Seattle playwright Keri Healey often draws her inspiration from specific locales for her projects. She’s one of three writers who contributed to Aisle 9, a tale of romantic entanglement set in an iconic Wallingford grocery story that premiered this week at the Seattle Fringe Festival. The award-winning writer also has set plays in suburban superstores.
For Auburn’s Mary Olsen Farm, she crafted a site-specific piece about robbers, hostages, and media frenzy based on actual events that took place there a century ago.
Following a successful premiere last year, Gentleman Desperado returns to the farm from Sept. 21 through Sept. 29.
Healey recently discussed how this “outdoor environmental theatrical experience” began.
How did you become involved with 4Culture and the Mary Olsen Farm?
I had previously done another site-specific project with 4Culture's support -- a cycle of short plays that took place inside the showrooms at IKEA in Rention -- and Charlie Rathbun at 4Culture called me to say that they were interested in trying to get some sort of project done at the Mary Olson Farm. His colleague, Eric Taylor, who works in the agency's heritage division, sent me a news article about a hostage-taking that took place at the farm a century ago. That's when I began to see some theatrical possibilities.
Who was Harry Tracy and why does his story work as a play?
Harry Tracy was a notorious bank and train robber who cut a bloody swath through the West in the late 1890s and early 1900s. He was finally jailed in Oregon for a few years but then busted out -- with his partner in crime, David Merrill -- thus beginning a killing spree as they tried to evade police across Oregon and Washington. That's when our play begins, after they break out of prison and make their way to Auburn.
It sounds like something that would have made a great John Ford movie.
His story has all the elements that a playwright could want -- built-in dramatic tension, racing against a ticking clock as people are coming after him, the conflicts and betrayals that happen between Tracy and Merrill, and so forth. But the play doesn't focus solely on the criminals. We wanted this play to speak for their victims as well, particularly the Olson/Johnson family members who were taken hostage on this site. So their are quite a few smaller stories within the larger tale.
What does being "site-specific" bring to Gentleman Desperado?
In my opinion, being "site-specific" means that whatever is created -- whether it's a play or a sculpture or a dance -- belongs in that space and to that space. It can't be transferred to any other space without losing some of its meaning or emotional significance. When people are watching our show, one of the things I hope they are experiencing is the realization that the events they are seeing portrayed really happened...right on the same soil they are walking on. Our characters are based on real human beings who faced danger.
It's a bit hard to think of Auburn as being part of the Wild West!
The Mary Olson Farm is such a peaceful and lush and lovely place, and when you realize that a shocking and terrifying event once occurred there, my hope is that you think about how it might feel if this happened to you, on your land, to your family. The media so often focuses on the dangers of "the big bad city" and I think many people are a little shocked to learn that an event like this could happen in such a bucolic, rural, presumably "safe" setting.
What else do you think the audience will be surprised to learn?
One of the things that I was surprised (and tickled!) to learn about when we were researching this story was just how sensational the media's response to Harry Tracy was. He became what we would refer to today as a cult figure, a pop cultural sensation for a while. Newspaper reporters rode around on horses with the posse men and lawmen who chased Tracy and each day would report on his suspected whereabouts. Comic books were created about Harry Tracy. Some of the people he took hostage and released were not only interviewed in the papers the next day, but one was even featured as a celebrity at a local department store. People were starstruck by this man despite his bad deeds and the media only built him up into a bigger star. I think audiences will be surprised to learn that this sort of sensational journalism is not a modern invention -- it's how advertising's been sold for more than a hundred years!
So what’s your next project?
I am writing another play now called T.B.I (Traumatic Brain Injury). It's based on the experiences of troops returning from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and trying to re-enter society here. It's also about the challenges that their families face in trying to reconnect with them after the experience of war. It'll probably be another year or so before that goes into production, most likely in Seattle, although I am not yet sure which theater we'll be working with.
For more information on Gentleman Desperado, including performance times in September at the Mary Olsen Farm, see the website.