It’s about time: Satori Group stages ‘We Remain Prepared’ in decommissioned steam plant
By Brendan Kiley
Seattle Times staff
It begins on a swath of grass, with between 30 and 40 audience members standing between the massive, decommissioned Georgetown Steam Plant and a hurricane fence separating them from Boeing Field.
While airplanes roar overhead, a few people in hard hats carry around wooden trays with cups of beer. The play’s directors, Caitlin Sullivan and Jess K. Smith, explain a few guidelines: The steam plant is an old building, the floors and staircases are uneven, we should be careful.
Then two huge wooden doors swing open.
And we’re in — ushered through the looking-glass of normal life into the world of “We Remain Prepared,” where the audience follows three steam-plant workers around the enormous building, full of valves and gauges and turbines and tools, while they maintain the obsolete plant and figure out ways to fill their spare time.
Foreman Powell (the sonorous actor Charles Leggett, whose voice echoes gorgeously off the steam plant’s concrete walls) plays harmonica and blues records in his office — though you’ll have to navigate some staircases to get there. Engineer Gray (Carol Louise Thompson) is an eager young worker who wants to know everything about everything but also spends hours assembling magazine-photo collages and fairy tales about the people in them. And engineer Kimmel (Brandon J. Simmons) is a quiet neurotic who knows every gear and gadget in the plant but also thinks it’s the lair of a dragon.
This is where “We Remain Prepared”— co-produced by the Satori Group and ARTBARN— gets interesting. “Today is all days, but especially today!” foreman Powell announces at the beginning of the play, as his voice bounces around walls, and the audience stands just a few feet from the actors, everybody dwarfed by the real-life turbines that were installed there between 1906 and 1907.
Is today actually today? Or are we stuck, with them, in a never-ending industrial purgatory?
The actors recite a chant about efficiency — the plant was designed by Frank Gilbreth, whose wife, Lillian, specialized in industrial efficiency, and briefly appears in the play (Amber Wolfe) — and then get to work. The audience follows them as they tighten nuts, look at gauges and enact the actions of the steam plant by contorting their arms, as if their bodies were the gears and pumps.
This choreography by Alice Gosti, repeated several times in “Prepared,” is especially sweet and sad, and gets to the heart of the play: The workers care so much about the work, but the work doesn’t love them back. They’re all cogs, and want to be the best cogs possible, but it doesn’t matter. Technology and capitalism, “Prepared” argues, are steamrollers that don’t care about the cogs. They’ll roll with us, they’ll roll without us, and they’ll roll over us when it’s convenient. But we fill the in-between times — the “happiness minutes,” as Ms. Gilbreth puts it in “Prepared” — with collages and harmonicas and dragons.
Is that a sustainable way to deal with alienation and labor? “Prepared” doesn’t answer that question directly, but it ends on a note of hope (minor spoiler alert here).
After 90 minutes of chasing characters up and down staircases, around towering turbines and into a coal-firing room that feels like an oversized crematorium, the doors to the steam plant open. There is fresh air that doesn’t smell like machine grease, that swath of grass where we started and those real-life planes from Boeing Field flying overhead. The immersiveness of this play about industry and how we deal with it spills into real life.
“Prepared” is based on the actual history of the plant: It was finished in 1907, made technologically obsolete by the 1920s (once Seattle realized hydropower was its electrical future), then staffed by a skeleton crew who maintained it as a backup to the power grid until the 1970s, when the plant was decommissioned.
On the night I attended, I saw several people tearing up at what seemed to be innocuous moments, when workers were drinking tea or comforting each other during nightmares. “Prepared” isn’t just about three people trying to do their best in the midst of entropy and obsolescence. It resonates with the collapse and shock all around us — in industry, finance, universities, the newspaper industry and beyond.
“We Remain Prepared” isn’t just about three marooned power-plant workers. It’s about you and me and everyone we know.
Brendan Kiley: 206-464-2507 or email@example.com. On Twitter @brendankiley
‘We Remain Prepared’
by Satori Group and ARTBARN, through June 25 at the Georgetown Steam Plant, 6605 13th Ave. S., Seattle; $20-$30 (800-838-3006 or weremainprepared.bpt.me).