wrote them a backstory, and formed relationships with each other. Somehow, 3 of these characters ended up with squid tentacles—which made for some amusing slapstick moments when these squid characters were invited to act out a mountain-climbing scenario. 

Alex, Hersc, and Miriam recreate the struggles of a mountain-climbing squid family. Photo credit Katrina Filer.
Stellan and Sadie exchange character drawings. Photo credit Katrina Filer.

We shared hilarious moments, while simultaneously expanding our theatrical toolboxes with storytelling skills. It was hard to leave that day, feeling like our work had only just begun—but Penguins left with a job to do: come back with something you want to accomplish tomorrow. 

And they did. The second day, real magic started to happen. One young artist brought in a script they wrote the night before: a ghost story about fall and seasonal depression. Another artist brought in an emotional WWI story he had written several years ago, hoping to revitalize it. We also had a collection of short plays from the global Climate Change Theater Action Festival (CCTA) for artists who wanted to work with script analysis and directing technique. 

As I wandered around looking for photo opportunities, I spotted creativity in action around every corner. Teens sat on the floor, fleshing out characters and settings for new scripts. New directors emerged, gracefully taking charge and bringing out the best in their actors—and they enjoyed it! “I had so much fun watching different people’s interpretations of the text and finding my own, and I loved directing for the first time!” one artist reflected. 

I saw mentors there to support, but not overtake. Kyle, who will assistant direct alongside Annika Prichard for our fall production of Metamorphoses, articulated this dynamic: “Annika sat down next to me and helped me and helped me coach the actors in a way that felt hands-on without ‘stealing’ the opportunity from us.” They both sat on a bench next to the WWI script writer, Stellan Rude—all three experimenting with different ways to interpret the scene. 

Hersc and Eloise rehearse Adrian's script. Photo credit Katrina Filer.
Annika and Kyle give actors notes on Stellan's WWI script. Photo credit Katrina Filer.

When young artists are given the freedom and space to explore what they want, they step outside their comfort zone and create—and I was amazed at the results! To conclude the retreat, everyone shared their accomplishments from the last two hours. As director Sadie Gingold described it, “It was revisiting joy and play in theater.” 

It’s no surprise that as we circled up one last time to give feedback and brainstorm future programming, the artists were in overwhelming agreement: host more artistic retreats! This retreat was a success, and Shana agrees: “It was wonderful, thrillingly warm and invigorating, and tremendously successful on so many fronts. I felt some of the most proud, engaged, centered, and like myself (both as in being myself, and enjoying myself) feelings than I have in 2 years. I think the majority of students felt the same!”

I found myself nostalgic for the theater community from my high school days, when I was a supporting pit orchestra member. In no other form of art but theater do I see such a collection of artists, completely unified under one goal and completely reliant on each other’s diverse talents. I was inspired by the artists at this retreat, and their willingness to step out of their comfort zone and into unfamiliar roles. They jumped into each other’s personal projects and gave them life. It was hard to leave that space full of creative energy and welcoming warmth at the end of the day. Thankfully, this is just the beginning!

Penguin’s Writer’s Cohort meets Sundays through December, and Seattle Rep’s Collective Playwriting meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Members of each cohort are welcome to join the other. You don’t have to have been at the Retreat to join the writers! On December 11 and 12, writers will reconvene with directors and actors as we rehearse and perform for a public performance at Seattle Rep. Join us! To read more and register for the Bonfire Collective Writer’s Cohort or New Play Festival, visit our Productions and Performances page

Sara, Annika, and Stellan pose for a freeze-frame scene in a storytelling exercise. Art was made and fun was had! Photo credit Katrina Filer.