ArtsWest Artistic Director Mathew Wright directs The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion, playing June 20 – July 28 at ArtsWest. In this interview, he discusses the origin story of this world premiere musical from Lizard Boy creator Justin Huertas.
To learn more and get tickets to the musical, click here.
How does the origin story of The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion begin?
Justin and I had been fans of each other’s work for a long time. I had seen Lizard Boy and loved it, and he had seen Frozen that I directed here and he loved it. I think that obliquely we talked a couple of times about working on a new musical together at some point. The first meeting happened about a year and a half ago – at Solo, in Lower Queen, where all the best meetings happen. We had some drinks, and then we started talking about the possibility of making a new musical together. I had come preloaded with some ideas about novels – primarily by old, dead white men – that I thought would make good musicals. Justin said that he would not at all be interested in making a musical out of any of those things. (Laughs.) And so I asked him – because I know his interests – does that mean that we have to make something that is “science fiction” or “superhero”, or something like that? – because I’m probably not interested in directing something like that. And he said, well, yeah, that is the idiom that I work in.So we talked more and eventually we discovered that we did share similar interests.
I think one of the beautiful things about the way that Justin writes is that even though he writes stories that have extraordinary given circumstances, or even probably impossible or improbable given circumstances, he writes deeply human stories within that context. That’s what interests me in the theater. In the end, we just both have such admiration and respect for each other’s work that we decided we should give it a go. I asked him to send me a couple of ideas and that we would look at them and see what we thought would work.
The week after that, he sent me two pitches: one was for a slasher-horror-movie kind of musical, and one was for an untitled musical about an octopus girl. The pitch was maybe a paragraph long. I read the octopus one and really, really liked it. I wrote him back and said, “You know, I think I really like the octopus one. If this proposal had come across my desk from anyone who wasn’t you, I probably would have thrown it into the trash.” His response was: I don’t know whether to be flattered by that, or to hate you for saying that.
And that was where it all began. After that point, we committed to doing the Untitled Justin Huertas Octopus Musical. Eventually, we found the title once we fleshed out the plot a little bit more. Then we programmed it. For the past year, Justin has been writing and workshopping this brand new musical from the ground up – from scratch. Fresh out of his head. Book, music and lyrics. All emanating from his imagination, and from little else other than a very eccentric, obscure piece of Seattle-Tacoma history. The rest is pure Justin. I think what he’s made is so complex, beautiful, mythic, legendary, contemporary, modern, and fierce, and his music and lyric writing in this is, I think, some of the absolutely best things I’ve heard come out of him. I couldn’t be more excited about it.
What’s surprised you the most since Justin started working on this musical?
I think the simplicity of it. It’s like going back to that idea that the show that Justin saw – that I directed that he liked the most – wasFrozen, which is like not something that you would think Justin Huertas would be interested in. Frozenis a three character play, and almost nothing happens in it. It’s just conversation between three people. It’s about a very, very dark subject matter, and yet within that there’s this beauty -this deep beauty, and this depth of humanity – and this incredible incredibly poetic human experience that takes place. And it’s the simplest play. There’s nothing onstage. There’s just three people, and most of the time it’s only one person in a completely empty space on stage. Justin really, really loved that that show. There’s an aspect of that aesthetic, I think, that interests me and finds its way into everything that I work on. So to try to take something that is that pared down, that streamlined and that minimalistic and then pair that with these worlds that Justin creates – which are so full and so complicated, and where such bizarre and crazy things happen in them – to figure out a way to pair those two together has been the most exciting part about working on this.
What do you like about ending the Season with this production?
I like to think that all these people, these threads of communication, these relationships that have happened throughout the season, all kind of coming into this collective hero’s journey – it reminds me of like Star Wars or Little Miss Sunshine. These different people, with their own different paths, uniting in a common effort. This season has been largely about whether truthful human contact and truthful human connection is possible in some of the worst circumstances, and with some of the greatest obstacles. In this story, we see an example of two characters who literally have to make contact, because – well, to tell you why would spoil the story. Metaphorically I think it’s a really beautiful way to wrap up this season: with an idea that speaks to as deep a connection as you could possibly make.
So thematically I think it’s a great way to sum up the season, but also it’s a great way to end the season and put on a show for the summer because it’s just this explosion of joy. It’s a play that celebrates love. It’s a play that explores difficult things like the love of a parent for a child and the necessity of letting a child go. It’s a musical about how scary it is to leap into the unknown, especially as an adolescent. It’s a play that has those difficult threads through it, but that ends with a picture of extreme fulfillment and extreme joy. And extreme love.
I don’t think there is another human being on this planet that I have as much faith in as Justin Huertas. And that’s not just because I like him – which I do – but it’s just the fact that I have never met a more creative and generative artist in the theater. I hope that I meet more. But at this point my life, he is the most creative and the most generative theater artist that I have ever met. I just knew that whatever he decided to make a musical about, the musical would be f***ing awesome – excuse me: I mean, the musical would be really good. So we asked Justin to make it, and he did.
The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion stars (clockwise from top) Corinna Lapid Munter, Rachel Guyer-Mafune, Christian Quinto, Tyler Rogers, and Porscha Shaw. Get tickets >