Writing Upstream with Professor Ki Gottberg


Despite being on sabbatical, Ki Gottberg—who has been teaching at Seattle University for over 25 years—is still hard at work. During her sabbatical, Gottberg adapted the children’s book “The Last Salmon” to the stage. Part concert, part storytelling, the play has garnered success and praise from both children and adults during its run at the Merc Playhouse where Gottberg has been Artistic Director for several years. Gottberg took time to speak with me on the phone about the play, its origins and where it’s going next (hint: it’s coming to Seattle University on June 18).

Scott Johnson: What drew you to the children’s book in the first place?

Ki Gottberg: Well I happen to know the author, Phil Davis, and he is very involved with the Methow Conservancy in Winthrop, Wash. That area has headwaters for a lot of important rivers, rivers that have a lot of salmon runs in them. His book is sort of framed with the whole idea of the first salmon ceremony, which is an actual ceremony that natives in the Pacific Northwest would do. They would catch and release the first salmon that came up stream as part of the ceremony to ensure there would be abundance in the future. He actually approached me asking if we could do anything theatrically with this, and my first response was “No! I wouldn’t know anybody who would want to go on stage and play a fish,” but then I thought it could be made into a musical experience.

SJ: What earned you the grant from the Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability?

KG: I thought it would be really great to originate a piece of theater that had to do with the ecology and people’s concerns from that area because that’s part of my scholarship…to get people to think about how you can actually create theater that is meaningful to you and it’s about issues you are concerned about. I applied for the grant through CEJS, and in my mind I thought it was a long shot because they usually funding scientists to study very particular things, but they funded me and so I thought “ok, this is a sign from the gods of theater.”

SJ: What was your inspiration for using contemporary music?

KG: Because if you’re going to make a piece that’s really compelling for kids, it’s got to have contemporary music in it because that’s what kids listen to. We tried to make it a rich journey in terms of musical styles, because that’s what reflected the rich journey of what a salmon goes through in its lifetime. I mean it’s a very sort of amazing and magical thing that salmon do, and so we thought that using a bunch of different musical styles would really enhance the idea of a journey.

SJ: So this is a learning experience for younger audiences?

KG: Yeah! Well, and also we really wanted to write something that really turned parents and adults on, and that’s been the most satisfying part of this project for me. They were crying at the end of the show, laughing and we got a standing ovation with every performance. People were just very moved by this story. Having adults be moved by anything makes it extra potent for kids because you know how it is, the first time you see your parent cry you’re like “oh my god! this is really heavy, I’ve never seen my parent cry.”

SJ: Where did you look for inspiration while adapting the book?

KG: It was pretty much just us going down the creative path. This idea of a chamber musical is something that people might not be used to, because when people think of musicals they think of people dancing around in costumes and all that stuff. We didn’t want to do that because we wanted it to be an imaginative journey so that it’s really like a storytelling experience.
SJ: Do you have plans of this expanding?

KG: As a matter of fact, because it was so successful, one of the things happening right now is that the Methow Conservancy, an organization that is really concerned with the headwaters and salmon life cycle, is starting to raise money so that this show can travel to all the towns that are around the river. They think it’s so important for kids and for anyone to know this story because most of us only know about salmon when it arrives on our plate for dinner, we don’t really know much about salmon and it’s a pretty interesting story when you get into it.
SJ:What is your next step?

KG: My involvement, my sabbatical work is really involved with this theater, the Merc Playhouse, so the next thing I’m starting is rehearsals for a play; a copy-written script, called “Venus in Fur.”

Scott may be reached at [email protected]