By Alec Clayton
From Reefer Madness and Cannibal the Musical to lots and lots of Shakespeare, and performing in such diverse spaces as Olympia Little Theatre, the basement of the Elks Hall and the Midnight Sun in downtown Olympia, Theater Artists Olympia had its genesis in the early 2000s; and every time it looks like it’s done for, it rises from the ashes. Its latest reincarnation is a production of The Head That Wouldn’t Die, a hilarious adaptation of the B movie The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, directed for the third time by Pug Bujeaud and starring most of the same actors who entertained sold-out crowds in the earlier iterations.
Bujeaud, one of the founders of TAO (pronounced Dow, as in the Chinese philosophy) and director of many of their plays, explains the genesis of the company. “The same collection of people found themselves turning out for the same type of auditions and working together. Socializing backstage and after productions, conversations came about concerning the type of shows that excited us. We decided to make that happen.”
TAO was formed by Bujeaud and her husband, Marko, Michael and Heather Christopher, Quata Cody, Sarah Petersen, Russ and Kim Holm, and Paul Smith. “We were always, and still are, only interested in producing the things that interested us: untamed theater. And we were conceived to be a nomadic group. The basement at the Eagles, the Black box at SPSCC and of course the Midnight Sun were our most common playing spaces, but there have been many.”
By “untamed theater,” she means shows like 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, Credeaux Canvas with its extended nudity, a blood-curdling Titus Andronicus, David Mamet’s controversial Oleanna, and Roger Corman’s cult horror film A Bucket of Blood. The company has a penchant for the difficult, cutting-edge, and tongue-in-cheek adaptations of bad movies.
Michael Christopher has been involved in every aspect of TAO from the beginning: “Yes, involved in all productions as actor, director, sets, lighting, all of it,” he says. He directed Macbeth, Book of Days, Playhouse Creatures and The Tempest.
When Elizabeth Lord decided her tenure running the Midnight Sun was done, TAO took it on as what would hopefully be a permanent home, temporarily abandoning their intention of remaining nomadic. “We put a lot of sweat equity into the Sun — making improvements, embracing it as our home — and it was a very sweet time for us,” Bujeaud says. “But it was also very hard. With so few seats possible in the Sun, even when we had sellout crowds, we could barely cover the running costs.”
In summer months the heat was unbearable, and the space was so small audience members had to walk across the stage to go to the restroom. If actors needed more than one point of entry to the stage, they had to go out a back door and walk through an alley.
Financially, TAO was barely hanging on. Then the rent was raised, and TAO could no longer manage to keep the space open. “With the loss of the Midnight Sun, there was no place that we could afford to produce. So we went into hibernation, waiting for an opportunity to arise,” Bujeaud says.
Before COVID, TAO was in talks with Broadway Olympia Productions about reviving The Head That Wouldn’t Die. It had been seven years since Bujeaud started working on the first adaptation. She says their space in the mall “appeared to be the opportunity we have been waiting for.”
“It has been seven years since we first started working on an adaptation of Head,” Bujeaud said. “We took a B movie — It is schlock, but its bones are really good — and turned it into a musical. It was a huge hit for us, and those involved have always talked about wanting to do it again. Jan (Vanessa Postil) still ends up in the pan, but the show is funnier, sharper, and some of the through lines have been explored.”
Postil said she’s excited to play Jan again. “It feels special to be able to continue working on this show,” she says. “It still feels new and fresh as we edit and update and add to it with enthusiastic energy. I really love the changes and upgrades we have made. I am both excited and nervous to get back inside the pan for a third time, because of the pandemic and how it has affected my brain, and because of normal stage fright and feelings of imposter syndrome. It’s been a few years since I have gone through the full rehearsal process for a stage production. I have been performing music and doing burlesque; editing video, photos and graphics. I recently learned that the actor who played Jan in the original film, Virginia Leith, was the same age as I am now when the movie came out, which helps me feel more connected to Jan in the pan. Even though it’s been years since some of us have been together, being together safely feels and sounds so familiar, their voices like nostalgic songs I remember the words to as I listen to them again.”
The Head That Wouldn’t Die
7:30 p.m., Oct. 7-10, 15, 16, 22 and 23;
2 p.m., Oct 17
Broadway Olympia Performance space in Capital Mall,
625 Black Lake Blvd., SW, Olympia
Guests must be masked and vaccinated to attend.