'Let it be joyful'

Katie Kowalski, arts@ptleader.com
Posted 4/4/17

Connor Zaft laughs as he tells the story of how he ended up in Port Townsend for a whirlwind of a year that’s culminated in his direction of Key City Public Theatre’s (KCPT) 2017 season opener. …

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'Let it be joyful'

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Connor Zaft laughs as he tells the story of how he ended up in Port Townsend for a whirlwind of a year that’s culminated in his direction of Key City Public Theatre’s (KCPT) 2017 season opener. That production opens Thursday, five days before he leaves for New York City on his next adventure.

Zaft got a cold call one day from KCPT artistic director Denise Winter, who asked if he’d be interested in applying for an artistic apprentice position at the theater.

“My first thought – that I didn’t say – was, ‘Where the hell is that?’” Zaft recalled.

Winter sought out the Cornish College of the Arts graduate based on a recommendation by Duncan Frost, a KCPT director who’d seen a play that Zaft directed at Cornish.

“Without even a hesitation, [Frost] said: ‘You should call this guy,’” recalled Winter.

A week later, Zaft showed up for an interview, planning on allowing himself 24 hours to decide if he would accept the position once offered.

It only took a moment.

“There was just something in my gut that said, ‘Do it,’” Zaft said. “And I tend to listen to my gut.

“I took the job right there.”

KEEN TO LEARN

Zaft came to Port Townsend brimming with confidence, Winter said.

“There’s a cockiness you have after college,” she said, laughing, emphasizing it’s something a good artist had better have.

“You want them to be super confident” she said. “There’s an arch that happens, though, when you realize, ‘Oh, the job is bigger than me’: Suddenly, he was hit with all the things he didn’t know.”

Zaft had first encountered the stage as a child, after his mother had become a bit tired of him following her around on days off from school, making up stories and talking about imaginary worlds. She signed him up for a community theater kids’ show.

“I just remember the feeling of being on a stage – I was just fascinated immediately,” he said.

The place felt like an empty box, like a painter’s blank canvas, he said. It was full of possibility.

“It’s empty, it’s nothing – you can make it whatever you want.”

In high school, that place often became somewhere to just hang out. (“Even if I wasn’t called to rehearsal that day, I’d just be there,” he said.) At Cornish College of the Arts, the stage was where he began to explore his interest in directing.

On the Key City Public Theatre stage, Zaft learned to both embrace his instincts and confront everything he didn’t know.

“Every new project was a new challenge, and I had to keep stepping up and working harder. It wasn’t easy, but it was rewarding.”

As Zaft came to understand and appreciate the depth of the role of an artistic director – discovering along the way things he’d never before contemplated; sharpening the areas in which he had shortcomings – he began to refine his approach.

Aware that he often relies on instinct and intuition when directing, he devoted hours to preparation; planning for what he wanted to see on stage and developing a solid foundation.

“If you’re a director like me – and you work really intuitively – then it behooves you even further to have very, very specific preparation and plans and goals in mind,” he said. “Every show that I’ve done has pushed me to get closer to a very clear, concise explainable vision,” he said.

From the start, Winter said, Zaft’s commitment to bettering his work never faltered. “All along the way, he would look for the learning opportunities,” she said.

The shows that Zaft directed formed the backbone of the theater’s award-winning season, Winter said: He made his directorial debut with “Shipwrecked” in June, and in the fall, directed “4,000 Miles.” He also acted (“when they let me,” he joked) – appearing in the “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and coached teens in KCPT’s educational programs.

TO TELL THE TRUTH

While the demands of a job in an industry that Zaft said is “totally thankless” have led to self-doubt and questioning, it’s a desire to tell the truth through storytelling that brings him back to the stage, again and again and again.

“It’s this constantly amorphous, shifting search to tell the truth in the most interesting and compelling way possible,” Zaft said. And, it’s a way to explore many truths: “Truth is subjective; it’s nebulous, it’s never one thing – it is always multiple things,” he said.

The concept that truth is subjective is at the very heart of “An Enemy of the People,” the Henrik Ibsen play that Zaft is directing to kick off the theater’s 2017 season, and to end his year in Port Townsend.

Zaft said there’s always pressure to start off the season with a bang – perhaps more so following the last election season. “We were so frazzled by the sheer chaos of it all; we had to respond to it,” he said.

“Denise had been eyeing Ibsen for some time, specifically this play,” Zaft said. “To quote her, she was sort of waiting for the right person to helm it.”

Zaft was the right person, and 2017 was the right year.

“This is exactly what people need to hear right now,” Zaft said of the 1802 play. Winter echoes him: “This is so relevant.”

“For me, the play deals with the balancing of power,” Zaft said. “A lot of the tension in the play comes from the transparency, or lack thereof, that comes with the power.”

Winter said the play involves a situation in which a community is torn over an issue that impacts everyone. “What’s so great about it for me is that it does not present one view,” she said, noting that the play also focuses on news and newspapers, and how it’s decided what news is disseminated to the people.

Zaft took a translation by R. Farquharson Sharp and whittled the play to the leanest version he could – toning down the 19th-century Europeanism. (There was a lot of cutting of “by Jove” and “devil take it,” he said).

“I think people are more ready to respond to things when they’re allowed to imprint their own meanings and symbolism,” Zaft said.

“It’s the poetry of it; people will attach their own meaning to [the play].”

“I hope,” he added, “fingers crossed.”

PLAY

Zaft is now onto the next “stage” of his theater career, attending a three-week developmental program for emerging directors in New York City – Lincoln Center’s Directors Lab – that each year is centered around a theme.

Aptly, this year’s theme is “making theater in times of change.”

As to what will happen after that? “Get a job,” he said, laughing.

And of course, keep having fun – because having fun is at the heart of what Zaft does. “They call it play for a reason,” he said.

“I think people look at ‘entertainment’ and think of it as glamorous. There’s little glamour, but a lot of joy.”

And Zaft is constantly aware of finding that joy.

“Let it be joyful” he tells himself. “There is joy in this, no matter what.”

(Editor’s note: The writer of this story is involved with the production of “An Enemy of the People” as assistant stage manager.)

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