Blending narrative storytelling with dance | New show opens at Orcas Center

Theatre-goers will be presented with a production unlike anything Orcas Center has staged before.

Set in New York and Japan and incorporating both modern and Butoh dance, “Still Now” is a play about reckoning with mortality through art.

“For the character (Annie), the crises are 9/11 and then, 10 years later, her diagnosis with stage 4 cancer,” said director Pepper Binkley. “The story is one that anyone can relate to. We’re all trying, as Ishikawa says in the play, to figure out, ‘How do I move this pile of bones? How do I shake around all this skin?’ It’s a play about being human.”

The production opens on May 19 and runs through May 28 on the main stage. Shows are Thursday-Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday, May 22 at 1 p.m. Tickets are available at The show runs 90 minutes.

Binkley, a stage, television, film and voice actor who now lives on Orcas, previously played the lead role of Annie in a number of “Still Now” workshops in New York. The playwright, Katie Bender, is a close friend and collaborator. For the Orcas show, performance artist and educator Chelsea Sherman is portraying Annie, who begins a new relationship with her body and the world around her after receiving a cancer diagnosis.

“The play and role have always stayed with me and I returned to it at the top of the pandemic and wanted to find a way to direct it with a dancer in the lead,” Binkley said. “The experience Annie has at the top of the play — her unexplained symptoms, the cough, the fever, knowing something is not right in her body — and then the flashbacks to her pilgrimage to Japan in the wake of 9/11 to study Butoh, it all felt so resonant with what we were experiencing collectively with the pandemic. Watching a show that resonates with your lived experience can be extremely cathartic.”

“Still Now” will be the third dance theatre show in which Sherman, who co-founded the Orcas Dance Collective, has participated in her career.

“I’ve always been drawn to working on multi-disciplinary performance projects where the plot is forwarded by something other than just text, such as dance or song,” she said. “When Pepper first sent me the script, I knew playing Annie in tandem with contributing to the dance portions of the play would be an exciting challenge that I couldn’t pass up. Also, being able to work with powerhouse women in the arts is always inspiring to me.”

Butoh is a form of Japanese performance art that developed after WWII. It’s a dance form that explores the limits and nature of being human and is traditionally performed in white body makeup with slow, hyper-controlled motion.

“Butoh, for me, has always been a dance of transformation,” said Bender, who lives in Austin, Texas but will be on Orcas for the run of the show. “The incredible focus, physical strength and improvisation of the form create astonishing performances that really honor what the human body is capable of. In writing a play about the human body and transformation, I knew Butoh would be central to the story.”

Seattle-based dancer Kaoru Okumura is portraying Butoh master Ishikawa Junko in the production. She studied the art form at Asbestos-Kan in Tokyo with Akiko Motofuji, the wife of one of Butoh’s originators, Tatsumi Hijikata. Okumura has been performing in the Pacific Northwest since 2008.

Playing Annie’s love interest, Ben, is Jamey Moriarty. Other cast members are Tom Fiscus, Liz Doane, Margot Van Gelder, Tiffany Loney, Colleen Smith and Sofia Poe. The choreography was created by Orcas Dance Collective instructors Susan Newkumet, Loney and Sherman; sound and lighting design was done by Jake Perrine; and the set was designed and built by Moriarty, Natasha Ratia and Dane Steck.

“The process of working on this play has just emphasized how much I love collaborating with other artists — even more so when I’m directing than when I’m on stage myself,” Binkley said. “The process of working on the play has been like looking through a kaleidoscope, everything artfully rearranging itself again and again. I have to constantly listen.”

With a script that confronts harrowing, universal topics, it’s been a transformative experience for the actors.

“I’ve gained a much more realistic relationship with my mortality. Through the play process, I’ve been able to witness and process my own fear of death, and have newfound courage and acceptance in my own suffering,” Sherman said.

For Bender, it’s thrilling to see her play performed as it was truly intended, blending the narrative storytelling with dance. Binkley says audience members will be moved to tears and laughter.

“It’s so ridiculously beautiful, haunting, funny and wise — and the actors and dancers and truly the entire creative team are breathing life into the words and the story,” she said. “Being together in a room rehearsing has been a gift — joyful and healing. I hope the same is true for the audience.”

Bethany Marie photo
Chelsea Sherman and Kaoru Okumura in rehearsals.

Bethany Marie photo Chelsea Sherman and Kaoru Okumura in rehearsals.