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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 28, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 26
Pride Arts Profile: Ian Bell
Arts & Entertainment
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Pride Arts Profile: Ian Bell

By Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

Ian Bell is an actor, a director, and a prolific producer of some of Seattles best-liked evenings: Seattle Confidential and Ian Bells Brown Derby http://www.brownderbyseries.org. Having grown up in Vancouver, Washington, he came up to Seattle around 1994.

Ian describes finding a hot-bed of theater, 'It was crazy. In the next year, I met so many cool people and got so many cool opportunities to work, in something like five or seven different plays. I did all sorts of things, including late nights with The Empty Space Theatre (Chicks with Dicks, Part 2).'

Ian thought of himself mostly in terms of 'serious' stage plays, at that point, though. 'I did Killer Joe at The Empty Space Theater; I played Ansel. I thought the serious stuff was the way I was going. Carlson in Of Mice and Men at The Empty Space was my Equity-joining role.'

A shift in focus, 1995
Ians life was about to shift dramatically (pardon the pun), 'Star Drek the Musical at AHA Theatre had been running for about a year, and they auditioned fill-in cast members. In high school, I had entertained my peers with my five minute Star Trek. I did my five minute episode as my audition where I played three or four different members of Star Trek. I ended up getting cast as Scotty, and then Kirk for a year and went on over a hundred times. Thats when I met most of the people who ended up creating Bald Faced Lie with me.'

The sketch comedy and theater company, Bald Faced Lie, existed from about 1996-2006. 'It was a late-nite sketch comedy scripted performance. It was three guys and three gals and we wrote a 45 minute show of sketches and did musical numbers.

'For the next ten years, we all were doing all sides (of theatrical production): writing, directing, producing, performing. We each had to learn how to do set design, costume design, lighting. It was an immersion into how to do everything.'

Growing up
Ian was born in Vancouver, WA and that meant that he also spent a lot of time in Portland, OR. His father is a neurologist, and mom is a pianist. He has two older brothers. Ian says, 'I always wanted a sister. My mother said I would have been named Heather if I were a girl. I am so glad I'm not Heather Bell. In a Little Bo Peep dress. I wonder if I would have been a Heather like one in the movie. Thank God we'll never find out.

'My parents took me to Ashland, OR. The first (Ashland) show (Shakespeares) A Comedy of Errors&blew my mind. I aspired to be able to do that, it was the gold standard. I even ended up working with a few people I saw on stage in Seattle, later in my life!

'I wrote my first play in 3rd grade and performed it for my class  about Thanksgiving. In 5th and 6th grade, we had a crew that would see something and say to each other, We can do that. So we saw Cabaret and decided to do the opening number. We painted ladders and blew up balloons and totally Fossed it up. We performed it for an all-school assembly!

'My parents drove me to Goodwill stores so I could find costumes for various plays. Even for my 3rd grade Thanksgiving play, I had to find something pilgrim-y. I loved it (the Pilgrim costume) so much, Id wear it to school for the day. My older brothers were so sweet and patient when their friends said, Hey, your brother is running around like a pilgrim.

'I formed a mime troupe after we saw a Marcel Marceau performance and we caught mime fever  a silent killer. (Ba dum bum.) We watched Marceau routines and recreated them.

'In high school, there was a great teacher who didnt dumb down the theatrical presentations (for youth). We did stuff like Shepards Unseen Hand and Dark of the Moon. Things that were being done at ACT Theatre at the same time. It felt cutting edge.

'We had a black box theater at school and wed have Friday nights Coffee House once a month. Serious monologues, humorous sketches, poetry reading, music.'

College years
When Ian attended Bennington, he spent time in New York City or San Francisco in theater internships. Ian describes this as a continuation in his development of collaborative work. 'Ive never been good at creating art in a vacuum. I have to work collaboratively. 99% of what I do, from Seattle Confidential and Brown Derby, is a collaborative thing, either with writers or audience or performers.'

Coming Out or refining his identity
Ians sexuality during college was more non-specific. 'There was a period when I was (also) dating women. In college, the emphasis wasn't on self-definition; you pretty much accepted that you were going to sleep with who you wanted to. With enough beer, everyone was available. Who you fall in love with has nothing to do with what genitals they have. Who you want to sleep with is a completely different thing.

'Until I moved to Seattle, no one asked me, What are you? I was able to say that who I am is a Gay man and its ok to include that in my art. It was kind of a revelation. (Now,) I don't really think of myself as a Gay theater artist. I'm Gay and thats part of everything I do, but its not the reason I create. I always thought about theater first and being Gay second. I want to be known for what I do in theater, not in bed.'

Falling in love with drag
Ian started going to Gay drag bars. 'I met my now husband of fourteen years, Andrew Byrum (Note: they just got legally married last month, again). Around that time, I started going to drag performances.

'This led to my writing Return to the Garden of Allah, which was based on the book An Evening at the Garden of Allah: a Gay cabaret in Seattle (by Don Paulson with Roger Simpson). It was at ReBar, telling some of the stories in the book, but also to show people what drag used to be like in Seattle. We performed some of the numbers and it was an homage to Seattle Gay history. It was also a lot like the sketch comedy I had been doing.'

Developing Brown Derby, 1999-current
Ian describes, 'Andrew read that there was a group of famous actors in New York who got together and read the movie script from The Valley of the Dolls. At the same time, we had the idea that people discount the skill it takes to be a drag queen. People didnt appreciate the acting skills and techniques. I see them as brilliant sophisticated performers.

So the idea was, 'Take local drag queens and read Valley of the Dolls for one night. But we had to have costumes, and & we should probably stand up while were doing this. And the struggle to reproduce this product on stage, which is impossible, was born. Its watching a train wreck. Its an exercise in impossibility, so I progressively pick more and more impossible-to-stage screenplays.'

The next film to be trashed will be Titanic in August. Go here http://www.brownderbyseries.org/ for more information.

Seattle Confidential, 2011  (on hiatus until 2014)
Ian describes how Seattle Confidential got developed. 'During a car trip, I noticed that facing forward, sometimes your conversation becomes more intimate and confidential. And sometimes when you visit and people find out youre visiting, people become more frank and fearless because they knew wed be leaving. I developed a concept of being more intimate and confessional. I liked the idea of people contributing material anonymously, based on a theme and actors would read it. It developed into drop boxes around the city, a web site, and the person next to you in the audience could be the person who wrote this.

Directing
Ive been directing performances of drag queens, and was asked to direct Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Balagan Theatre, which was a blast. Working with Jerick Hoffer (Jinkx Monsoon) was a joy. Hes more grounded than many actors I know, very versatile and flexible.

The Future
Whats next for Ian? 'I am in a phase of my life where I see I have a personal point of view in the way I do theater and I love any opportunity I get to do that on stage. What I feel like I know better than anything else is how to create ensemble theater work and that is my individual voice. Im an expert in collaboration, which I find a little ironic.

'Im enjoying directing and hope I get more opportunities to direct. Im proud of the fact that I 'eke.' There is no shame in eking. I make sure the bills are paid and there is a roof over my head.'

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