Stokley Towles’s Guided Tour of Where Seattle’s Water Comes From
Stokley Towles’s Waterlines closes with one final performance this Sunday at 7 p.m., at Noodle Works Studio in the ID. Tickets $11.
Stokley Towles has a great way of playing a beat-change. Say he’s been performing a monologue as a water supply worker who wakes up at night to pay attention to the rain, and he needs to shift gears back into lecture mode for the next scene. After the last word of the monologue he just stops, giving the audience a moment to absorb the oddity of the subject, and slowly scans the audience with his bright blue-gray eyes. And once he glances across all the faces, evaluates the response from the twenty or so people packed into the well-lit office break-room where he’s performing his show Waterlines, it’s done. The moment has passed and he can go on, the audience willing to follow him along the next tangent.
Brendan Kiley, writing about Waterlines in The Stranger this summer, described the writer-performer as “a disarmingly charismatic man—tall, tanned, and wholesome looking, like a Christian camp counselor,” and that’s a pretty good take. Cheerful and engaging, Towles, with the support of the city and Seattle Public Utilities, has crafted a compelling short work that’s somewhere between a lecture and an educational TV show a la Bill Nye, about Seattle’s water supply.
Performed in an office break-room at Noodle Works Studio—a brick building kitty-corner to the Uwajimaya parking lot in the International District—Waterlines completes breaks down the boundaries of performance and lecture. There’s no stage, no lighting per se, and though Towles occasionally performs in character, more often than not he’s simply talking to the audience, telling them a true story about where are water comes from and what’s in it.
In tangential leaps and bounds, it tells the story of SPU’s water tasters (yes, we have some), explores the weird stuff you find in the sewers, talks about grease hot-spots, rats in toilets, where our municipal water comes from, and gives you the back-story on bottled water. It’s sometimes esoteric, sometimes mundane, and always enthusiastic, almost to a fault. On more than one occasion, Towles came dangerously close to didactic with his illustrations, such as well he demonstrates the comparative cost of a bottle of water versus tap water with a cascade of pennies.
That said, Towles’s work is a fine example of fundamentally re-thinking how the arts can play a greater social function. The piece reminded me quite a lot of local artist Chris Jordan‘s Running the Numbers series, where he uses dry statistics to illustrate terrifying social, economic, and ecological problems by actually representing them visually: the millions of bottles and bags consumed by Americans every few minutes, the number of children without healthcare, and so on. Similarly, Towles’s work simply makes his audience focus on what they take for granted every day, and hopefully makes them ask difficult questions about what it will take to preserve those luxuries in the future.