Olympia playwright Bryan Willis tells his hometown’s stories of moonshining in ‘Bootleg’

When five local actors pull up their chairs to read a Northwest play Friday night (May 8) in Tacoma’s Studio 3, they’ll be telling that classic story of American history — making moonshine. But they won’t be doing it in West Virginia. No, they’ll have their imaginary stills set up in the backwoods of Olympia, right about where The Evergreen State College is now. The play they’ll be reading is “Bootleg,” written by Olympia playwright Bryan Willis, and it’s exactly the kind of play he believes is crucial to the future of American theater.

“Bootleg” isn’t exactly new. Willis began writing it in the 1980s, inspired by family and local newspapers stories, and it had an initial production in Brooklyn then. It got a second show at Olympia’s old Capitol Theater in the 1990s, and was workshopped five years ago at Seattle Rep, with a public reading. It not only tells the story of moonshiners during Prohibition, but of a young couple coping with a rapidly changing world.

“It’s a wonderful show,” says Sara Freeman, associate professor of theater at the University of Puget Sound, who’s directing Friday night’s reading. “This type of Prohibition story is often set elsewhere, like Chicago or Kentucky. But it’s also right in our backyard, and that’s kind of cool. There are people still alive who remember what it was like here.”

Moonshining in Olympia is exactly the kind of story Willis likes to tell in his plays — and it works. Calling himself “the only person I know in the state of Washington making a living writing plays,” Willis has had work performed off-Broadway, on London’s fringe, throughout the United Kingdom and United States, in Israel, as well as on NPR and the BBC. He just saw his first full mainstage production at Seattle’ ACT, “Seven Ways to Get There.” He also writes radio and film scripts, and teaches and directs occasionally at South Sound institutions, and has spearheaded the Northwest Playwrights Alliance for 11 years.

One other thing sets him apart in the Puget Sound theater scene — he’s staunchly loyal to the town where he was born, Olympia.

Willis spoke in an Olympia café about “Bootleg,” Olympia’s moonshining past and why new plays will save theater.

Q: Your recent successes with ACT and Northwest Playwrights Alliance mean a lot of traveling up and down to Seattle. Why do you still live in Olympia?

A: I have 10 acres, I have a house I’m just finishing. I have eagles, deer, coyotes. I have a pond. I love Seattle and it’s good to be there for a day, then I just want to get the heck out. It costs more to live in Seattle for a lower quality of life. It’s the same in New York — I spent four years there during grad school and I loved it. Would I really want to raise a kid there? Could I make enough money there as a playwright? In Seattle, maybe I could by now. But when I quit my day job in 1992 I could afford to live in Olympia, not Seattle.

And Olympia has been good to me. Like my next project here, a film-noir-style play with gender-bending roles and a cast of 50 all on bicycles riding around Olympia. Would anyone in New York or Seattle let me do that play? No. I had to live in Europe to realize that I was an American writer; I had to live in New York to realize I was a Northwest writer. I’ve carved out a niche here and it’s a really good life.

Q: Is it your loyalty to Olympia that partly inspired you to write “Bootleg”?

A: As a native Olympian I think it’s time we started telling our own stories. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve read or seen around 20,000 plays set in Manhattan. Those are fine stories, but we have our own to tell. People want to hear stories they can relate to. I don’t want to see any more Neil Simon. I want to see something that relates to me.

Q: So how does “Bootleg” relate to you?

A: My own family history is steeped in moonshining. It’s a very personal story. But it’s also part of Northwest history. In towns like Olympia, moonshining was a very profitable business. We were known for the quality of our product. You don’t study that in history class. Most of it was done in the location of where Evergreen College now is, out in the woods. It had a good water source, which you needed to make moonshine; it had plenty of places to hide things; it had nonroad transport, being right by the water. That land was quite like the hollers of West Virginia.

Q: What’s the time period?

A: “Bootleg” is set in 1927, the first year in the U.S. when more people lived in an urban setting than a rural one. It was an era of change — not just the Volstead Act (of prohibition), but women had gotten the vote, and the Seattle mayor at the time was a woman. Fashions were changing, the way people could make a living. It was post-World War I, people were aware of the greater world. Cars traveled faster, which was a big deal if you were moonshining.

Q: Tell us about the plot.

A: It’s a coming-of-age story, a love story. A young man and woman are caught in a culture when everything is changing faster than they are — it’s not so different from now, actually. She’s trying to make a living in a male-dominated profession as a bootlegger.

Q: Director Sara Freeman has commented that she loves the language you use. How did you research that?

A: I love the language of that period. (Back in the 1980s) I made recordings of my uncle Clyde — he rode the rails here from southwest Virginia as a young man, as many moonshiners did, trying to keep away from the law. And then when the state library changed all its newspaper files to microfiche, and they were about to throw out two trucks full of the old papers, my brother was working there and he saved them all. In the 1920s, Olympia had three daily newspapers — can you believe it? — and I read through every single one for all of that decade, taking down the language and the people. I followed the exploits of Thurston County Sheriff “Shimmy” Johnson — he’s in my play. … It’s a total labor of love.

Q: So where does “Bootleg” go from here?

A: I’m hoping we’ll get this produced next year at the Broadway Center. (Executive director) David Fischer has been an angel for Northwest playwrights, giving us many readings and opportunities. We owe him a lot. Ironically, it’s easier to get a full production in Tacoma than Olympia.

Q: Why is that?

A: Getting a production of a play in one’s hometown is extraordinarily difficult. I would have to win the Pulitzer to stand a chance. I think “Bootleg” would do well here, and I keep trying, keep submitting. I’ve had other successes in Olympia, eight shows with Harlequin. But we’re still at the point as a region in which we need an outside stamp of approval before we can get work done. That’s the reality. It’s scary to do a new play.

Q: But is it important for theaters to do new work?

A: Enough major theaters have collapsed around here by doing the same works over and over again that they realize they need to reach out to a younger audience via regional work and new plays. Just ask TAG or Intiman — you can’t rely on an 80-year-old subscriber putting $600 down at the beginning of each season any more. People choose to go to plays at the last minute. One of the most successful theaters in the U.S. right now is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — they do Shakespeare but they also have a very successful long-running new play festival every year. Seattle Rep and ACT are realizing that, and I’m so pleased to have had “Seven Ways” on their main stage. It got full crowds, audiences loved it. Five years ago that wouldn’t have been possible.