In the Trenches: Meet Reader Rik Deskin

by Rob Weinert-Kendt

in In the Trenches

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Today we’ve decided to turn the tables a bit and focus on one of our faithful Facebook, Twitter and blog followers. The TCG Circle proudly introduces -> Rik Deskin

Rik Deskin wasn’t born in Seattle, but there’s no question that the Emerald City is his hometown now. An actor from Ohio, raised mostly in Northern Kentucky, Deskin moved to Seattle with his wife, an actor and director, in 1994, when the national profile of the city on the Puget Sound was clearly on the ascent: It wasn’t just the city of Starbucks and Frasier and Nirvana and the dotcom boom (it would only be labeled a “bubble” later, after it burst). It also happened to be a city with one of most vibrant theatre scenes in the nation, with proportionally more Equity houses per capita than many other major cities in the U.S.

There was not only the seemingly unshakeable triumvirate of Seattle Rep, Intiman and A Contemporary Theatre but such mainstays as the 5th Avenue Musical Theatre, Empty Space, the Annex, the Group, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Teatro ZinZanni, Theater Schmeater and Printer’s Devil, among others. Though some of those theatres have either folded, faded or otherwise struggled (Empty Space and the Group are gone, as is the beloved Seattle Fringe festival, and even ACT teetered on the brink for a while a few years back), the rest are still going concerns, and the Seattle scene is still as lively and bustling as the hipster Capitol Hill neighborhood where Deskin runs the Eclectic Theater Company out of a performance space called Odd Duck Studio.

Things are more than just status quo, Deskin says—he thinks they’re looking up.

“We’re starting to see some recovery,” says Deskin, a frequent commenter on American Theatre Facebook page. “There’s an extraordinary amount of original work being developed here, and a lot more plays are being exported from Seattle.”

Is there a distinct Seattle sensibility, akin to the kind of “Chicago aesthetic” that’s often talked about in theatre circles?

“I think there is a Seattle style that’s developing,” Deskin says, pointing to a local playwright Paul Mullin (Louis Slotin Sonata, Grendel, The Ten Thousand Things) with strong local roots. “Paul is really kind of commanding this new perception of what Seattle theatre is. Some of the rest of us in that boat see the potential, and great work is happening here.”

One outlet for this energy, Deskin says, is the Sandbox Artists Collective, a group of mid-career theatre artists who gather under the auspices of Freehold Theatre Lab to try out new material with each other.

But what is this Seattle style like? Deskin points to a 2005 independent film called Police Beat, about a police detective from West Africa more concerned with his personal life than with his job policing the streets of Seattle. “That film has a taste of it—the quirky, haunting Seattle we’re used to.” In Mullin’s writing, too, Deskin notes an interest in science and technology, a natural fit for a certain segment of Seattle’s tech-oriented audiences.

Seattle audiences are also interested in politics: Currently running at the Eclectic is Therese Diekhans’ solo show about American labor icon Mother Jones, The Most Dangerous Woman in America. But it was last fall that the company reached what Deskin recalls as a personal career high: Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with himself and his wife, Kim Deskin, in the leading roles.

“It was great to have that experience,” beams Deskin, citing another real-life Seattle acting couple, Hans Altweis and Amy Thone, who have paired off before in Shakespeare. “It was a little crazy—there was some hesitation—but we got through it. It was probably one of our finer productions.” Next up: His wife Kim will direct him as Petruchio, but not act as Kate, in The Taming of the Shrew. “We don’t usually do classics,” Deskin insists, but he’s got a plausible rationale for any programming choice in his three-show season: His theatre company is called “Eclectic,” after all.

Deskin is a Seattle booster for practical reasons as much as personal ones: “I got all three of my union cards up here,” he says, mentioning that the indie film community and computer game studios hire actors in both union and non-union settings. “I always advise actors to get their cards before they go to New York or L.A. Seattle is still a great place to get grounded and get some good training.”

But Deskin, who trained at Cornish College of the Arts and at the University of Washington, says that the flip side of Seattle’s “start-up” reputation is a tendency to view it as second-rate.

“If you ask someone inside the Seattle scene, sometimes there’s a kind of provincial attitude—sometimes they have less of a regard for the work we’re doing, even though there’s a lot of great work here,” Deskin says. “People sometimes don’t look at it in comparison with the Chicago or New York scene. Within Seattle, they undervalue it.”

This sounds like an odd kind of provincialism, but one aspect of it has a familiar ring: that, while Deskin says that relationships between the town’s big and small theatres is improving, there’s still a tendency at the Equity houses look beyond Seattle for talent. Deskin is a case in point: Though he’s stage-managed at Seattle’s LORT theatres, he says, “I’ve yet to crack the big houses [as an actor]. It’s a little bit of a frustration—there are roles I know they should be reading me for. I’ve had several good reviews, and they certainly know me. It’s a matter of the right role.”

He isn’t giving up any time soon, though. “I’m very invested in the local theatre and independent film community.” And when Deskin adds, referring to his wife’s Seattle roots, “I think it’s family that keeps me here more than anything,” he might just as well be referring to roots he’s put down in Seattle’s extended theatrical family.

-Rob

Rob Weinert-Kendt is associate editor of American Theatre magazine. He also co-runs the site StageGrade.com and is father to a strapping infant named Oliver.