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Theater company hopes to rework Gilbert & Sullivan by ‘challenging the canon’

Actress Ivy Zhou applies makeup in preparation for her role as Chloe in the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society production of "Princess Ida."
Courtesy of Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society
Actress Ivy Zhou applies makeup in preparation for her role as Chloe in the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society production of "Princess Ida."


The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society is staging the operetta "Princess Ida" this month. The show debuted in 1884, but this production has a fresh take, in part because of controversy the theater company faced over a different production five years ago.



In 2014, Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan staged "The Mikado." It’s set in Japan, and the original version contains racial caricatures — so productions often come under fire for hurtful portrayals and perpetuating Asian stereotypes.


When Seattle staged the show, they did so with a mostly white cast, which prompted backlash from the community — including a column by Sharon Pian Chan in The Seattle Times that led to international press attention. Chan called the Seattle production “yellowface, in your face.”


“I don’t want to understate at all the offensiveness that was represented in our production,” said Catherine Weatbrook, president of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society board. “We are still brought up as how not to do ['The Mikado'].”


She was not on the board when "The Mikado" went on stage. In fact, she’s part of a big turnover in leadership in the group’s board and staff. Weatbrook says the group failed at the time to adequately address the concerns in the community. And with new leadership, she says, they’re looking inward and trying to change the way Gilbert & Sullivan’s revered — but also problematic — works are presented.


So now the Society is undertaking an effort it calls “Challenging the Canon,” an attempt to rework Gilbert & Sullivan.


“The idea is to systematically go through these pieces,” Weatbrook said, “and update them to make them socially relevant and responsible.”


This month’s production of "Princess Ida" is one part of that effort. Originally written during the Victorian era in England to lampoon feminism and women’s education, it’s been reworked into a story of people seeing the inherent value in each other.


“It’s not us and them, and it shouldn’t be us and them,” said director Crystal Dawn Munkers. “And the solution to misogyny is not misandry. The solution is open-mindedness versus stagnancy. It is tolerance versus enmity.”


Munkers said she and Weatbrook, along with other Gilbert & Sullivan Society staff, actively worked to recruit actors and diversify the cast. Weatbrook says the work is hard, ongoing, and “so worth it.”


“We have to have these conversations,” Munkers said. “That’s what art is. It’s finding a way to get us talking, and sometimes the conversations are not easy. But they need to be had, and it’s how we progress.”


"Princess Ida" is on stage at the Bagley Wright Theatre in Seattle through July 28.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.