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Musical revival explores artist's dilemna

STAGERight brings A New Brain to Seattle in May.
STAGERight brings A New Brain to Seattle in May.
Justin Carrell (Roger) and Daniel Stoltenberg (Gordon) Photo by Galen Wicks

While an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) may not seem like the perfect subject for a musical evening out, local actress and director Zandi Carlson fell in love with William Finn’s reaction to his own surgery for this life-threatening condition.

The 1998 musical “A New Brain” follows the hospitalized hero Gordon (who Finn modeled on his own experiences) as he contemplates both death and, to him, the more important loss of the songs unwritten.

Carlson picked “New Brain” for Seattle company STAGERight after previously appearing there as Willi in “The Firebugs,” in “If Only: A Self-Indulgent Cabaret,” and in the downSTAGEright New Works Slingshot Series. Carlson also has appeared with Seattle Shakespeare Company and New Sound Theatre, among others.

With the show opening tonight (May 2), she discussed why this small musical carries a big message.

It seems like more experimental and smaller musicals are being presented in Seattle recently. What drives this trend?
I think there is a surge with theater artists to find ways to produce their own work, or to find producers to support the work that excites them. I know lots of artists who have obscure plays that they love, which larger companies might not be willing to produce. These are shows that are clever, smart, and risky, and Seattle audiences seem to eat them up!

Why did you want to direct “A New Brain”?
I feel in love with “A New Brain” over ten years ago. I relate to the story on so many levels. On one hand, it’s a story about an artist trying to find the balance between a paycheck and making art. It’s a story about change and transformation—and I’ve had lots of that in the past few years. It’s also a story about coping with disease and fear of death. I lost my mother to ovarian cancer six years ago, and have experienced loss and the struggle of illness more than I would like. I’ve learned that everyone deals with that loss in different ways—which you can see in the characters in the play. But I also have learned how important humor is when dealing with these big life challenges. “A New Brain” has so much humor and love in it. Plus the music is fantastic.

You've been very busy around the Puget Sound since returning here after getting your BFA at Oklahoma City University. What trends have you seen developing in the last five years?
I’m so happy to have returned to Seattle, especially at this time in the theater community! I think the trends I see are the many new companies cropping up who are producing the work they want to do, rather than making assumptions of what audiences want to see. From large to small, when companies produce work they are passionate about, the energy is palpable.

How have these changes impacted your career?
Like Gordon, the central character in “A New Brain,” I struggle with finding the perfect balance of all the work I do, juggling being a teaching artist, actor, and director and not being able to do everything at once! With this being my directorial debut in Seattle, I feel a responsibility to STAGEright and my actors for this show to be amazing. That is a personal pressure I put on myself. On a positive note, I’m thrilled to have this opportunity, and know that there are so many places for emerging theatre artists to get in at the ground level. It’s a great time to try new things and grow as an artist with the support of a company like STAGEright.

What do you want to do next?
I would love to do more classical theater. But I also did a new works play reading festival with downSTAGEright, STAGEright’s fringe-on-fringe committee and that was really exciting. I will be directing “The Long Road” for Arouet next February, and I may have a few more projects announced soon. Ultimately, I just want to continue to do work that challenges me and allows me to grow as an artist.

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“A New Brain” runs May 2 through May 17 at Cornish Black Box, 201 Mercer St. For more information, see Brown Paper Tickets.