For many people, theater is a way of life. For Olympia-born Pug Bujeaud, it began as a way of staying alive.
“I had social anxiety before those things were talked about,” Bujeaud says. “I was so shy in high school that I would walk around the outside of the school rather than walk through the halls. I had decided it was time to leave this world, and it was a point in the 1970s when drugs were very easy to get a hold of. This is the gospel truth; this is not a story. I had collected every kind of pill I could get my hands on for weeks, and I had them in a bag in my purse and I was going to take myself out that very night.” Teacher Sheila Arbuckle called her in for a lecture, and Arbuckle’s hangout of choice was the theater. A teacing assistant intruded on the harangue. “He said, ‘Y’know, she just needs somethin’ to do. Come on, let’s go build a set,’” says Bujeaud. “And that’s how I got started in theater.” She recalls deciding, “This is cool enough, I’ll come back tomorrow … (but) I could not get a role in high school to save my life. I was the third spear carrier on the left until my senior year, when I was in The Skin of Our Teeth … I ended up at Centralia College, thank God, and went under Philip Wickstrom, who was an amazing teacher and an amazing mentor. He’s still my mentor. He’s still whose approval I look for. He started putting me in shows — started trusting me.”
Bujeaud was given the nickname Pug by her father after a rough delivery. She explains a slip of the doctor’s forceps “took a bunch of my hair off at the back, bruised my face all up and my nose was all keeled over and I looked like a little pugilist … It’s just who I am. I’ve never had an affinity for the name Charlene.” That’s the first name on Bujeaud’s birth certificate. Of the name Pug — which she usually writes with a lowercase p — she says, “It means a ‘mischievous hobgoblin’ and an ‘unformed lump of clay.’ Those are the two other meanings of ‘pug,’ and I like both of those. The unformed lump of clay has a big meaning for me as a performer.”
In her mid-20s after a brief marriage, Bujeaud moved to Seattle with her first daughter, Sarah. In 1995, while working on a production of Pvt. Wars that ultimately fell through, she met scenic artist Marko Bujeaud through actor Russ Holm. Her first directing gig was at Evergreen Playhouse in Centralia, where she staged Arthur Kopit’s 1962 one-act play Chamber Music. She directed that show again at Studio 321 for Blackwash Theatre at age 30. “That’s when I honestly started doing theater,” she says.
She met actors Heather and Michael Christopher, now married, while directing for Olympia Little Theatre during the period around 9/11. “We always ended up in the same auditions,” Bujeaud says, “because we liked doing the same kind of stuff … There was this show that we all wanted to do called Murderer that we had these great ideas for.” Bujeaud laughs. “That was a show that we never managed to get done, but it was how TAO started.” TAO is, of course, Theater Artists Olympia, the scrappy troupe now housed in the Midnight Sun Performance Space. “TAO didn’t necessarily start as edgier,” Bujeaud says. “We wanted to do the things we wanted to do. Sometimes that’s edgier, sometimes it’s not.” When asked what constitutes a TAO show, Bujeaud considers, then explains, “It’s got to be something — well, usually no coffee tables, no Neil Simon. Something that has not been done to death, and if it has been done, (we) find another way of looking at it. (We want) shows that excite the people who are directing them, something that sparks the creative gene in one of us.”
The first TAO production was in October 2003; perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Bujeaud’s third time directing Chamber Music and starred both Christophers. TAO performed that show at Mariah Art School and also in Centralia. Initially producing a show or two a year, TAO grew increasingly prolific upon gaining access to the Black Box at South Puget Sound Community College’s Minnaert Center for the Arts.
Bujeaud’s many remarkable appearances on stage include roles in The Ascetic, The Curious Savage and A Taste of Honey. Lately, however, she’s turned most of her attention to directing, yielding such stellar productions as Winnie the Pooh at Olympia Family Theater, Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol at OLT and Seven Ways to Get There, Titus Andronicus and On the Verge for TAO. Next spring, she’ll revisit Macbeth for Tacoma Little Theatre. Her most recent show for TAO was a harrowing adaptation of 1984. “When I’m doing something like 1984,” she says. “I want to cast people I can trust. I want people who will be kind to each other.”
In addition, Bujeaud directs one Shakespeare production every year starring the fifth-graders of St. Michael Parish School. She’s been doing that for almost 20 years. This year, it’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. “I treat the kids like I treat the adults,” she says. “More than anything I want to teach them the process, because if I don’t make actors out of ’em, I really want to make audiences out of ’em.”
“She doesn’t have a false bone in her body,” says Bryan Willis, noted co-writer of Seven Ways to Get There and a partner in An Improbable Peck of Plays, TAO’s annual program of original scenes. “Add her keen mind and big heart — It’s always a treat working with Pug.”
Asked her favorite accolade, Bujeaud recalls a review of TAO’s Bucket of Blood, in which critic Alec Clayton, writing for The Weekly Volcano, called her “Olympia’s ubiquitous theater superwoman.”
“I can live with that,” Bujeaud adds, grinning.
We finish our conversation by discussing her future plans. “I think TAO is where I belong,” says Bujeaud. “This is my troupe. This is my tribe. These are the people I have in my life other than the people I’ve given birth to … I would like it to not be hand-to-mouth all the time … I’d like more people to come and see it. It’s as good as anything else that happens in this town most of the time.” She says she’s fascinated by human fallibility, wondering, “What makes people who are not necessarily bad people do bad things? There’s a human being that was once a child and grew up and became this person, and I’m really interested in the different versions of the condition of how people end up and how they get there.”
“I think my best attribute,” she concludes, “is you get what you see. And I almost always think the best of people until something bad happens, and I’m pretty forgiving, and I respect the craft. The people I run into problems with, it’s because they don’t.”
What: The Merry Wives of Windsor
Where: St. Michael Parish School,
1204 11th Ave. SE, Olympia
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 25
How much: free
Learn more: 360-754-5131 (St. Michael Parish School) | TAO